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For companies in greater Minnesota, executive education programs at the Anderson Center deliver far more than convenience

By Emily Gasperlin
Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Executive education is a hot topic in the Minnesota business community, and the Twin Cities hosts a number of internationally prestigious programs. But what about outside the metro area?
 
Coldspring, a quarrier and fabricator of natural stone based in Cold Spring, Minn., sends its executives to Anderson Center forums in nearby St. Cloud. The center, a nonprofit founded in 1998 by Anderson Trucking Service (ATS) and St. Cloud State University, offers leadership development forums on such topics as strategy, marketing, and operations. It’s open to all sizes and types of businesses. Its forum venues include the Gainey Conference Center in Owatonna, Madden’s on Gull Lake in Brainerd, and the River’s Edge Convention Center in St. Cloud, where the organization is headquartered. 
 
“We are for Greater Minnesota what the Carlson School’s and St. Thomas’s education offerings are for Twin Cities executives and professionals,” says Rick Bauerly, the center’s executive director.
 
Coldspring has sent about 60 employees to forums at the center. “Continuous learning is a value [Coldspring] considers critical to developing strong leadership and increasing the bench strength of our executives and managers,” explains John Mattke, the company’s president and COO. “The Anderson Center provides a variety of opportunities to exercise that value, show initiative, and grow both personally and professionally.”
 
Forums generally have 15 to 30 participants. Often it’s a team from the same company attending together. Otherwise, “It’s a group made up of unique participants with diverse backgrounds, which contributes to the experience level of the group and therefore the rich discussions,” says Venita Wilkes, the center’s forum director. 
 
In recent years, more and more groups from companies have been using the center, according to Kathy Spanier, a facilitator for the marketing forum. “When I first started, it would be a lot of different companies, one individual from each company. Now we’re seeing groups or teams coming in.”
 
Such groups generally come from companies based in central Minnesota, but the Anderson Center attracts participants from both northern and southern Minnesota, as well.
 
The length of the forums varies. The Strategy Forum is a one-week applications-based workshop. The Executive Forum requires a three-week commitment over the course of a year. Shorter forums, meanwhile, run from three to five days.
 
Among the latter is the Leading Negotiations Forum. Bauerly recalls one participant saying that within a few months of taking it, the principles and tools he learned “led directly to an eight-fold return on the forum tuition investment.” 
 
Spanier often observes such results begin to take shape in the classroom. “As a discussion leader, the ‘Aha!’ for me is when you see [participants’] wheels turning, as to how they’re relating it to their companies,” she says. 
 
She believes the forum structure makes for an effective learning environment, both for participants and for the discussion leaders. As a facilitator, she gets participants discussing and thinking about a particular case study. 
 
“You never know where it’s going to go,” she says. “It really is setting the stage and having people think beyond the case. I always find that I learn some of the things that they’re connecting with, as well. It’s a two-way street. I’m learning, they’re learning and sharing … they’re making connections with their own business.”
 
She views interaction with other participants as a vital ingredient to the center’s effectiveness. “Beyond making a connection with something already happening in their everyday life, the networking and validation with other people that are participating in the forums, sharing best practices — all of those things help the individual, but also help their companies,” she says.
 
Forums at the center can also make an impact on a company’s strategic direction. “At a higher level, the center’s Leadership Forum for top executives can enhance the leadership effectiveness of top executives, and the Strategy Forum can fundamentally improve the long-term strategic plans of a company,” Bauerly notes.
 
“Those who are rising to the top in our organization value the learning and self-improvement that comes from challenging themselves and expanding their perspective,” says Mattke. “The Anderson Center plays a big part in that. It has also created a common language and dialogue about higher-level leadership and strategy that has become a part of our culture.”
 
ATS itself uses the center for its own executive education needs. This year, company leadership and employees will participate in the Speakers Forum, Family Business Forum, Strategy Forum, Leadership Forum, Marketing Forum, Managers’ Forum, Governance Forum, and the International Business Forum.
 
“ATS has found [the Anderson Center] to be a premier training source for both family and non-family leadership in our organization,” says CEO Rollie Anderson.
 
ATS has roots going back to 1922, when Elmer Anderson traded in his horses and wagon for a truck to haul ties, lumber, and gravel. Today the company, with 12 subsidiaries and three affiliates, transports nearly any kind of freight to and from anywhere in the world. Notably, ATS moves equipment for wind farms, enjoying the largest market share in wind energy transportation in the U.S. 
 
The center, company, and family are deeply linked. CEO Anderson, the founder’s grandson, serves on the center’s board. His nephew Scott Anderson, the company’s treasurer, also heads the center’s finance and audit committee. Brent Anderson, the CEO’s son, serves as the company’s COO and executive vice president.
 
Being privately owned allows ATS to focus on long-term investments rather than short-term shareholder returns. “We can afford to invest in philanthropy without worrying that our shareholders will get upset with us,” Rollie Anderson points out.
 
In 1998, the Anderson family donated $1 million to St. Cloud State University to start an entrepreneurial center. It was called the Harold Anderson Entrepreneurial Center, later shortened to the Anderson Center. In the beginning, the purpose was to promote entrepreneurship among students and in the community by providing classes and seminars, as well as affordable consulting services. “It is a way of mentoring tomorrow’s entrepreneurs,” the late Harold Anderson said when asked about his motivation for donating the money. “They need to understand what business is, and learn how to recognize opportunities.”
 
Since its inception, the Anderson Center has grown into a regional organization that also works with community initiative foundations to support small businesses.
 
ATS isn’t the only business deeply involved with the center. About a dozen Coldspring employees teach there, including Spanier, director of marketing. They serve as either discussion or forum leaders. 
 
“Our company became involved with the Anderson Center at the beginning,” says Mattke. “ATS is a large vendor for us, and we have had close associations with their company and its leadership for many years. When the center started down the path of building the current forum structure and offering, we jumped on board with regular attendees and provided support in both guidance and discussion leadership.”
 
So far, the Anderson Center has worked with more than 190 organizations (including nonprofits) and produced 900-plus alumni, and it pays close attention to their feedback. Says Rollie Anderson: “Feedback from forum participants and their company management indicates a high return on investment, with participants consistently making significant strides within their area of responsibility, many of whom have moved to the next level within their organization.”
 
According to the center, 96 percent of participants in to-date 2014 forums said it was one of the best programs they had ever attended. And 87 percent said the seminar exceeded their expectations. The numbers are consistent with findings from last year.
 
To Bauerly, the Anderson Center is an “inspiring community organization” — one that businesses in Greater Minnesota can partner with to develop their leaders, managers, and mission.  
 

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