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Daniel G. (Dan) Coborn, former chairman, president and CEO of Minnesota-based grocery operator Coborn’s Inc., died March 15 at age 86.
Coborn led the company for the greater part of the 20th century, serving as its chief executive from the late 1950s until 1999.
“It is rare that a person has the opportunity to work so closely with their father for most of their life,” said Chris Coborn, the company’s current chief executive. “I was blessed to have had my dad be such an influential personal and professional mentor. He was absolutely extraordinary.”
The third of seven children born to Duke and Florence Coborn, Dan Coborn started delivering groceries in the family company when he was 10 years old. “You’re the boss’ son, so you have to do it all,” Dan remembered his father saying in a 2008 interview.
After a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, Coborn was accepted into law school at University of Minnesota but declined the opportunity and returned to Sauk Rapids to work for his father because he and wife Mabel were expecting their first child. In 1959, Coborn and his brothers found themselves at the helm of the company after their father’s unexpected passing. With their eldest brother in the service, the other siblings chose Dan to be in charge.
“We were trying to eke out a living,” Dan Coborn once recalled. “We needed to expand to support four families. One store was not going to do it.”
In 1963, the brothers purchased their second store. After opening the company’s first Cash Wise store in Willmar in 1979, Coborn envisioned the next Cash Wise location in an open field on the outskirts of Waite Park, breaking with standard practice at the time of planning stores around existing residential growth. The Waite Park store has since been remodeled several times and today is the company’s flagship Cash Wise store among a chain of 17.
Considered Coborn’s biggest flop was Fountain Fresh – a bulk soda attraction, where customers could choose from 30 flavors of soda – some of the more unusual choices being peach, banana, sarsaparilla and piña colada – or mix their own combinations “soda-fountain style.” With the current trend of customization, the idea now seems ahead of its time.
“We made some bad decisions, but nothing that took the company down,” Coborn once said. “In the history of the company, we never missed a payroll except for four people – my brothers and me. And that didn’t happen very often. I never lost faith in the fact that it was a good business. People have to eat. They have to get their food from someplace.”
In 1987, Coborn was named Minnesota Grocer of the Year by Minnesota Grocers Association. He also received accolades from College of Saint Benedict, National Grocers Association, St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce, St. Cloud State University and United Way of Central Minnesota. In 2002, he received the Father Walter Reger Distinguished Alumnus Award from Saint John’s University – the highest honor they bestow – for outstanding service to the Saint John’s community by an alumnus.
A servant of community as well as business, Coborn and his wife in 1967 became charter members of United Way of Central Minnesota. He was also a founding member of the Boys & Girls Club of Central Minnesota board. His generosity touched many organizations, including gifts to Cathedral High School; College of St. Benedict; Saint John’s University; St. Cloud Technical and Community College; St. Cloud State University; and others.
Additionally, he served on countless boards and participated in many civic organizations, including CentraCare Health, Friends of the College of Saint Benedict and the Sauk Rapids School Board.
In 1999, Coborn’s Inc. was named one of the Ten Most Generous Companies in America, an award sponsored by John F. Kennedy Jr.’s magazine, George, and presented by Kennedy and actor and philanthropist Paul Newman. “We all share responsibility for the health of our communities,” Coborn said upon receiving the award.
Survivors include Mabel, his wife of 64 years; their five children, Shelly Coborn, Chris (Becky Bergner) Coborn, Suzy (Marty) Ellis, Duke (Amy Armstrong), Tom Coborn; 10 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild, Dahlia Coborn.