110 PERCENT SWEDISH
Jim Nelson is proud of his roots. As MBA's new president, his solid Midwestern character will shape the association's direction as it has the company his father built.
The roots are all around. For starters, take 81 South Ninth Street, Minneapolis. The building itself is a landmark--a fixture in the city that has been lovingly restored to its earlier panache. The retail creme de la creme of Minneapolis--the former Young & Quinlan department store--has now made way for Ralph Lauren and some very attractive office space.
As you walk through the lobby you see the black and white photo of Elizabeth Quinlan--a distinguished, upper-crust matron of Minneapolis--encased in a glass display case. Roots are important to these proud residents of Minneapolis.
The elevator operators date back a ways as well--white gloved, friendly, skilled technicians embued with history and delighted to share it. Lois, as her name badge says, takes us to the fourth floor with total command of the somewhat unwieldy looking, metal doors that help define this great old building's personality. She shares a little history about the building before she deposits us at the entry to the headquarters of Eberhardt Company.
Just as we are stepping out of her domain, this captain of the Young and Quinlan transportation corp cups her hand and makes a feigned attempt to share what is most likely not one of the better kept secrets in the building. She says, "I've been here 33 years and I'm part of the building." These wonderful, green-smocked ladies, manipulating metal accordion-door elevators and calling out floor numbers, while at the same time weaving friendly chatter, are a part of the singular friendliness that is Minnesota.
We are told that the fountain that now occupies a prominent spot inside the Eberhardt corporate headquarters used to be a fixture in the tea room on the fourth floor of the old department store. No tea in sight now, but it does lend an old world civility to the offices headed by Eberhardt Chief Executive Officer James W. Nelson, CMB.
The gentility and sociability of the former setting for the carved stone fountain seem preserved in this attractive modern office with lots of glass walls and open space. The welcome you feel in this office is a reflection of the style of the chief executive who ushers this visitor in his office while still in mid-phone conversation. No ante room here. This is modest, utilitarian, people-to-people office design.
Jim Nelson doesn't really have a desk. He has a round wood-topped, modern table with five chairs on wheels grouped familiarly around. There is nothing about the size of the space, the desk, the art, or the doorway that would even whisper to you that here resides the boss.
In fact, another Eberhardt executive says, soon after they moved in to the new office from a suburban location, the openness of the boss's office to any visitor's sight proved a bit of a problem. Before they installed mini-blinds on the interior glass wall of Jim Nelson's office, people were just walking right in to do business with the friendly, top officer of the company, just as though there was no such thing as appointments or schedules or the other familiar barriers to the hallways of the executive suite.
There is very little sign of pretense in this office. The equality of the working relationships is clearly telegraphed by this pretty modern office with a mural of building photographs behind the receptionist's area. The black and white photographs proudly display the products that Eberhardt has been helping produce in the Twin Cities for better than 50 years. Those products are office buildings, apartment buildings, residential subdivisions and many other properties that form the very physical fabric of the Twin Cities that we see today.
Small wonder, then, that Jim Nelson provides a visitor a tour of the city in the same way that a curator of a museum would conduct a tour of his fabulous collection. All of Minneapolis is partly his in some unique way. But this understated man would never put it that way. He just is pleased that you are impressed with this city of lovely natural lakes and residential gems in the hills overlooking the water, such as Kenwood with its Tudor, Georgian and Victorian homes.
Another photograph catches your eye as you review the few personal honors and artwork that are displayed low on the wall near the credenza that holds Jim Nelson's phone--one of the key tools of his trade. It is a black and white shot of a man who looks the very picture of dignity--like a Supreme Court justice, perhaps. This is Walter C. Nelson, CMB--Jim Nelson's father.
The elder Nelson, now 80, was offered a partnership interest in Eberhardt Company back in 1939. At that time, Walter Nelson was working for The Equitable, also the place where he met the future Mrs. Nelson. Eberhardt Company was founded in 1935 by a Mr. Eberhardt, Jim Nelson says. The company's namesake had been a banker in North Dakota, but his bank failed in the Depression. He then came to Minneapolis and opened a property management firm. Eberhardt's company worked for banks and insurance companies, such as Equitable, which is how he came to know Walter Nelson. After Mr. Eberhardt's death in 1951, Walter Nelson purchased the firm from the Eberhardt family.
If you talk to some of the people who know Walter Nelson professionally, or otherwise, the praise comes in fast and unsolicited. His son, probably sensing that you have already heard a lot of the superlatives, says, "Forgive me for bragging about my dad." But then he goes on...