Barge covers. Ski resort hotels. Underground tanks. Bottled water. Tractors. Environmental laboratories. Movies. An aquarium.
Quite a diverse list, right? Not sure what to make of it? Wondering what one possibly has to do with the other?
Stop thinking. Don’t try to make sense of it. All that matters is that the list makes sense to Rod Burwell, who has spent 37 years owning, running or investing in companies that make barge covers, storage tanks and movies, sell tractors, test soil, provide hotel rooms, bottle water and display fish.
He remains active in most of those ventures, and he just smiles when it is suggested that his portfolio is, well, “unusual.”
“I’m an opportunist,” he said. “And an entrepreneur. I see opportunities and it’s hard to stay out of them. I like to buy value assets and I like tangible things. Sometimes when I see a business in trouble, I say, ‘I can fix that,’ and I do.”
In the process, Burwell has introduced innovations to industry on how to store gasoline and cover grain on river barges. He has accomplished this thanks to an inveterate curiosity, a good education and a strong work ethic.
The opportunist didn’t start out with the idea of building such a diversified empire. Born in Minneapolis, he was the oldest of three sons of a salesman who moved his family to Kansas, South Dakota, North Dakota and back to Minnesota. He graduated from high school in Grafton, N.D., and decided to enroll in the University of North Dakota because “it was only 40 miles away and I could hitchhike home.” Tuition, fees and books cost $99 his first semester.
Burwell wanted to combine interests in sales and engineering, and earned degrees in industrial engineering and business administration in 1960 and 1961. Active in Army ROTC at the university, he joined the Army as a lieutenant after graduation and served three years in the Corps of Engineers in Germany. He returned to the United States to teach in the ROTC program at Purdue before working on military construction in Vietnam.
After his discharge, he bought into his dad’s janitorial business in Minneapolis and worked as the general manager of a fiberglass company, where one of the nation’s agricultural giants came to him with a request in 1969.
“Cargill wanted me to make a barge cover out of fiberglass,” he said. “The thinking then was that you couldn’t make anything that big (20 feet wide by 31 feet long) out of fiberglass, but they wanted to move from steel to fiberglass to eliminate rust that would drip onto grain.”
Burwell drew patterns, built molds and developed a prototype in his backyard and a rented garage, designing and producing two-piece fiberglass covers. He tested them for durability by dropping clamshell buckets on them and driving cars over them.
Out of the experiment evolved Proform, with Cargill as his first customer. He started the venture with $4,000 of his own money, and believes that may have been the key to success.
“If I had had a lot of money, I wouldn’t have been as successful,” he said. “I had to build everything myself, and I learned firsthand more about the trade and the best designs – and redesigns. If I had hired a foreman and others and had not been involved in every aspect, it might not have worked.”
Proform went on to develop other fiberglass products, including covers for rail cars and products for sewer treatment facilities. Burwell held onto the company until 1984, when he sold it because he felt the market for the product had peaked.
Ten years after starting Proform, Burwell purchased the fiberglass division of Dart Industries, which made underground gasoline storage tanks, and named it Xerxes. Steel tanks dominated the market, with Xerxes holding a 1 to 2 percent share, but fiberglass’ popularity grew because steel tanks rusted and leaked. Bloomington-based Xerxes today controls 65 percent of the fiberglass tank market and 35 percent of the overall market.
As Xerxes grew, Burwell looked at other businesses, particularly those that he felt were undervalued and could be turned around and grown. Examples:
He and his brother-in-law purchased Chippewa Springs, a water bottling company in Chippewa Falls, Wis., in 1992 and sold it five years later.
A ski trip to Colorado led to his 1985 purchase of the Silvertree and Wildwood hotels at Snowmass Village. He still owns the hotels, which have 410 rooms, and a conference center, although he has a contract to sell to local interests.
He heard from a banker friend about the failing Concourse Hotel in Madison, Wis., and bought it out of bankruptcy in 1992. He told a newspaper that the hotel’s location near the Capitol made the deal attractive because “I had a strong hunch that state government won’t go away and probably won’t get any smaller.” His hunch, he notes wryly, was right.
Burwell also bought Pace Analytical Services out of receivership 10 years ago. The Minneapolis-based company, with 12 laboratories, has grown to become the third-largest environmental testing company in the country.
A friendship with a high school classmate led to C and B Investments, a John Deere dealership based in Gettysburg, S.D. After the friend died in 1999, his son took over the business and with Burwell expanded to 12 dealerships in five states.
An interest in movies led to a seven-year investment in a production company whose titles included “Desperately Seeking Susan,” Madonna’s first movie, and “Eight Men Out,” widely regarded as one of the best baseball movies ever made.
Burwell and his brother-in-law teamed up again in 1999 and purchased UnderWater World at the Mall of America. They turned around the attraction, which he proudly points out has more sharks (25) than any other indoor aquarium.
As Burwell purchased, overhauled and sold companies, he realized he could not run them on his own. He chose to hire first-rate executives.
“You can’t know all the nuances of every business,” he said. “They are too complicated. You need good employees, and you have to trust them so you can delegate to them. I am the backup. If something happens, I can step in and manage the business until I find someone else.”
Business associates find Burwell to be a good boss – and more.
“He is the best mentor I could have,” said Matt Cronin, president of C and B Investments. “Success to Rod isn’t just about the business doing well, but in seeing us learn and being there as much as we want. His approach is, ‘You’re running things.’ ”
“He’s hands off,” said Steve Vanderboom, CEO of Pace Analytical. “He’s a long-term thinker, a patient investor and a strategist. His most distinguishing characteristic is his outlook – not just the solution that works today, but will work in five and 10 years.”
Burwell’s willingness to delegate was a trait that developed both out of necessity and a desire to spend more time with his family. His first wife and two children were killed in a private plane crash in New Orleans in 1980. He later married Barbara Peterson, who was Miss Minnesota and Miss USA in 1976, and they have three boys ages 17, 14 and 12.
“I always have had a deep faith, and that got me through those times,” he said of the plane crash. “If you trust God enough and have enough faith, you can handle these things. I’m lucky that I got a second chance to have another family.
Rod Burwell and St. Thomas • Joined the board of trustees in 2004 and serves on the Investment Committee. He formerly served on the School of Law Board of Governors.• Is impressed with ongoing efforts to develop and refine three- to five-year plans, especially on budget matters, but prefers a longer-term vision. “What will you see when you look at St. Thomas in 10 or 20 years? You can sell that to all graduates – that St. Thomas is strong now but will be even stronger in 10 or 20 years, and how that will help them in their own careers.” • Has growing concerns about the cost of private higher education, and wonders even with generous financial aid packages how families that make $50,000 a year can afford to children to universities that cost more than $30,000. “We need to look at cost and price structures and see if there is a different way. We just can’t afford to continue to do business like this.”