Edwin "Skip" Gage, a former president and CEO of the Carlson Companies who quit in 1991 to build his own integrated marketing company, died Wednesday surrounded by family. He was 79.
Gage will be remembered as a generous philanthropist and a brilliant and methodical executive who grew both the Carlson Companies and Gage Marketing Group into national leaders in their fields through strategic acquisitions and internal development.
Gage, a native of Evanston, Ill., turned his passion for tennis into a full scholarship at Northwestern University, where he met Barbara Carlson — the younger of Minneapolis entrepreneur Curtis Carlson's two daughters — on a blind date. More than 700 people attended their wedding in Minneapolis in 1965.
Gage graduated with a bachelor's degree in business and a master's from the journalism school's advertising sequence. He was hired as an account executive with the Foote, Cone & Belding agency in Chicago. Partly because Carlson wanted his daughter and son-in-law closer to home, Gage joined the Carlson Companies in 1968 as director of marketing, development and research. He started with no staff but by 1976 had assembled a group of sales-promotion and employee-incentive businesses with $50 million in revenue.
In February 1980, he was named president of Carlson Marketing Group Inc., which he aggressively expanded. In 1983, he ascended to executive vice president, setting him up to succeed Carlson as president a year later and as CEO in 1989. Carlson couldn't let go of power, though, and the two men butted heads. Where Carlson was brash and spontaneous, Gage was a soft-spoken, "textbook analytical inside manager," one colleague said in a 1992 Star Tribune news article.
Gage wanted to run his own shop. He resigned in 1991 and bought three companies from Carlson: Promotion Management Co., Lettershop Services and Adistra Corp. He set aggressive growth goals and focused on integrated marketing.
"Much has changed from 1965 when I was in grad school at Northwestern, working part time at an ad agency," Gage said in a 1997 Star Tribune interview. "Then, everything was driven by media, primarily TV."
Commercials were made, time bought on the three networks plus spot time in major markets, and a few print ads were thrown in, he said. "The job was done."
Segmentation complicated marketing, and many companies cut their in-house departments. Gage Marketing stepped in to provide strategy development and execution. A trade journal described Gage Marketing in 1998 as the nation's largest sales promotion firm, based on revenue. Gage sold part of the company in 1998 for $80 million.
A number of Carlson Company executives joined Gage Marketing. Tom Belle, a longtime business partner, lionized him in his paid obituary as a "visionary" who inspired others to reach their highest potential.
"He was just that kind of a leader," Belle said in the obituary. "Skip really believed that 'good people made good business.' Every day he stressed that ethical behavior was the most important attribute a professional could possess."
In retirement, Gage served as chair and chair emeritus of the Inner City Tennis Foundation. He and his wife, Barbara Carlson Gage, also helped serve the community by supporting the Northside Achievement Zone, Urban Ventures and Banyan Community.
Gage is survived by his wife and their children, Geoffrey, Scott, Christy and Richard, and 10 grandchildren. A memorial is scheduled for 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, 511 Groveland Ave., Minneapolis.