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  1. Leaders in Luxury
September 10, 2008updated Jan 31, 2014

Marilyn Carlson Nelson

By Chris Boyle

Marilyn Carlson Nelson


Daughter of company founder Curt Carlson, Marilyn Carlson Nelson made a mark in her own right leading Carlson as Chairman and CEO, reaching Forbes list as one of the most powerful women in the world, serving on various Presidential Committees, as a delegate to the World Economic Forum, the salesperson who brought the Super Bowl to her home state of Minnesota, and by globally expanding the companies of Carlson brands, including Radisson, TGI Fridays, Carlson Wagonlit travel agencies and Carlson Marketing. In her 10-year tenure after taking over leadership of the company in 1998, revenues increased from $22 billion to just under $40 billion and head count reached nearly 200,000 direct and indirect employees through the company’s franchisees.

Having managed day-to-day a global travel and hospitality enterprise through 9/11, and navigated significant family challenges in one of America’s largest privately held companies, Carlson Nelson’s first book “How We Lead Matters, Reflections On A Life Of Leadership” (McGraw-Hill) is being published September 15th.

During a recent visit with her, Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan caught up with Marilyn Carlson Nelson on a wide range of subjects–from taking over a business from a legendary father to the challenges of managing through family crises and a lifetime of elite traveling and accomplishments.

ET: Your father was known as a great entrepreneur and a stern manager. What was it like growing up with him, and what traits of his did you incorporate into your own management style?

Marilyn Carlson Nelson: My father was also a great salesman (he sold me on business as an exciting career), so I suppose that’s a trait I was fortunate to inherit, along with his intensity, attention to detail and a certain flair for marketing. He was a natural teacher and, as his “first daughter, only son,” I was the beneficiary of that urge to teach the generation who might someday take over for him – even if he didn’t accept the idea at the time.

ET: At what age did you know you were going into the family business, and how did it happen?

Marilyn Carlson Nelson: Business always interested me – my father did a good job of seeing to that. I chose International Economics as my college major, so I probably imagined that I would play some role in the family business at some point. I didn’t officially join until my late 40s, and I think it came about because community leaders were showing interest in having me run for political office. My dad thought I should use those energies on behalf of the family, and so he asked me to come in–which was a large step for someone raised in a generation without women in business.

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ET: You were an analyst at Paine Weber before coming to Carlson. How important is it for children of successful business owners to also work outside the company? Were there any lessons you learned from your time outside Carlson?

Marilyn Carlson Nelson: We have always had a rule that before coming into Carlson, family members should “earn their stripes” by working outside the family business, in a related field, for three years or more. This helps them build their own confidence, and earns respect from co-workers when they finally do join the company. In addition, it helps when they have attained relevant higher-level educational degrees, which each of our family members involved in our company has done.

ET: On March 1, you gave up your position as CEO to Hubert Joly, turning over day-to-day responsibility. What are you doing now?

Marilyn Carlson Nelson: I have a few things that still keep me busy: In addition to being Chairman of Carlson, I am Vice-Chair of the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Council; I serve on the boards of Exxon-Mobil, the Mayo Clinic Foundation, the Committee to Encourage Corporate Philanthropy; I’m on the Board of Governors Steering Committee for Aviation, Travel & Tourism for the World Economic Forum; and I serve on the The World Bank’s Global Private Sector Leaders Forum. Also, Just a few weeks ago I had the honor of being named to the Board of Directors of the Kennedy Center.

ET: Obviously, close by, the big story in Green Bay was Brett Favre wanting to un-retire realizing he had hung up his cleats prematurely. Any urges to get back in the saddle at Carlson on a day-to-day basis?

Marilyn Carlson Nelson: None at all. I’m comfortable and happy moving into the next chapter of my life.

ET: Your book “How We Lead Matters” comes out in September. You’ve been leading for a long time, so why now to write the book?

Marilyn Carlson Nelson: It really came about when my 13 year-old grandson asked, “Grandma, were you alive during segregation?” I realized then that I needed to capture some of the stories of my life, and that idea melded with an idea that had come to me years ago, when I inherited some poetry books of my own grandmother’s. Because the preciousness of books in her day kept her from making notes in the book about which poems were her favorites, I don’t know to this day what words and thoughts moved her the most. By writing a book that links my favorite poems to key stories of my life, I accomplished two important tasks with one stroke of the pen.

ET: What accomplishments have you been proudest of during your tenure leading Carlson?

Marilyn Carlson Nelson: In terms of business results: We took Carlson from three somewhat separate regional travel companies to the world’s global leader (we surpassed American Express last year); we grew a small investment in the U.K. travel business into partial ownership of Thomas Cook, and an eventual billion-dollar sale of that business; and we cemented our hotel company’s future by exchanging future royalty streams into an eventual 42% ownership of Rezidor, one of the world’s leading hotel management companies; and grew our T.G.I. Friday’s casual dining chain into one of the world’s largest best-known brands.

By another measure, I’m very proud of the strides we’ve made in diversity within Carlson, both in gender and race. For example, when I became CEO less than 10% of our management was female; when I left the number exceeded 40%.

ET: You’ve inspired a new generation of leaders, particularly women, where you have been at the forefront of encourage women to be managers, but what leaders most inspired you and why?

Marilyn Carlson Nelson: Some of my personal heroes have included people you wouldn’t know–Louella Goldberg, for example, who was one of the early women business and social leaders in the Twin Cities. Nationally and internationally, Margaret Thatcher and Mother Teresa were both heroines of mine, for their resolve and inner strength. We have a “Carlson Credo,” the final line of which says, “Never, ever give up.” My heroes tend to be women–and men–who didn’t.

ET: The core of Carlson is hotels, restaurants, travel agencies and travel marketing. Do you like to travel for pleasure and, if so, tell us about two or three of your favorite places?

Marilyn Carlson Nelson: Any Regent hotel (Regent being our luxury brand); especially the Regent Turks and Caicos; the Regent Beijing; and the Regent Bal Harbour.

ET: Carlson was an early adopter of private aviation. What role does private jet travel play in your company today, and in your life as well?

Marilyn Carlson Nelson: Yes, my father used aircraft in the early days, including Sea Otters and King Airs. Today we use our fleet as he did: to pack more than 24 hours into a single day. I could never have accomplished all that I have without the extra time afforded me by our aircraft. Some people measure the per-hour cost of private aviation, I’m even more keenly aware of the per-lifetime benefit.

ET: Back to business for a minute, you made some significant changes to the company from the way your dad ran it. What are the biggest challenges facing Carlson today, and what advice do you give to your management teams?

Marilyn Carlson Nelson: I have been promoting within my own organization something I call “Integrative Leadership,” which I touch on in the book. I’ve also worked to establish a “Center for Integrative Leadership” at the Carlson School of Management. Integrative Leadership recognizes that saying we live in a global society is only the beginning –it also pushes leaders to understand the webs and links within our own societies and across borders as well. For example, the past decade made clear the links between global epidemics and travel; terrorism and economic distress; government disaster preparation and business success or failure. Today, more than ever, “no man (or woman) is an island,” and we must understand that.

ET: If you had never joined Carlson, what would you have done?

Marilyn Carlson Nelson: As I mentioned, some in Minnesota wanted me to go into electoral politics. I suppose politics or, more likely, international diplomacy would have been a natural avenue had I not chosen business.

ET: Your book is a very good read. Any thoughts to a sequel?

Marilyn Carlson Nelson: Thanks for the compliment. If I do another book, it will likely be an autobiography, attempting to capture my story as a “case study” of a woman’s transition during a transitional time of gender roles in our society.

ET: What would be two or three things you weren’t able to accomplish on your watch?

Marilyn Carlson Nelson: I’m still working on them.

ET: Anything you would change? I would have liked a little longer timeline to accomplish all my goals.

Marilyn Carlson Nelson: Only my age when I started!

ET: In your book you touch on the challenges of mixing family and business. It must have been extremely difficult when your son Curtis Nelson was removed as COO. For readers who are facing similar challenges, what advice can you give to parents who have their children in the business, and what advice would you give to their children?

Marilyn Carlson Nelson: Involve them, show that you value their role. We have regular family meetings, and the next generation is actively involved in some aspect of our company or foundation. Mission and vision statements can help everyone reach a consensus on difficult issues. We have a credo that has helped us along the way:

The Carlson Credo
Whatever you do, do with Integrity,
Wherever you go, go as a Leader,
Whomever you serve, serve with Caring,
Whenever you dream, Dream with your all,
And never, ever, give up.

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