Kellogg World Alumni Magazine Summer 2007Kellogg School of Management
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Bright spirits shine at Reunion 2007

'Excellence has no bounds'

Putting wealth to work
Wendy Nelson '99
Gregg Steinhafel '79
Ann Drake '84
Robin Brooks '79
Jim Rose '86
Clare Muñana '89
David Kohler '92
Linda Johnson Rice '87
Ellen Gordon
Anthony Faillace '94
Just profits
Looking East for a world of business insight
A legacy of learning
Quant catalyst
'We knew smarts'
The 'right' guy goes home
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  Wendy Nelson
  NU trustee and Kellogg graduate Wendy Nelson '99 is on board to develop her family's hotel business.

Unique career path leads Wendy Nelson '99 to feel 'at home' in hospitality

Wendy is a true friend to Northwestern University through her involvement as a trustee.  She is a 1991 graduate of NU's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a 1999 Kellogg graduate.  As co-chair for a recent athletics initiative, Wendy has helped raise new endowment funds in support of Northwestern athletics.

By Rebecca Lindell

Philosopher, pro tennis player, restaurateur, venture capitalist, hotelier: Wendy Nelson '99 has pursued what many would call a nontraditional career.

Nelson wasn't always sure where each step would lead, but she followed her guiding principles: to work with passion and learn as much as possible from each new experience.

Today it's clear each move led logically to the next. And now, Nelson is able to draw on all her experiences to maximize the value she creates for her family's global hospitality business.

"At each crossroad, I've been willing to take a calculated risk," says Nelson, vice president of Carlson Hotels Real Estate Co. "I've been able to fight through the fear of not having the expertise. I realized I could go out and find most of what I needed just by being persistent."

As Nelson works to build the long-term equity of brands such as Regent and Radisson hotels, her life lessons frequently come into play.

Nelson's earliest passion was tennis. As a teen she considered playing professionally, but her prowess on the court earned her an athletic scholarship to Northwestern. She joined the university's tennis team and took full advantage of Northwestern's liberal arts curriculum. Her interest in ethical decision making led her to pursue a major in philosophy — a field full of questions and "gray areas."

"Rarely in life do you have all the facts you need to make a decision," Nelson says. "You have to interpret data and use reasoning and intuition to make your best choice in the context of your experience and values."

Upon graduating, Nelson's first career choice was tennis. She joined the pro circuit for a year but discovered the tour was far from glamorous. At times, she found herself on a court "in the middle of nowhere," with few spectators. "It was a great lesson in persistence and in being motivated to win for myself," she says.

Soon, Nelson began to think about other career possibilities. She enrolled in a few business classes. "I had the feeling that I had an entrepreneurial spirit and wanted to build something," she recalls.

That opportunity came when her former coach — Nick Bollettieri, coach and mentor to the likes of Andre Agassi and Monica Seles — tasked Nelson with creating a restaurant for him. Initially nervous, Nelson rose to the challenge. Studying business books at night and meeting with potential investors by day, she went on to open a successful 200-seat sports bar and grill.

The experience reinforced Nelson's interest in business, and she returned to Northwestern to earn her MBA. Upon graduation, she joined Lake Capital, a private equity firm, where she helped to consolidate middle-market businesses to expand their reach.

After a few years, Nelson's mother began asking her to apply her entrepreneurial skills to the family business: Carlson Companies Inc., one of the nation's largest privately held firms valued at $34-billion system-wide.

Nelson thought carefully about the invitation, eventually accepting a role as vice president of real estate development for T.G.I. Friday's U.S.A., one of the Carlson brands. 

"I did feel a sense of duty and responsibility to my family, but I was also excited because this was a business I truly loved — restaurants," Nelson says, noting that her mother is the company's chairman and CEO. "I believed we had a great brand and huge opportunity for growth."

She spent three years developing the TGI Friday's business before moving up to her current position with the company. Charged with building the portfolio of owned and managed assets, Nelson says she thinks constantly about how to create maximum value — and the long-term impact of each decision.

Fortunately, Nelson has spent most of her life preparing herself for the task. "I'm still learning every day," she says.

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