Alumnus Craig Omtvedt
“Take charge of your life. Decide what you want to do in two or five years, and map out a plan.” That’s the advice Craig Omtvedt ’72, CFO of Fortune Brands, gives to business students. Omtvedt should know. From setting pins in a bowling alley in West Duluth to CFO of a Fortune 500 company, Omtvedt’s plan was to take on ever-greater responsibility, and his trajectory has been straight up.
The events that transpired were remarkable. “If someone at UMD had told me I would've had half of these experiences, I would have simply asked where do I sign up,” Omtvedt said.
He joined Fortune Brands in 1989 and ultimately became as senior vice president and chief financial officer. The companies and brands he led are well known: Titleist, FootJoy, Cobra Golf, Waterloo Industries, Masterbrand Cabinets, Moen, Master Lock, American Lock, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Windsor Canadian, Sauza Tequila, Courvoisier Cognac, and VOX Vodka, to name a few.
This past year, Fortune Brands broke into separate entities. Omtvedt continues to serve as an advisor to the successor company, Beam Inc. He is a board director of Cincinnati-based General Cable Corporation, the Oshkosh Corporation and is a member of the Standard and Poor’s CFO Advisory Council. He previously served as an advisor to the PCAOB ( Public Company Accounting Oversight Board).
“I grew up in Smithville, a neighborhood in West Duluth.” Omtvedt said. His father sold Electrolux vacuum cleaners, door-to-door. His mom was a homemaker. As a small boy, Omtvedt would shine his dad shoes for 25 cents a week. He had a paper route. He worked at a bowling alley. When he turned 16, he began working 38-hour weeks as a gas station attendant and mechanic. “My dad used to tell this story. When I was five years old, my Sunday school teacher asked if anyone knew what a prophet was. I raised my hand and told her a profit is the money you have that’s left over.” Omtvedt’s business sense came early.
Omtvedt credits his success to his father. “My dad was a phenomenal guy.” Omtvedt said. “He challenged us not to blindly accept authority, but instead to think for ourselves and to do what's right. We were to speak up, but do it respectfully. He also never told us what to do. Once, I wanted to buy a motorcycle, and he asked me to think about what I would do in the winter. He didn't tell me I couldn't buy it.”
Omtvedt’s father was an inspiration. “It was very moving to me to see the overflowing crowds of people at his funeral. People from every phase of his life came, people he worked with, and neighbors. The foster boys who lived next door to us and many other people spoke to me of kind things my dad did for them. He was highly principled and cared deeply about his family and friends. That's the environment I grew up in.”
At UMD, Omtvedt started in engineering but switched to business, finance, and accounting. By that time, he was working in the controller’s department at Sears. He was also the business manager for the Statesman, the campus newspaper, and took it from near-bankruptcy to a solid footing.
“The greatest gift I received from UMD was the quality of faculty,” Omtvedt recalled. He had Jerrold Peterson for an economics professor just as Peterson arrived at UMD. “The overview of micro- and macro-economics Professor Peterson gave us still stays with me today.” He remembers his faculty members in business administration, Hyung Kon Kim and Chip [Chester] Sorensen, as well as Dwaine R. Tallent who worked with the Bureau of Business and Economic Research. "I’ve met graduates from Harvard and Yale, and I’ve met graduates of UMD,” Omtvedt said. “Because the faculty is so good, UMD alumni can stand right up to the best.”
After graduation, Omtvedt landed a position in corporate operations at Sears. First, he worked in Green Bay in a controller position. “That’s where I met my wife, Jane. It was love at first sight.” From there a series of positions at Sears took him to Minneapolis, to Dubuque, Iowa, and to Chicago. He joined The Pillsbury Company in Minneapolis for four years.
“While I was in Hawaii on a vacation with Jane, a recruiter for American Brands called,” Omtvedt said. “Six months later, I was in Greenwich, Connecticut, as the global head of international audits.” He took on increasing responsibility. “The hallmark of American Brands and its successor, Fortune Brands, was their true focus on shareholder value,” he said. “We weren’t afraid to take risks and to stay versatile.” Over the years, they sold the tobacco companies and concentrated on golf, home and hardware products, and spirits. They brought the business back to Chicago. During Omtvedt’s tenure as CFO, Fortune Brands delivered a total shareholder return that was nearly double that of the S&P 500.
Omtvedt is happy to share his business insights. “I don’t believe in profit at any price. At Fortune Brands, we did what was right for the shareholders; we delivered a sustainable company; and we demanded absolute integrity.” Omtvedt said the company was successful, because they treated employees with fairness and respect.
He said business isn't really as complicated as people like to make it. “I have a test that I’ve always used to frame financial problems,” he said. “I ask myself what I would do if I were spending 100% of my own money, instead of the company’s money.”
A New Chapter
His greatest personal achievement is his continuing role as a national trustee for the Boys and Girls Club of America. “It’s a passion for me,” Omtvedt said. “I believe every kid deserves a fair start, and the Boys and Girls Clubs do an amazing job. They help kids with academics, life skills, leadership building, recreation, and a lot more.” He led big Midwest fundraisers including the golf events. In 2011, they raised over $600,000 by putting on the largest one-day golf event in the country. Through the years, Omtvedt and his committee have raised over $4 million for the non-profit. In November 2011, Omtvedt was honored at the Great Futures Chairman Dinner by the Boys and Girls Club for his contributions and fundraising activity.
“The stars aligned to allow me to retire early,” Omtvedt said. “I'm excited to enter another chapter in my life. I want to play golf and learn Spanish. The world is too exciting of a place, and I have too much energy to slow down. I want to do more charity work, more consulting, and continue to serve on the boards I work with now.”
Written by Cheryl Reitan, December 2011