Michael Dougherty

Always Trying to 'do Good'

Dougherty defined by tough challenges, helps others feel good about themselves

Michael Dougherty has a simple philosophy when it comes to his business:

"Do good. Have fun. Make money."

That's it. Six words. He doesn't see a need for others.

"You have mission and value statements, of course," he said one sunny April day as he sat in his office on the 43rd floor of the Wells Fargo tower and looked west beyond downtown Minneapolis. "But those boil down to 'do good, have fun, make money.' I'm not confused about that, and I am fortunate to have been able to accomplish that."

Accomplish, indeed. The man once called "The Street Fighter" on the cover of a business magazine cover has had resounding success as the founder of a financial services firm and through active involvement on the boards of health care and arts organizations. He is leading an effort to raise $25 million for a center that will deal with a disease - prostate cancer - that has twice afflicted him. Two years ago, he received a Horatio Alger Association Award.

Not bad for someone whose parents died before he was 14 and found himself as a boarder student at St. Thomas Academy, living in Ireland Hall, in 1954. Not bad for someone who was kicked out of Creighton University and the College of St. Thomas for academic and disciplinary reasons; "I was an angry young man," he said. Not bad for someone who was nearly beaten to death while he was in the Army.

It was Dougherty's time in the service, however, that he credits for turning his life around. He learned both discipline and, thanks to a perceptive sergeant, that he had dyslexia. "The Army gave me the tools to deal with issues," he said, "and more than anything else I learned the value of self-responsibility."

After his discharge, the Sioux Falls native returned to St. Paul and applied for readmission to St. Thomas. Father James Shannon, then president, and Father Terrence Murphy, then executive vice president, approved, and he will remain forever grateful.

"It was the only place that would let me in," he recalled. "I wanted to work hard so I could make a living. I saw how people who didn't apply their God-given talents ended up. Not me. I just knew I wanted to work hard, to be somebody."

Dougherty graduated in 1966 and married Kathy Stevens, a St. Catherine student. Long interested in politics, and having worked on campaigns for John Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey and Robert Kennedy, Dougherty managed the unsuccessful campaign of a candidate for governor of South Dakota before realizing that "I needed to get a real job." As he looked over the offerings at an employment agency in 1969, he found one that appealed to him.

"All were salaried jobs except for a commission sales position at J.M. Dain," a brokerage house now known as RBC Dain Rauscher. "I figured if I worked for a commission, then my success would be based on my performance, and if I worked hard, I'd do well."

Dougherty did well. He was senior vice president for fixed income markets at Dain within eight years, was elected to its board, and then left. He took out a second mortgage on his home and started a fixed-income securities brokerage with three Dain veterans. During his first year, he took out only $1,800 in salary.

"I always had wanted to be my own boss - to own my own company," he said. "Our goal was to establish profitability and to have a company that we always would be proud of - to do good work and to provide an environment where people could feel good about themselves."

Along the way, Dougherty bought and sold brokerages and even sold his own firm in 1989 before reacquiring it four years later. Today, Dougherty Financial Group LLC is a full-service investment firm with $15 billion in assets and 300 employees in Minneapolis, New York, Chicago, San Diego, Bismarck and Sioux Falls. He believes the company has survived this long for one reason.

"We take advantage of opportunities," he said. "We always have been light on our feet. We are aware of the environment, and we watch to see what works. It's a very fluid industry. Every day I come to work, and something different happens. I never get bored."

Dougherty smiles at the word "never," and amends his comment on why the company has thrived. It isn't only with what one finds in investment portfolios.

"All of our assets go down the elevator every night," he said. "The most important assets are our people. If they have fun and feel good about themselves, they can grow, and so can the company."

Along the way, Dougherty has had to deal with health issues. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1985 and has survived two bouts with prostate cancer since 1999. He traveled around the country to look for answers, "but everywhere we went we got a different opinion," he said. "There was absolutely no consensus as to the appropriate treatment."

He decided to take the matter into his own hands so others wouldn't face the same obstacles. He is helping to develop a prostate cancer center at the University of Minnesota and hopes to raise $25 million. About $10 million already has been raised for the center, which opened a year ago and in July will move into a new home in the Mayo Building on the Minneapolis campus. The center provides a range of treatment and offers what Dougherty calls an "unbiased" approach.

"Mike told me, 'If you set up a prostate cancer center that is interdisciplinary, I'll raise the money to get it started,' " said Dr. Roby Thompson, senior associate dean at the university's medical school. "That's typical of his vision. He's a bold guy. He wants to do things better."

As unsettling as his cancer was, Dougherty said he learned two things from it - "how scared people can be when the 'C word' is applied to them and their families" and "how generous people can be. The goodness of people is there every day. I get much more out of this than I put in." He also came away from the experience committed to making a difference.

"In this community, $17 or $18 is raised for the arts for every $1 raised for health care," he said. "I love the arts, but that's nuts. Absolutely nuts. I hope to help educate people on the importance of health care and the lack of government support for people who need it. We have to do a better job of telling that story."

One way Dougherty does that is through service on health care system boards, including the University of Minnesota, Fairview/University and now Allina. He succeeded John M. Morrison, another St. Thomas trustee, as Allina chairman.

"Mike has an uncanny ability to look through the morass of paperwork that comes your way," Morrison said. "He cuts to the quick and makes good decisions, especially in health care."

As he looks to the future, Dougherty wants to do "exactly what I'm doing now." He laughs that he doesn't expect to be shown the door because, after all, "it's my company, and so far my partners and associates like having me around."

In other words, he will do good, have fun and make money.

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