Just Call Him Mr. Citizen

Pierson "Sandy" Grieve thrives on working for others

Seven years ago, a business magazine published a “Do-Gooder” story on Pierson “Sandy” Grieve under the headline, “Mr. Chairman,” in recognition of his work as chairman of the boards of four organizations.

As accurate as the headline was at the time, perhaps a more-appropriate moniker would have been “Mr. Citizen,” his peers and acquaintances say today. They see it as a better reflection of a man whose unselfish service to the community always has impressed them.

“Sandy’s motivation is simple – it’s important that the community in which you live and work is healthy,” said Doug Leatherdale, retired chairman and chief executive officer of the St. Paul Companies. “You have a responsibility, as CEO of a large employer, to make a contribution. Sandy always took that responsibility seriously.”

“He has a real belief in the importance of business executives making a better community,” said David Kidwell, former dean of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. “It’s the old social responsibility concept that they need to be good citizens.”

“Sandy is involved in the best and the fullest sense of the word,” said Jeff Hamiel, executive director of the Metropolitan Airports Commission. “It’s as simple as that.”

Grieve acknowledges such praise with few words, a smile and a self-effacing shrug, as if to say, “Well, somebody has to do the job, and they asked me, so I did it.” He always has loved a challenge and he enjoys solving problems, although he sighed when asked about a quote he gave a reporter in 1995 about how he would miss “the fight” in retiring as CEO of Ecolab Inc.

“It’s more that I thought I would miss the challenge – of trying to make a difference and of overcoming obstacles,” he said. “Fight is an overused word. Politicians always say that they will ‘fight’ for you. Why don’t they just say they’ll ‘work’ for you?”

Grieve smiled and shrugged again. “But then, I never was much of a politician!”

The plain-spoken Grieve was born in Flint, Mich., and grew up in Jackson before enlisting in the Navy after high school. He returned home after his discharge to attend junior college for a year and enrolled at Northwestern University, where he earned a business degree in 1949.

He spent several years as a management consultant before becoming controller and then president of Rap-in-Wax, a Minneapolis wax paper manufacturer, in 1955. He moved to Toledo, Ohio, eight years later and ran an automotive parts company for two decades.

Grieve jumped at the top job at Ecolab – then known as Economics Laboratory Inc. – in 1983 because of the chance to move back to Minnesota. He found what he called a “tired” company that needed an infusion of new ideas and new products, and over the next dozen years he shrewdly provided plenty of both.

“You shake things up,” he replied when asked about his approach when he arrived at Ecolab. “You look around at what business you have and the potential for growth. You sell those parts you don’t want to stick with and invest in those you do. ‘Circle the customers, circle the globe’ became our philosophy – as they grow and go around the world, you have to be with them.”

Ecolab became a leading worldwide developer and marketer of cleaning and sanitizing products, systems and services for the hospitality, food service and food- and beverage-processing industries. Annual sales grew from $438 million to $2 billion during Grieve’s tenure, and the company’s stock price increased at a 15 percent compound rate.

Ecolab’s acquisitions included a pest elimination company; he realized the value of a good one, he said with a wink, because “a cockroach is a good way of cleaning out a restaurant in a hurry.” Ecolab shed its consumer products lines, including detergents and laundry-softening products, because he didn’t see the wisdom of battling giants such as Procter & Gamble. Some acquisitions didn’t work out – he considered Chemlawn, for example, “a good business but at the wrong time” because of the growing popularity of the environmental movement. “There’s a better climate today for that kind of business.”

As Grieve made his name at Ecolab, community leaders began to tap him for assignments that involved everything from raising money for universities and emergency shelters to making decisions on whether the Twin Cities area needed a new airport.

He served as chairman of the Carlson Board of Overseers and its campaign to raise $45 million to construct a new business education building at the U of M, where an endowed chair in international marketing is named after Ecolab and him. Kidwell found Grieve to be a wise strategist and master fund-raiser unafraid to ask people for money. “Sandy gets an assignment, thinks it through and does it,” Kidwell said. “He’s not a procrastinator; he’s a person of action.”

Gov. Arne Carlson learned the same thing after appointing Grieve chairman of the airports commission in 1995. One task was to examine the feasibility of a new airport in southeastern Dakota County because of growing concerns that Minneapolis-St. Paul International would outgrow its site by 2020. His studies at the time convinced him that the existing airport would meet needs as far out as anyone could see.

“I was proud of that decision, which proved to be the right one considering what has happened to the industry, and in the process we cleaned up the airport,” he said. “By some measures, it’s No. 1 in the United States and No. 2 in the world. It’s clean, it’s bright, there’s more parking and there are all kinds of shops and restaurants. It’s exactly what we need.”

Grieve is equally proud of his efforts on a lower-profile assignment to build a new Dorothy Day Center in downtown St. Paul, and he uses an airplane analogy to describe the successful project.

“Here it was at my backdoor,” he said of the old, rundown center operated by Catholic Charities. “I could see the building from my office. That wasn’t a hard project to raise money for, and boy, has it made a difference. We went from a Piper Cub to a 747.”

While Grieve retired as Ecolab CEO in 1995 and as its chairman at the end of that year, he has found plenty to keep him busy in the intervening years. He’s on the boards at St. Thomas, The St. Paul Com-panies, Mesaba Aviation, the Guthrie Theater, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern. He is a partner in Palladium Equity Partners, a private New York investment firm that buys troubled manufacturing companies, fixes them and sells them. He co-founded, along with several St. Thomas trustees, the Bank of Naples in Florida.

He laughed when told that his many interests – past and present – were an eclectic mix.

“They sure are,” he said, “but that’s been the fun part of it. They all have been good learning experiences because they all have been different, and they all are an important part of this community.”

Pierson (Sandy) Grieve and St. Thomas• Joined the board of trustees in 1995 and is a member of the Physical Facilities Planning Committee.• Believes St. Thomas is a "wonderful institution" with its share of challenges. The primary ones are generating enough funds "to keep the doors open, and we need to look for more ways to support students. Fueling growth is an issue, too - the law school is a good example." • Wants to find ways to keep trustees "involved, committed and challenged."• Is proud that the first Grieve family member will enroll at St. Thomas this fall - a newphew from the Des Moines area. "Big kid - 6-foot-7. Maybe he'll play basketball."