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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Spring 2010
Volume 12 Issue 1

Sharing His Success

Ginnette Miller working with students

Al Annexstad ’67 overcame the odds to attend college and succeed in business. Now his family is helping other students do the same.


In the latter part of the 19th century, the writer Horatio Alger produced more than 100 popular books that featured rags-to-riches stories of impoverished young people who made good through a combination of personal ingenuity, character, and "pluck."

Fast-forward a hundred or so years to a private ceremony held at the U.S. Supreme Court on April 8, 2010.

Justice Clarence Thomas welcomed a group of 11 distinguished Americans—including Al Annexstad, Minnesota State Mankato alum and chairman of Federated Insurance in Owatonna, Minn.—as the recipients of the 2010 Horatio Alger Award (other honorees included former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Gen. Tommy Franks, former commander of the U.S. Army Central Command).
The Horatio Alger Association is a national organization that has funded more than $70 million in scholarships since its establishment in 1947. Its award is presented to persons who, like Alger's heroes, "have overcome great adversity and humble beginnings" to achieve tremendous success.

Annexstad has done both.

He was born on a dairy farm near St. Peter, Minn., the youngest of four children. His father passed away when he was only five, leaving his mother to raise him and his siblings as she worked in a college cafeteria for the next 40 years.

Those early experiences provided Annexstad with both an incredible drive and a deep desire to attend college himself.
He worked several jobs as he put himself through school. He took his first job delivering newspapers at age nine; then during his senior year in college, an acquaintance suggested he might be interested in a sales job with a company called Federated Insurance. He was. He has remained with that company for more than 45 years, rising through the ranks to become chairman of a business that employs more than 2,600 people nationwide.

Annexstad's background eventually led him, his wife Cathy, and their two children to create the Annexstad Family Foundation Scholarship Program in 2000. The Foundation offers debt-free scholarships at several colleges and universities for students who've been involved in the mentoring organization Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS), in part because Annexstad credits much of his success today to the caring adult mentors who similarly encouraged him in his early years. To date, the Foundation has provided scholarships to more than 140 students with an ultimate objective of serving 1,000 students or more.

Brendan Sjodin, a soon-to-be senior at Minnesota State Mankato, participated in BBBS, which pairs "littles" (children) with "bigs" (the adults who volunteer to serve as positive adult role models) as a child. Sjodin, who's studying economics with a financial emphasis, applied for and received a four-year scholarship through the Annexstad Family Foundation. He initially enrolled at a private college but dropped out during his sophomore year, admitting that he wasn't taking school seriously enough.

"I thought, oh God, I just lost everything," Sjodin says of his generous scholarship. But Annexstad wasn't willing to give up on him. Annexstad told him if he returned to school, the money would still be there. Sjodin then enrolled at Minnesota State Mankato, where he's having more success—and where he's been happier as well.

"He is a happy, cheerful, really down-to-earth guy," Sjodin says of Annexstad. "He brings out the best in everybody around him. With the level of success he's achieved in his life, he's not one to give up, and he wouldn't give up on me, either."

Jennifer Polinder, a sophomore graphic design student at Minnesota State Mankato, is also attending college on an Annexstad scholarship. "When I got the scholarship, my first thought was, ‘Wow! It's amazing what one family can do for so many students,'" she says. "It's a wonderful thing they're doing."


The Annexstad Answers

TODAY asked Al Annexstad to reflect on business, philanthropy,
the role of mentors, and what he’s learned over the years.

Q: The Horatio Alger Association recently honored you. Alger's stories reflected a "rags to riches" life story that's been well documented in your own history. Do you feel that it's still possible for someone from humble beginnings to become successful in their career through sheer pluck?

A: While in some ways it may be a good deal more challenging today to rise from humble beginnings, I still think stories of success remain very possible in America. I have learned that the most successful people are most often those who have a clear vision of what they want to achieve. They then incrementally set out to fulfill this dream with ever-expanding knowledge, tireless energy, and a relentless passion for excellence. And this lifelong process is driven by an uncompromising desire to always, always do the right thing.

Q: People talk about making their own luck. Do you feel that applies to you, and if so, what do you think that you did right that allowed that to happen?

A: I recall an age-old expression that says, "The harder I work, the luckier I get." I think this has applied to me and to most of the so-called "fortunate" people I have come to know over the years. When I was young, I unfortunately lost my father to an untimely death. In the years that followed, my mother instilled in me that I would have to find a way to make it in this world on my own. In doing so, however, she reminded me that I must find a way to achieve success while also helping others along the way realize their dreams as well. I have never forgotten her good advice.

Q: You've been very involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters over the years. What do you feel this program gives both young people and the older mentors that they can translate into valuable life lessons?

A: The evidence is overwhelming that the intervention into the lives of at-risk children by caring, conscientious adults can have a dramatic effect upon the course of their lives. Unfortunately, today far too many kids are at risk of being lost to temptations and choices that can lead to trouble. These wrong turns can eventually be very costly, both for these young people and society as a whole. BBBS has for more than a century helped match underserved children with adult mentors who are coached to help show these kids a better way to lead their lives, so that they follow on a path to becoming productive members of society. Time and again the young people and their mentors look back upon these experiences as being truly life altering—for both of them.

Q: What is your greatest joy—both personally and professionally?

A: Personally, I find great joy in seeing my family secure and happy and, very importantly, sharing the values that my wife Cathy and I have tried to instill in them. We are very blessed. But this blessing carries with it an obligation from our hearts to give something back. Our Annexstad Family Foundation has been a tremendous rallying point for our family as we fulfill our mission of helping deserving young people realize their dreams of a college education.
Professionally, I find great pleasure in seeing others accomplish great things in their careers. I would advise prospective young employees to carefully assess the culture and history of a company to see that its values coincide with theirs. Over the long term, employees will more often place a higher value in their careers upon important intangible things than merely items like compensation and benefits. Doing meaningful work, taking on challenging assignments, receiving the recognition and respect of one's peers, and working for an organization that is making a significant contribution to society—all are of great significance to people who seek rewarding careers.

Q: Many people who have been fortunate in their lives believe it's important to give back. How does that thinking apply in your life?

A: Giving back is something that financially successful people—indeed, most people at some level—should do, but for the right reason. If philanthropy is to be meaningful, it must reflect one's values. In this way, charity can be sustained so that people in need truly benefit while those fortunate enough to be able to give back can realize a genuine sense of purpose and the knowledge that their community will be a better place.

Q: What is the single best piece of advice you've ever received?

A: Many years ago, a business owner who had mentored me offered some sage advice as I contemplated my future. He reminded me that the most successful people in life make a habit of doing things that less successful people either can't or won't do. The more I thought about his words, the more I came to realize he was right, especially as my career progressed. Maintaining a high level of personal discipline in our careers is seldom an easy undertaking, especially with so many distractions in life to take us off course. Things like being an early riser, carefully planning one's time and setting challenging goals all add up to good things over time.

In the end, I believe great careers are built one choice at time. I think you will find that the most successful people are the ones who consistently do the so-called little things that make customers and their fellow employees feel good about their relationship with them.