Marilyn Carlson Nelson: Why Thunderbirds are go for the roller-skating queen of Radisson

Girl power, 'G' force and growth- the hotel and travel boss responsible for cruises, rubber ducks and TGI Friday's
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The Independent Online

When Marilyn Carlson Nelson became the chief executive of Carlson Companies, she marked the occasion not by going to the office, but by putting on a helmet at a US air force base and climbing into an F-16 fighter jet.

"I had a little camera and a microphone, so I could talk to our people about teamwork during the flight," recalls Carlson Nelson, a dainty 66-year-old who was a ballerina in her youth. "The take-off was one of the most exciting things I have ever done. We did rolls and we pulled nine Gs - nine times the force of gravity, a huge amount of force, supposedly as much as the body can take."

She compares that experience eight years ago to running her family's multi-billion-dollar travel company, whose brands range from Radisson hotels through Seven Seas Cruises to TGI Friday's. "Some days it feels that way. When things go wrong, when there is a bombing in a hotel or something happens in this crazy world, then you feel enormous weight. Your heart is heavy and you feel helpless.

"You get up the next morning and you feel light and excited. You decide that you will persevere - that you will never give up."

The Thunderbird flight is entirely in keeping with Carlson Nelson's unconventional approach to business and marketing. In 1995, shortly after the company had merged its business travel operations with Accor of France to create the $19bn (£11bn) Carlson Wagonlit Travel, which operates in more than 145 countries, she caused a stir at an executive gathering in Las Vegas. "This company meeting was about risk taking. So I decided to rollerblade from the back of the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas to the stage, waving our Carlson Companies flag."

A few years earlier, she had been asked by the Governor of Minnesota to mastermind a campaign to bring the Superbowl to the state. So she orches- trated the delivery of toy ducks to each National Football League team owner. "For a great game and wild life, play indoors in Minnesota" was the message.

The little rubber ducks turned out to be irresistible: the 1992 Super Bowl generated more than $100m for Minnesota.

The company now headed by Carlson Nelson was founded by her father, Curtis Carlson, just before the Second World War. "In 1938, my father borrowed $55 - to my mother's dismay - from their landlord in order to start the Gold Bond Stamp Company. This was one of the first loyalty programmes. After the war there was a lot of pent-up demand, and saving Gold Bond stamps from your grocery, or drug store or service station, was a popular way to get irons or toasters," she recalls.

"With the economic miracle after the Second World War, people grew more sophisticated. In Europe, the US and Japan, travel became a powerful reward. So the company expanded into the corporate and leisure travel businesses. The hotel and restaurant side became part of the group in the 1960s and 1970s, and operations also expanded to include event marketing."

Carlson Nelson has a degree in international economics and studied at Smith College, Massachusetts, the Sorbonne in Paris and the Institute des Hautes Etudes Economiques Politiques in Geneva. After graduation, she was a securities analyst for two years at Paine Webber in Minneapolis, where she was asked to use the abbreviation "MC Nelson" on all correspondence to hide her gender. Then, when she was pregnant, she had to work in a separate office. The experiences made her a strong advocate of women in the workplace.

"There are nine million female business owners in the US," she points out. "Women are starting firms at two times the rate but they are getting access to only 2 per cent of the venture capital. They are undercapitalised and they are not getting access to the global markets and rarely to government contracts. Women also need proper health insurance."

Carlson Nelson, a mother of four, adds that supporting and employing women pays off. "Companies with a high percentage of female staff perform better. It is a mistake for us as corporate leaders to ignore the parenting responsibilities of our employees and the extraordinary pressures on today's children." In 2002, George Bush chose her to lead the National Women's Business Council.

Carlson Nelson joined the family business in 1968 and the board in 1990. She took the helm of the group only a year before her father's death.

As a private company, Carlson does not release details of its financial performance. But its boss says it made record profits in 2005, with more than 15 per cent bottom-line growth. "I will need to touch wood as it has been a marvellous year. Our cruise ships have been full and our hotels have had very high occupancy."

The industry at large is recovering after the shocks of 11 September and the Iraq war. "World travel has returned to the year 2000 levels, and if the economy holds - and we believe it will - we will continue to see more and more travellers coming into the market - especially in India and China where people are longing to see the world."

The group is in expansion mode. "We have the Regent, our six-star luxury hotel brand, and we have Radisson SAS. In India we have 28 hotels, and we are expanding in China."

The increased threat of terrorism has shown the benefit of the highly developed corporate travel network developed by Carlson Wagonlit. "When we built this, we did not anticipate that security and safety would be such an important factor," Carlson Nelson admits. "But our network can tell people within hours and in some cases, like 9/11, minutes, where in the world their executives and loved ones are."

This information can be vital: "We could tell the families, within a very short time that their loved ones had missed the flight that went into the Pentagon."

Carlson Nelson has an army of fans around the world. "She is walking the talk," says Mary Robinson, the chairwoman of the Council of Women's World Leaders and the former president of the republic of Ireland. "We need more leaders like her."

The US Secretary of Labor, Elaine Chao, adds "Marilyn Carlson Nelson is a trailblazer and is admired by many for her determination to ensure that the doors of opportunity remain wide open for women."

But none of these tributes can compare to flying an F-16.


BORN: 19 August 1939.


1968-88: director of community relations, Carlson Companies.

1989-91: senior vice-president, Carlson Holdings.

1990 to present: board of directors, Carlson Companies.

1998 to present: chairman and chief executive, Carlson Companies.

2000 to present: co-chairman, co-chief executive, Carlson Holdings.


1978-97: board member, First Bank System.

1975-2002: board member, Qwest Communications.

1991 to present: board member, Exxon Mobil.