David Kidwell, Dean of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, had struggled to become a “break-out” figure in the business community. He was always highly respected over his nine years as business school dean, but his circle of business intimates was kept mostly to heads of Fortune 500 companies and divisions of those companies. That was until his speech, delivered March 7, 2000, before a packed hotel ballroom in which he warned that the previously unshakeable economy of the Twin Cities may be in for trouble because it had “lost its blue-chip status” and had not captured the new economy wave in areas such as biotechnology.
The immediate and long-term response of this one speech could not have had a greater impact on the psyche of the business community, the higher education community and for public policy in Minnesota. Kidwell’s name recognition as a business opinion-leader sky-rocketed. An entire news cycle was set into motion, complete with a solid two months of commentaries, editorials, columns, call-in shows on public radio, and follow-up in-depth reportage on the topic. The speech was seen as a “clarion call,” from a well-respected source. The issue culminated in a statewide “Economic Summit,” convened six months later by the President of the University of Minnesota and introduced by the governor, Jesse Ventura. Additional issues were raised including access and inflow of venture capital to the state, how to capitalize and train an aging workforce, and retraining displaced rural citizens. Kohnstamm Communications conceived, researched, proposed, wrote, and provided the media relations support before and after for this epic speech.
The Dean’s speech needed to walk a fine line between being perceived as self-serving, and providing candid insight into what could pose to be a monumental problem for what has been an economic steam-engine. Minnesota holds great pride of its accomplishments. The economy has proved to be very even, with a healthy balance between agriculture, manufacturing, finance & insurance, healthcare, medical products and government/education. The speech ran the risk of alienating longtime champions of the Minnesota economy. Criticism in this vein is not part of the Minnesota culture, and Kidwell as a native of San Diego, could have been seen as an outsider.
Research for the speech was critical to its success. Rankings, case studies and statistics were integral to its success. Comparative figures were drawn analyzing analogous markets to the Twin Cities with metropolitan areas of a similar size around the country, also located adjacent to large research universities. A national survey from Penn State was brought to the fore that supported Kidwell’s case: that the Twin Cities as an economic hub may be beyond its peak. A stunning case study was used of a Minnesota software entrepreneur, who felt forced to move his company to Boston because he could not find the labor talent in Minnesota, complete with quotes from the Boston Globe which said, “Minnesota does not have the infrastructure for a software start-up or talent base that you have in Massachusetts or Northern California.” Kidwell then sited the stock price of that company, which had soared 600 percent from its IPO price. Kidwell — an economist and banking professor by trade — put these statistics to credible use and effectiveness.
The strategic approach of the speech was simple: provide a national perspective for a regionally-based dynamic that would unite the audience into understanding that decisive action was necessary for the business community to remain competitive. The strategy helped to draw intense attention on the important role that the University of Minnesota plays in the health of the local economy, especially in areas such as technology transfer, from research to business formation. This placed the business school at the center of the discussion, and helped to bolster the school’s reputation and that of its dean, as significant players.
Research for the speech was carried out over a two month period, four months prior to the delivery of the speech. An interview of the Dean helped to surface a number of long-held opinions he had about the role that the business community plays in the health of a metropolitan area, given his experience living in Hartford, Connecticut. A draft of the speech was written during the 1999 holiday season, and reviewed with the dean in early January — two months prior to its delivery. Dean Kidwell works best when he has the opportunity to revise and revisit such a major address, and the result is a more personalized and genuine final product.
Kohnstamm worked to help the Dean become more natural with the material in the weeks before the address, as he can come across as overly-academic if not coached. In the end, he was familiar and natural in delivering this major address, was straight-forward but not cocky, articulate without being boastful. The content and delivery was immediately felt, and his reputation and name-recognition was impacted very positively.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press called Dean Kidwell’s address one of the top ten business stories of 2000, saying that it spurred a major debate, the formation of a statewide economic summit and legislative proposals to “address concerns about worker training, education, research, and partnerships with business.” In all, over 25 major news pieces, editorials and commentaries were written or broadcast directly connected to the speech. A news cycle was created by the delivery of the Kidwell speech that lasted two months, then picked up again surrounding the economic summit after six months. The coverage was overwhelmingly positive, lauding Kidwell for the clarity of his insight, and willingness to speak the unspoken. A new business development center, which was proposed in the speech, was recently seeded by 3M to the tune of $2.2 million, and the business school’s $100 million capital campaign has raised three quarters of its goal to date. More importantly, the University of Minnesota has exceeded its forecast for raising $1.3 billion in its current Campaign Minnesota. President Mark Yudof praised Kidwell for raising the critical issue of research at major universities and its impact on local economies. Funding for research has been embraced as a result, said Yudof.