Lessons learned in Fort Dodge forged Boake Sells’ business career
It was a seminal moment in Boake Sells’ life as he and his wife Marian loaded up their belongings in a U-Haul to move with their two young children from Fort Dodge for a new job in Milwaukee.
He was 29 and in his first job out of college. He worked for a phone company, but lost the job for “lack of humility” after a dispute with bosses on marketing strategy. He then worked in hydraulic sales for a Pocahontas company before starting work as a manufacturer’s rep for hydraulics from the basement of their Fort Dodge home. But it “went broke,” he said.
It was on Christmas Day 1966 when the young Sells family began its 360-mile drive to Wisconsin that seeds were being planted for a career that led to high-level leadership positions in three major U.S. companies: Cole National Corp. of Cleveland, Dayton Hudson (now Target Corp.) of Minneapolis and Revco Drug Stores (later bought by CVS Corp.) of Cleveland.
The boy left Fort Dodge, as they say, but Fort Dodge never left the boy.
Through the ups and downs of the business world, Sells never forgot the example set by his parents for all four of their children: Boake, Josephine (Jo, who died of cancer in 2014), Greg and Tim.
“My mother was the powerhouse in our family from the standpoint of discipline,” Sells recalled. “The one thing we all remember about Louise was her mantra – ‘never explain, never complain. There’s no quit in this operation.’ With my father, the quintessential hard worker, he was up at 4:30 a.m. and went to work. My career, I got up at 5 for my entire career. If I have something to think about, I want to do it before the sun comes up.”
Sells was born in Estherville, the firstborn of Louise and Lyle Sells, who were both from Fort Dodge. The name Boake came from a British commentator named Boake Carter:
“He was on the radio in 1936 and my mother liked what he had to say,” Sells said.
The family had strong Fort Dodge roots. His mother’s father, C.W. Gadd, was president of the State Bank and his father’s father, Jim Sells, was a used-car salesman for Swaney Motor Co. and worked until he was 94. Lyle Sells, who wrestled at Fort Dodge Senior High (he was a national wrestling champion) and played football at Cornell College, worked for a car repossessing firm in Estherville when Boake and Jo were born. The family moved back to Fort Dodge when Lyle went to work for Coats Loaders and Stackers, then later with New Idea Manufacturing before he joined Ed Pederson to form Pederson and Sells Equipment Co.
Estherville schools offered no kindergarten at that time and Boake developed scarlet fever as a child, so when he entered second grade at Lincoln Elementary, he was behind in reading and “for the first time in my life when I really got helped, a teacher named Minnie Looft helped me learn how to read … I looked her up years later and sent her a letter thanking her for saving my life. I was a basket case. Thank God for her.” (Minnie lived to be 108.)
Among his best friends in high school were Phil Joselyn and Tom Schweiger.
“Phil died (in 2018), but Schweiger and I see each other every year,” he said. “I have never had better friends and I’m 83. Phil Joselyn’s dad was my dad’s best friend. It doesn’t get better than that. Phil was the best man at our wedding 61 years ago and I was best man at his. When Phil died, I came back to give the eulogy.”
“In those days, life revolved around the Expo Pool and Dodger Stadium,” Sells said, recalling a favorite story: “In junior high, the YMCA held a Monday night dance called a sock hop. Schweiger and I joined the Boy Scouts. One night the Boy Scout troop leader came to the Y and demanded Tom and I choose between the sock hop or scouts. And that was it for Boy Scouts.”
Sells was a 6-foot-4 athlete at FDSH, competing in football, basketball and track.
“Those coaches were massive in my life,” he said, mentioning Forest Marquis in football, Connie Goodman in basketball and Ben Duea in track.
Sells, who graduated in 1955, excelled as an end on the Dodger football team and remains thankful for the support of Messenger sports editor Bob Brown in being named first-team All-State.
Sells was awarded the Nile Kinnick academic-athletic scholarship at the University of Iowa and played for Coach Forest Evashevski. (“How many can say that their high school and college coaches had the same first name, Forest,” he said.) His playing time at Iowa was sparse, he said – “I was the live blocking dummy for All-American Alex Karras” – but he was a member of the Hawkeye teams that went to two Rose Bowls, in 1957 and 1959.
At Iowa, he pledged to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and became the roommate of Frank Bloomquist, who had competed against him in high school for Waterloo East and was an academic All-American as a guard and drafted by the Washington Redskins. “We became very, very good friends.”
Sells graduated with a business degree and when he had to shut down his manufacturer’s rep business in Fort Dodge, Bloomquist invited him to join him in his own hydraulics business in Milwaukee.
Shortly after arriving there, Bloomquist – who earned an MBA from Harvard University – encouraged Sells to apply for the program. “I was 29 and owed money to the bank, but he said, apply and tell them what the deal is. I told them, if you take me, you’ve got to loan me money to drive there and pay my rent and I’ve got two kids. I did have some commissions money coming in from my business as a manufacturing rep. I entered the Harvard Business School in 1967 when I was 30.”
After Sells’ first year at Harvard, Walter Salmon, a marketing professor on the board of Cole National Corp., a diversified specialty retailer, helped him land a summer job in New York City with Cole and that led to the company paying for his second year at Harvard, Sells said.
After earning his MBA in 1969, Sells joined Cole – whose operations included optical departments in Sears and Montgomery Ward stores and key-making kiosks across the country – and assigned him to run an optical business in Cleveland. In his 14 years with Cole, he rose to become its president and chief operating officer.
In the early 1980s, Cole decided to go private, Sells said, and he left to take a position in 1983 as vice chairman of Dayton Hudson in Minneapolis. He was elected to its board and became president and COO – working with Carroll, Iowa, native Kenneth Macke, chairman of Dayton Hudson. Target Stores was its biggest division and in 2004 Dayton Hudson renamed itself Target Corp. (Macke and Sells competed against each other in high school basketball; Macke ribbed Sells that his Carroll High School team beat FDSH, but Sells retorted that he had outscored Macke and made up a t-shirt to that effect.) Macke died in 2008.
In 1987, Sells joined Revco Drug Stores as chairman and CEO of the then 2,000-store chain. He led Revco out of a four-year bankruptcy by closing stores, cutting debt and beating back takeover threats. He left Revco in 1992 and went into the private equity business.
“Throughout all this I had some success in leading people,” Sells said. “If you’re not good with people, do something else.
“I give Fort Dodge credit for that. In a small town, in school they needed you for everything – sports, choir, plays, debate – they wanted you because they didn’t have enough kids. I didn’t grow up with the philosophy that in order for me to win, somebody had to lose. In big cities, they have 5,000 in high school. I grew up believing you and I could grow up doing the same thing and no one lost. In business, I was all for my people getting a better job somewhere else. I wanted each of them to be as much as they could be.”
Sells met his wife Marian Stephenson, at Iowa where she earned a degree in education. She grew up in Oskaloosa, where her father was high school principal. They were married in 1959 and have three children: Damian, who is a self-employed real estate broker in Covington, Ky., and has two children, Claire and Julia; Brian, who owns a personal finance business in Denver, and Jean Ann (Koprowski, married to Kris), who owns a catering business in Cleveland.
He and Marian live in Cleveland and are snowbirds to Naples, Fla., during the winter months. Golf and bridge are among favorite activities. He is a voracious reader of public policy books and is widing down his work as an “angel investor,” one who provides financial backing for small startup companies or entrepreneurs. He has one company left – a software business for auto repair shops.
“In our early married years, we liked art,” Sells said, “drawings and paintings. We bought what we could afford. We never collected art that’s well known or valuable, only collected emerging artists. We both have interest in theater. We had season tickets to the Guthrie in Minneapolis when living in Fort Dodge and saw 7-8 plays a year.”
Sells is a lifetime trustee of the Cleveland Play House, where he once served as president, and was a director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland. He earlier served on the board of directors of the Guthrie.
Sells’ brothers Greg and Tim worked together as rehabilitation consultants for Sells & Associates, Inc., of Sacramento, Calif. Greg said that in the business’ early going, Boake would send encouraging notes that he would keep and read from time to time.
Said Tim, “Bo has always had the winner’s approach to business: don’t ruminate about the past, act in the now and prepare for the future.”
Sells has been away from fulltime work for decades, but he’s remembered by those whose lives he touched during his career.
In a story last summer in Twin Cities Business, Monica Nassif – who developed upscale cleaning products that were sold in 15,000 stores – told how she got the equivalent of an MBA education in the 1980s by working closely with Sells when they both were at Dayton Hudson.
“I learned a ton from this guy,” Nassif recalls, especially when she would do store walk-throughs with him. “Through his eyes, I learned to view the shopping experience for consumers,” she says. Sells pressed her to identify product trends, critique merchandise displays, and describe flaws she saw in the stores.”
Those who learned under Sells are widespread in the business world, but Sells said he doesn’t consider himself as a mentor – either in his working days or now.
“Being raised in Fort Dodge, I entered adulthood implicitly trustful of everyone,” he said. “Was I ever disappointed? Of course, but the initial trust brought great insights from every corner of whatever universe. I was a question asker, not answerer. People who worked for me were sure they were respected for their minds. More than anything else, that is what they tell me, even today.
“Trust, respect, persistence, determination, and luck. Did the trick for me. I think it is fundamental to being married for 61-plus years as well.”