State Chamber of Commerce leader dies
ST. PAUL — For more than two decades, David Olson was a passionate advocate for the state’s business community as president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.
Olson, 57, died Wednesday after an 18-month fight with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His passing led political and business leaders to salute his life, leadership and good humor, even from those who didn’t agree with him on every issue.
“David was a gentleman in the best sense of the word,” Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement. “He was an excellent leader for, and advocate on behalf of, his members.”
Olson began as Minnesota Chamber president starting in 1991, pushing pro-business policies as the leader of one of the most potent lobbying forces at the state Capitol — the group represents 2,300 Minnesota companies and more than 60 trade associations.
He embraced business-friendly policies to ease taxes and regulations to promote jobs and economic growth. Yet Olson also championed opening educational opportunities to underserved communities, and urged greater transportation funding.
“He loved our state,” said Bill Blazar, the chamber’s senior vice president of public affairs and business development. “He worked every day to make it better and loved being engaged in anything and everything that would make our economy stronger.”
With Olson at the helm, the chamber led an effort that repealed a sales tax on business-to-business transactions. In 2008, the chamber advocated an amendment that secured significant transportation funding. In 1995, Olson led a drive that eventually resulted in workers compensation reform.
Olson insisted on listening to individual member concerns, engaging businesses of all sizes and types during his tenure. The chamber’s thousands of business members didn’t always see eye-to-eye on issues of the day. But the approach paid off — its 95 percent member retention rate was recognized as the highest among state chambers for five consecutive years.
“He inspired and challenged us to see beyond our differences and channel our collective skills and talents to make Minnesota a better place to live and do business,” leaders of the pro-mining group Jobs For Minnesotans said in a statement, later adding, “He was passionate about jobs and business and growth.”
In March 2013, Olson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and until recently, it looked like he may be winning the battle following chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant.
“He received the ‘all clear’ on June 18th,” the Minnesota Chamber wrote to its members Thursday. “Unfortunately, his ‘all clear’ was not long lasting. His cancer came back with a vengeance. He fought a hard fight.”
State Rep. Kurt Zellers, now a Republican candidate for governor, said Thursday, “David Olson was a strong leader who worked hard to get things done. He lived his life and integrity and humor, and was truly a class act.”
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., cited Olson’s “memorable sense of humor and undeniable work ethic” along with an openness to working across party lines to help Minnesota business.
In recent years, Olson became heavily involved in workforce development programs. He served six years on the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Board of Trustees, including three as its chair.
MnSCU’s current chairman, Thomas Renier, cited Olson’s tireless work to invigorate the system and open it up to underserved communities.
“He firmly believed that you could combine the best of higher education with sound business practices, so it is no surprise that David’s time as chair is remembered for a staggering list of accomplishments measured both by business benchmarks and academic standards,” Renier said in a statement.
Olson also served five years as president of the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce and worked as a staffer in economic development, transportation and energy in the Greater Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce.
Olson is survived by his wife, Carolyn, and sons Erik and Nick.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.