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  Laird Koldyke '89

Alumni Profile: Laird Koldyke '89

Kindling kinship
As chairman of his family's seventh-generation company, Laird Koldyke '89 works to perpetuate a legacy

by Deborah Leigh Wood

By day he's managing director of Kip-Reese-Koldyke, a Chicago-based private equity and advisory services firm.

By night and on weekends he's chairman of the board at the Laird Norton Company, a financial services and building products distribution company. The seventh-generation, family-owned firm is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

Laird Koldyke '89, a fifth-generation member, says he finds being chairman gratifying, but is quick to note that he doesn't run either of the company's enterprises.

"We turn that over to outside management," he says. "My responsibility is to keep our family together and maintain the Laird Norton way of doing business."

To remind him of this commitment, a large, labyrinthine family tree hangs in Koldyke's office. At the top are William Harris Laird, and brothers Matthew George Norton and James Laird Norton, who founded Laird Norton in 1855 in Winona, Minn. Since then, the company has expanded to include ventures in building-supply distribution, wealth-management and trust services, and several philanthropic foundations.

As chairman, Koldyke is responsible for appointing CEOs and recruiting board members to Laird Norton's various companies, which are located mostly in the Pacific Northwest and employ a total of 11,000. It's a job he's well suited for, says John Ward, clinical professor of family enterprise and co-director of the Kellogg School's Center for Family Enterprises.

"Laird is a gifted leader who appreciates the special challenge of linking a rich culture of well-established traditions with fresh vision and strategies for the future," Ward says.

Koldyke says his biggest challenge as chair is maintaining family confidence in the business. That includes preserving family legacy and nurturing existing pride in the 335 members who make up the fourth to seventh generations, which include Koldyke's wife, Dede '92, and their children Carleton, Winona, Prentiss and Dutch.

In addition to a password-protected family Web site, there's Woodstock, the Journal of the Laird Norton Family. The quarterly newsletter is filled with business-related items, news of philanthropic ventures, accounts of births, weddings and vacations, and even essays and poetry by younger family members.

Laird Norton family pride peaks every summer at a four-day retreat and business meeting held at a resort in the Pacific Northwest. Held since 1995, the event's thrust is educating future leaders, Koldyke says.

"Family members under age 14 attend Camp Three Tree, where we 'inculcate' them with family harmony and a sense of allegiance and alliance to the business and to each other," he explains.

Children 14 and older are required to attend the annual meeting, "so they get a sense of where their peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches come from," Koldyke says with a smile.

Laird Norton pride is nowhere more evident than in Sixth Sense, a group of 100 sixth-generation cousins who rallied themselves in 1999 after attending the yearly retreats.

"They came to the retreat and said, 'We'd like a voice,'" Koldyke says. "They wanted the philanthropic responsibility and have created a community service project each year, always hands-on, such as rebuilding hiking trails or working with other community-based outreach centers."

Philanthropy and social responsibility seem to be the glue that holds the family together, he says. 

For his part, Koldyke is a founding member of the Springboard Organization, which seeks to improve Chicago's economically challenged neighborhoods, and the San Miguel School, which aims to provide innovative education to underprivileged children in Chicago.

Koldyke is a former trustee of Northwestern University and says he looks forward to "more years of active involvement with NU." For the Chicago native, it's one more way of strengthening his roots.

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University