A glance around Mark Vangsgard’s office reveals some of the things that are important to him. A bookshelf displays family photos: his wife, Kim, and children, Matt, Joe and Sarah. Scattered throughout the room is evidence of his business travels while working for General Mills and Ecolab: a wall hanging from China; a nameplate from Indonesia; prints from Germany; a model jeepney from the Philippines; a Japanese doll – all gifts from people with whom he worked.
Vangsgard ’80, ’90 M.B.A., the new vice president of business affairs and chief financial officer at the University of St. Thomas, says he thoroughly enjoyed his corporate career, but he doesn’t regret his move to the nonprofit world. His years of living in Germany and traveling around the world, while rewarding, were some of the most difficult parts of his career: “I was gone for two weeks at a time, often every month, so I wasn’t always there to give support to my family. While living abroad is good, it is also a rollercoaster of emotions – wonderful but stressful.”
After years of corporate leadership, Vangsgard saw St. Thomas as an opportunity for something different. When Sarah reached her junior year in high school, Vangsgard and his wife decided to turn their upcoming status as “empty nesters” into an opportunity. “My wife wanted to own a business,” so she bought a gift shop in Stillwater. Vangsgard found that he, too, wanted a change. “I spent 26 years with two Fortune 500 companies, where I built financial stability. I wanted to give back.”
While Vangsgard’s career journey contains all the hallmarks of “success,” it was never planned that way. “I’m not a ladder climber,” Vangsgard said. “I just move on to the next fun thing.” Neither of his parents had attended college, so when it was time for him to choose a school, he did his own thinking.
Vangsgard wanted a business major, so he called the human resources departments at companies in the Twin Cities. Time after time, he got favorable feedback on St. Thomas. When he saw the need for further education to enhance his career, he returned for his M.B.A. “I was married and had three children, so I had to return to school part time. St. Thomas was familiar and had a good reputation as a working person’s M.B.A.”
After receiving his B.A., Vangsgard landed a spot in finance and accounting at General Mills. He progressed through nine positions over nine years, including a position as plant controller in Buffalo, N.Y., at age 26. Fifty people reported to him; all but one of them was older than him. He understood quickly that he had to approach the situation with humility and openness to learning, which made the experience an excellent source of personal and career growth.
Some time after he returned to Minneapolis, Vangsgard was approached about a position with Ecolab. Interested, Vangsgard joined Ecolab, which eventually sent him and his family to Germany for three years. After returning to the United States, he became vice president of finance for international affiliates in Asia Pacific and Africa. “I suffered from jet lag for six years.” He ended his career there as corporate vice president and treasurer.
In his position at St. Thomas, he is determined to get involved as much as possible. “It’s sometimes hard for staff and administrators to understand how the university’s mission applies to them and how they can impact it,” Vangsgard said. “I could avoid that and still do my job, saying, ‘That’s for Father Dease and the academics to take care of.’ But there are always ways to support the mission. You just have to look for them.” To that end, he attended the new student orientation sessions as much as possible over the summer, interacting with students and parents and talking with them about the issues they face.
Vangsgard’s job at St. Thomas not only gives him an opportunity to “give back” at the end of his career, it also provides him with ways to connect with his two younger children. He speaks with pride about the opportunity to be on the platform at commencement when Joe graduated last spring, and he looks forward to seeing Sarah on campus in the fall. “I told her she could have lunch with me every day, and I’d help her with her homework every night. And, if it gets too late, I can just crash at her dorm. For some reason, she didn’t like that idea.”
Welcome back, Mark.