With Dr. Glen Nelson’s death this month, Minnesota lost a giant who led the building of our health care system for the past 40 years, making health care more effective, accessible, and efficient for everyone.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota Medical School, he began his career as a surgeon at Park Nicollet Medical Center. Nelson built Park Nicollet into a progressive multi-specialty practice as its president and CEO.
During the early 1980s, he helped create the health maintenance organization American MedCenters, becoming its chairman and CEO. He was part of the Jackson Hole Group, a leading proponent of managed competition in health care that influenced President Bill Clinton’s health care plan and President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Joining Medtronic in 1986, he teamed with CEO Win Wallin and myself to transform Medtronic from a pacemaker pioneer into the world’s leading medical technology company.
From 1986 to his retirement in 2002, Nelson led Medtronic’s introduction of 12 major advances in medicine. The company achieved breakthroughs that included the pacemaker-cardioverter-defibrillator and treatments for heart failure, incontinence, and Parkinson’s disease.
I first got to know Glen in the 1970s, but our deeper relationship began in 1989 when I joined Medtronic. We formed a partnership, with Glen taking the lead on all aspects of medicine and technology, both internally and through acquisitions and mergers. We teamed together on strategy and organization, and in resolving the most difficult issues facing the company, from FDA relationships to thorny quality and people issues. He served on the Medtronic board for 20 years, guiding it to aspire to greater heights for the company.
In no small measure, he played a leading role in the company’s growth from $400 million in revenue to its current size of $29 billion in revenue and market capitalization of $112 billion, making it one of the nation’s most valuable companies.
Glen’s impact as a human being far exceeded his tangible accomplishments. To me, he was a friend, colleague, and mentor. When I was elected CEO of Medtronic in early 1991, I asked Glen to be my partner, not a subordinate, and to consult with me on all decisions, large and small.
He was the smartest and wisest person I have ever known. When I arrived at Medtronic, I had 25 years of high-tech experience but knew nothing about medicine. I relied on Glen to teach me the medical business and to explain how our products worked inside the human body. We worked together on a wide array of acquisitions, as we endeavored to broaden Medtronic’s technology to treat diseases as diverse as cerebral palsy, sleep apnea, diabetes and spinal surgery.
In 1998, Medtronic faced a growth crisis; expansion in our core business had slowed to less than 7 percent, well below our historic 18 percent growth rate. Several key executives recommended retrenching to cardiac rhythm management, which would have spelled Medtronic’s death knell as an independent company.
Instead, I asked Glen to ramp up our acquisition efforts. Within months, we made six major acquisitions totaling $13 billion and transformed Medtronic from a cardiac rhythm company into the world leader in medical technology. Had it not been for Glen’s perceptive judgment and his skill at working with entrepreneurs, this never would have been possible.
After retiring from Medtronic, Glen devoted himself to helping young entrepreneurs translate their ideas into successful companies. At his peak, he served on 13 boards, as he became the “go to” person for aspiring innovators. He could never say no and always took time to help anyone who asked. No wonder so many people loved and admired him.
Glen Nelson was a visionary, entrepreneur and pioneer. More than anyone else, he understood the intersection of medicine and technology and what advances would work inside the human body. Far beyond that, he was a compassionate leader who strove to help people both inside and outside Medtronic.
His loss will be widely felt locally and nationally, as he leaves an unparalleled legacy for others to emulate in helping people create medical breakthroughs.
Bill George, the former chairman and CEO of Medtronic, is senior fellow at Harvard Business School and author of “Discover Your True North.”
This article was originally posted to Startribune.com on 5/22/2016.