Chuck Denny, who died at 88 this month, was recruited from Honeywell in Europe to run failing ADC Telecommunications in 1970.
Denny secured a $2 million lifeline loan that bought the time he needed to take ADC from death’s doorstep to a thriving company worth more than $500 million by the time he retired in 1991.
And Denny’s push for better products and a consultative but decisive approach worked. ADC became a Minnesota technology star, posting 21% compound annual revenue growth and solid profitability. Denny credited much of the success to the creativity and hard work of ADC’s employees.
“I had an incredible group of people to work with,” Denny recalled in 2010. “We just did what you’re supposed to do.”
Denny did well in business. He covered the education of his children and grandchildren. He also expected them to make their own way. He shared his wealth broadly with scholarship funds, job-training programs and nonprofits that uplifted the disadvantaged.
“Chuck was the most remarkable person I have known,” said Steve Rothschild, the former General Mills executive who started Twin Cities Rise, the empowerment and training nonprofit on Minneapolis’ North Side. “He was a man of character, integrity, great intellect and judgment. I admired his courage to speak up when he saw a wrong. I admired his kindness, his courteousness … and his genuine interest in other people, regardless of their station in life.”
Dick McFarland, a friend and retired Minnesota CEO, once called Denny a Renaissance man for his varied interests and decency.
Friends recall that Denny cared for his wife, Carol, for years at home. She died in 2012 of Alzheimer’s disease.
A Minneapolis Club regular, Denny also was at home on a factory floor, tutoring inmates in GED studies at the Hennepin County jail, serving the Minneapolis Foundation and Wallin Education Partners, which he chaired for years and which has invested nearly $50 million to support 1,000 lower-income, mostly minority college students annually.
Denny was friendly and curious until the end. During a recent hospital stay, a weakened Denny was helped by a nursing assistant, an African immigrant. They chatted. Denny was pleased to report to his daughter, Anne, that the nursing assistant was a mom and earning a college degree.
Richard Solum, retired Hennepin County judge and Dorsey & Whitney lawyer, recalled Denny as a founder of the Minnesota Center for Corporate Responsibility, an author of the “Minnesota Principles” that broadened business purpose beyond stockholders to “stakeholders,” including employees and communities; as well as the Caux Round Table for Moral Capitalism.
“I worked with countless CEOs and executives in circumstances testing their integrity,” Solum said. “… There was no one who championed honesty, morality and ethics like Chuck Denny. These traits … were abiding central ingredients in all he said, did and taught.”
Solum recalled mention of Denny in Steven Snyder’s 2013 book: “Leadership and the Art of Struggle.”
“Of all the leaders I met during my interviews, no one exudes the type of gratitude and appreciation for life’s precious moments more than Chuck Denny,” wrote Snyder. “Denny has endured more than his share of struggles and heartache. His wife suffered through tuberculosis and breast cancer before ultimately losing her battle with Alzheimer’s. They lost three children at very young ages.
“Yet, Denny persists in seeing the bright side of life. He told me, ‘Use your smiles now. You can’t take them with you when you die.’ ”
In retirement, Denny focused on community service, education, the performing arts and philanthropy. He was also a critic of the growing excesses of capitalism and wealth concentration.
“The success of democratic capitalism is based on a balance of entrepreneurial drive and its rewards with a sharing of the fruits of our collective efforts; a sharing of the immense wealth created by our economic system,” Denny wrote in January in his last Star Tribune Business Forum opinion piece. “I fear that this social contract is broken.
“The United States has the highest level of income inequality of all industrial nations,” he continued. “… In the U.S., the top 1% of households own 40% of the nation’s wealth and receive approximately 20% of the nation’s income. The bottom 50% saw their share … drop from 20% in 1978 to 12% in 2015. … Save for a few noble individuals, those earning high levels of incomes and owning vast wealth are most unlikely to voluntarily reduce their incomes and accumulated wealth. The seven cardinal sins are alive and well, greed and hubris prominent among them.”
Denny urged a “reactivation of our antitrust laws,” higher taxes on the wealthiest and support for inheritance taxes.
“Left unchecked, the extreme division of our nation into the rich and the poor will lead to class warfare,” he wrote. “Our high level of income inequality is a threat to our democracy. This is a nation blessed with extraordinary wealth, sufficient to provide for all. We have the capacity for and capability of addressing the issue. Now, we need to decide where we stand.”
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.