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Lee Schafer

Columnist | Business
Phone: 612-673-4302

Lee Schafer joined the Star Tribune as a columnist in 2012 after 15 years in business, including leading his own consulting practice and serving on corporate boards of directors. He's twice been named the best in business columnist by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, most recently for his work in 2017.

Schafer grew up on a southwest Minnesota cattle farm and studied history and economics at Macalester College. He received his masters degree from Northwestern University and worked as a writer and editor for a regional business monthly before returning to business. His work included investment banking but he had the most fun advising CEOs on growth strategy. He lives in St. Paul with his wife Tanya Bell, a real estate development consultant and civic leader, and they have three adult daughters. He's also been active as a volunteer, including for Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, Neighborhood House and Urban Homeworks.
Recent content from Lee Schafer
Charles Scharf, chief executive of Wells Fargo, in a 2020 file photo.

Schafer: It's OK for banks to make money, if it means their customers are doing well

Credit loss accounting is an important measure of bank health and was a telltale sign of how the pandemic affected the economy.
Pressure has been growing for raising pay at the low end of the wage scale. This rally for a higher minimum wage was held at the Minnesota State Capit

Schafer: CEO pay is broken, but what about low-wage pay?

The debate over the outsized pay to executives is going nowhere. But the action at the low end of the wage spectrum is interesting.
The averages look eye-popping, but they don’t tell the whole story about the “greatest wealth transfer.”

Schafer: The biggest transfer of wealth in history is underway, for some

Some well-off boomers are going to be turning over a big slug of wealth to some very lucky millennials.
An artist’s rendering of the Lexington Station apartments, proposed for a site on Lexington Parkway in St. Paul.

Schafer: Rent control is always popular, but it never works

In St. Paul, there are a lot of people who can't afford the rent. Putting rules on landlords won't solve that.
Schafer: How a hugely valuable startup succeeded without inventing anything

Schafer: How a hugely valuable startup succeeded without inventing anything

Bright Health went public last week in Minnesota's biggest-ever IPO.
Even C-suite executives are deciding to work remotely more often as the pandemic comes to an end, relying on Zoom and other technologies to connect.

Schafer: Good luck with management by Zooming around

Bosses can learn a lot by wandering around the office.
As the end of the pandemic arrives, some businesses are finding that the challenges they faced before it happened are still there.

Schafer: Back to normal means the normal challenges are back, too

The news that General Mills is cutting jobs after its stellar response to the pandemic, and the results that followed, shows that going back to where things were was never going to be easy.
Americans can become richer on paper as their assets appreciate and still pay no federal income tax.

Schafer: Making a lot of money and being rich are not the same thing

An attention-grabbing article on the income taxes paid, or not paid, by some of America's wealthiest people framed its analysis poorly.
Some bosses are worried that hybrid work could lead to misplaced priorities and inefficiency.

Schafer: Let's keep hybrid work from being the worst of both worlds

The best workplaces will have people connecting all the time with each other across the organization chart.
After investment values rose this past year, some people can afford to retire. But that’s not the total explanation for why employment is rebounding

Schafer: Retirement trends show that work just might not be worth it

The cost of work has gone up and pay is still catching up.
Kaltuma Hassan, owner of Bismillah Grocery & Coffee shop, is shown in a photo taken a few weeks after the establishment was burned in the riots on Lak

Schafer: Developers should look beyond destruction and see waiting customers

The opportunity on Lake Street and in the other damaged areas still exists.
Best Buy took several measures to shore up the company’s finances during the pandemic year.

Schafer: For Minnesota's biggest companies, share buybacks signal recovery from downturn

Others may get worked up about the effects of share buybacks, but they don't give me heartburn the way that, for instance, executive compensation does.
Shopify CEO Tobias Lutke with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in May 2018 in Toronto. Lutke stressed to employees in a memo that Shopify is a b

Schafer: Workplace can't be just about work, so employees need an outlet

Keeping the conversation from spiraling into forever wars isn't just up to the managers, though.
Enjoy Technology sends knowledgeable sales representatives, depicted in this company-provided image by the woman on the left, to meet with consumers i

Schafer: Commerce at home is the newest 'New Era in Retailing'

Loup Ventures of Minneapolis thinks one of its portfolio companies called Enjoy, about to go public, represents the next thing in retail.
Car prices, even for used cars, are rising as a shortage appears because of reduced production of chips needed inside them.

Schafer: Why cars, chips, lumber and other goods are suddenly more expensive

Small changes in end-user buying lead to bigger swings in the operations of suppliers down the value chain.
The Kwai Tsing Container Terminals in Hong Kong on April 7, 2020.

Schafer: Supply chain shows its resilience in pandemic

The case for long supply chains remains intact, so long as they are flexible and adaptable.
A Wells Fargo bank branch in New York City.

Schafer: Banks resist racial-equity audits, but they shouldn't

Wells Fargo and other big banks have recommended shareholders vote down racial-equity audit proposals.
One out of three millennials said they were planning to look for a new job once the pandemic eases, according to the Prudential Pulse of the American

Schafer: How bosses can prevent employee churn at pandemic's end

Workers have reported high levels of burnout.
Glen Taylor in his North Mankato office. (GLEN STUBBE/Star Tribune)

Schafer: There's good reason to believe Glen Taylor's Timberwolves pledge

Taylor's efforts to keep the NBA team in Minneapolis should be successful.
Andrew Dayton wants  to fight poverty in the Twin Cities.

Schafer: A Dayton brother tackles a new horizon, efficiency in philanthropy

Constellation Fund is built on the notion that relying on objective evidence is the way to direct money into the most promising programs.
Houses usually are built by hand, one at a time and on-site. Because of how this model works, bigger homes are more profitable.

Schafer: Mpls. Fed economist explains how modern monopolies hurt workers

The kind of monopolists described in this research don't just charge a lot for their product. They keep far lower-cost substitutes from ever reaching consumers.
Banks at first tried working together, hoping to resolve the looming Archegos crisis, then a free-for-all resulted. File photo of pedestrians outside

Schafer: Another week, another scandal unmasks an investor with a gambler's mind

Archegos Capital Management seems pretty typical of what you might call modern Wall Street.
Marine veteran Raymond Dutrieuille, 59, received a dose of COVID-19 vaccine recently at the Minneapolis VA.

Schafer: As vaccine rollout makes progress, you can feel the mood change

We are stuck in the In Between Time — approaching normal for some, not close to normal for others and plenty of stress in managing both.
Schafer: An actual investment produces something, and the rest is gambling

Schafer: An actual investment produces something, and the rest is gambling

The sports-card collector and dealer Rob Hunegs said his market is as hot as it has been in 30 years."The market is also fluctuating, much…
Abir Sen, chairman of Gravie

Schafer: How Gravie nudged into insurance, keeps finding capital

Minneapolis health insurance firm Gravie got its start in 2013 and it's still progressing nicely, as it's just about to announce that it's closed on…
Target is leaving its City Center offices in favor of a “Flex for Your Day” approach for the 3,500 employees who work there. The company will reli

Schafer: There's value in offices, even if Target says it's declining

It might be easy to forget, after hearing Target Corp. say last week that it will empty a huge downtown office tower, that Minneapolis before…
A 40-year bull market in bonds is coming to an end and that's leading to a rotation of investments in stocks.

Schafer: As inflation looms, the bond run ends and investors scramble

Investment analyst Michael Batnick, blogging at the Irrelevant Investor this week, posted what he called the most important chart of the decade. It had nothing…
SPS Commerce CEO Archie Black encourages executives and business owners to first look inside their own businesses before jumping into a high-profile p

Schafer: How a St. Thomas professor helps execs learn 'historical recovery'

If business executives are still puzzling over how to make a difference on racial injustice, they can start by going back to class. That's what…
Minnesota’s power companies don’t really count on wind turbines to contribute much during cold snaps.

Schafer: Wind turbines aren't a problem, but there are some on the road to carbon-free power

Three electric space heaters were running at our house the whole weekend of Valentine's Day, when it dropped to 19 below zero here in the…
In contrast to the 2008 recession, retirement savings weren't hurt in the 2020 downturn. But many people who were put out of work last year were i

Schafer: Sure, retirement savings for many held up in 2020. We should still do better.

Sometimes even the good news stories in this era of COVID-19 don't turn out to be all that good, and so it is with the…
Delta Airlines is extending its middle seat blocking policy through April 30.

Schafer: How Delta fared better than other airlines while leaving middle seats open

A lot of people must only care about price when buying airline tickets.Nothing else explains why there's not only travel websites such as Expedia but…
Aaron Kardell, founder and chief executive of the Minneapolis software firm HomeSpotter LLC, has taken up an unexpected hobby: coding.

Schafer: Why the search for satisfaction at work is crucial and sometimes elusive

Aaron Kardell, founder and chief executive of the Minneapolis software firm HomeSpotter LLC, thinks he might have written his first computer program when he was…
Gov. Tim Walz, at a press conference last month.

Schafer: Walz's strategy for EVs could leave dealers stranded with models

The governor's desire to change Minnesota's auto market relies too much on rules rather than incentives.
The weathered sign at Mendota Work Camp No. 1.

Schafer: The difference between relief and stimulus is all the difference

The historical marker is weathered to the point it is mostly gone. And there's not much else to see but a stone chimney.But any regulars…
K-tel headquarters in Plymouth, when the company announced interest in e-commerce.

Schafer: Objectives are new, but the action on Robinhood last week wasn't

Last Thursday, the stock trading firm Robinhood Markets inadvertently said it would block its users from purchasing the shares of Best Buy Co., traded under…
Omar Ishrak, shown at his first Medtronic shareholders in 2011. Photo by Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune.

Schafer: Why 'blank check' companies are all the rage

Back before Omar Ishrak retired last year as the chief executive of Medtronic PLC, run out of Fridley, it's unlikely the board ever gave him…
Armando Camacho, who took over as the Wilder Foundation’s CEO last summer.

Schafer: In a tough year, donors came through for Minnesota's charities

Donors to Minnesota nonprofits were surprisingly generous last year.The total from Give to the Max Day in November blew through the previous donation record,…
Kris Eul, co-founder of Kinetic

Schafer: How Kinetic, a new networking site from Minnesota, aims to stand out

The social media site LinkedIn stopped being useful the day I logged on to find someone I knew who could introduce me to a consultant…
Americans don’t trust businesses, don’t trust nonprofits, don’t trust their media sources of information and they really don’t trust their gov

Schafer: Distrust is all around, especially in America

The authors of the annual Edelman report on people's trust in major institutions should be forgiven for declaring a bankruptcy in their most recent annual…
Decided when to sell is a huge moment for any business owner, and not even the pandemic stands in the way for some.

Schafer: It may not look like the right time, but plenty of business owners head for the exits

It made sense when consultant Julie Keyes said last week that the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the plans of baby boomers who had hoped to…
People protesting the presidential election results inside the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. The Capitol building was placed on lo

Schafer: If last week's chaos can't get CEOs involved for the civic good, what can?

The breathtaking actions of the mob incited by President Donald Trump to rush the Capitol Wednesday made it nearly impossible to keep your eyes off…
No one can be sure that emptied-out downtown Minneapolis will stay that way for long after the pandemic abates.

Schafer: Office life will change, but the need for offices won't

One item that stood out in this typically slow season for business news is the sale of a downtown Minneapolis parking lot to the global…
Schafer: I couldn't finish my annual financial review, so I started thinking bigger

Schafer: I couldn't finish my annual financial review, so I started thinking bigger

Earlier this year I took my annual financial planning and year-in-review tasks off the to-do list.The only real goal left after about the Fourth of…
FILE - In this Jan. 12, 2012, file photo, Bob Dylan performs in Los Angeles. Universal Music Publishing Group is buying legendary singer Bob Dylan’s

Schafer: What's behind the big decision Bob Dylan just made

Universal Music Group's recent announcement that it acquired the song catalog of Bob Dylan was light on details, like how much it paid, and…
A Help Wanted sign is posted at a Designer Eyes store in Miami.

Schafer: America has a dropout problem, and I'm not talking about schools

About 4 million fewer Americans are in the workforce now than at the start of the year.This is not about unemployment. About 19 million…
Black Friday shoppers file into Best Buy for the electronics retailer's early 5 a.m. opening Friday in Richfield.

Schafer: Two Minnesota retail giants pay their workers when it counts most

Of 13 big retailers reviewed by research staff of the Washington, D.C. -based Brookings Institution, Best Buy was the top giver of additional compensation to front-line workers.
Al Lindell, head election judge, handed an "I voted" sticker to a voter from behind a plexiglass barrier as voters gathered for the election Tuesday a

Schafer: Election revealed an economic paradox: Those doing well voted for change

What was already a very divided country remains one. And one of the biggest dividing lines is economic.
A for sale sign outside an Edina home in July 2014.

Schafer: Why the well-off should be thankful for good fortune

In the past 30 years, the share of wealth held by the bottom half of American households has been cut in half to less than 2%.
This artist’s rendition shows Dollar General’s planned DGX store on the Nicollet Mall.

Schafer: Why Dollar General's store in downtown Minneapolis could be a good thing

Dollar General might have taken the place of Walmart as a retailer thought to both serve its customers well yet make communities worse. For those…
Target on Lake Street in Minneapolis. Its "drive up” service is booming. It allows customers to order over a smartphone and drive to the store once

Schafer: Industry leader says e-commerce changes at retailers is here to stay

The pandemic has brought at least five years of progress in the transition to shopping online in eight or nine months — or maybe it’s…
Jim Paulsen of the Leuthold Group.

Schafer: We all have COVID fatigue, yet there's reason for optimism

It doesn’t seem easy to tell the difference between COVID fatigue and depression. What constitutes the real differences is best left to the pros, but…
Officials work on ballots at the Gwinnett County Voter Registration and Elections Headquarters, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, in Lawrenceville, near Atlanta.

Schafer: You are on your own financially in America, voters said once again

Those looking for a clear-cut election decision must have been disappointed last week, with more divided government both in Washington and here in Minnesota. Yet…
Foundations, as rich as they are, often use their money to “seed” programs.

At a moment of great need, how wide should charities and foundations open their wallets?

Philanthropy is another industry, if you could call it one, debating what to do now when doing business as usual just has to be wrong.…
A congressional panel criticized the Treasury's early execution of the Paycheck Protection Program. But for many small businesses, access to the bailo

Why the PPP bailout worked for some small businesses and not others

A congressional staff report this month on the Paycheck Protection Program didn't have much good to say about the Treasury Department's execution of it. The…
Thompson Aderinkomi, co-founder and CEO of Twin Cities-based Nice Healthcare and a founder of a few previous companies, said you could succeed without

Schafer: Virtual conference Remo relies on good old-fashioned art of storytelling

And curiously, the virtual technology seemed to bring the stories more to life.
Xcel Energy’s Sherco Power Plant in Becker, Minn.

Schafer: What looks like a giveaway to Google is actually a bet against decline in Becker

As much as people hate taxpayer assistance for big businesses like Google, doing nothing won't be popular, either.
A Zara store posted a large "Now Hiring," sign in its window in Miami Beach, Fla.

Schafer: People giving up on work is another sign that this recession is worse

And it's a message that employers and policymakers ought to be thinking more about.
As the temperature crosses below the 45-degree threshold, more restaurants are going to be relying on their delivery and takeout business.

Schafer: Winter is coming, and the restaurant owners all know it

Minnesotans shouldn't treat this like a normal winter.

Schafer: Venture capitalists willing to fund insurance startups who try to crawl over 'wall'

These firms are very much still startups, and you can hear a little Silicon Valley-style language in how they talk about themselves.
Paul John Scott

Schafer: Debut novel by Rochester author takes on big pharma issues

It wouldn't be possible to write so clearly about a complex industry without a deep understanding of it.
In 2019, Cleveland-Cliffs celebrated the completion of the company's DR-Grade Pellet Project at Northshore Mining in Silver Bay, Minn.

Schafer: It would be nice to say the latest big deal in steel is good for Minnesota

Honestly, it's too hard to tell yet what the Cleveland-Cliffs-ArcelorMittal transaction means.
Big companies have held up better than small ones in the pandemic-induced recession. File photo of the New York Stock Exchange.

Why bigger companies are faring fairly well in this downturn

The strong stock market in 2020 has been one of the biggest surprises in a year full of them, and we've heard the explanations, from…
The idea of new deal is that Allina Health will get a significant amount of its revenue based on how well it keeps 130,000 members of Blue Cross and B

Schafer: How Allina, Blue Cross define the 'value-based' trend sweeping health care

It's a term that's close to meaningless to an industry outsider.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter has pushed is a form of guaranteed income for St. Paul residents: a program where low-income households could receive $50

Schafer: From the left and right, ideas flow for an income floor

Economist Milton Friedman and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter share an idea.
Six months after the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in earnest, few of us knew that many would still be working at home.

Schafer: We are working harder to adjust to the here and now of the pandemic

Six months into the pandemic in the U.S., the picture does not look that much clearer.

Schafer: Private equity won't fill Minnesota's pension gap

There's no quick and low-cost way to sell the private assets and no real-time price for what they are worth.
An affiliate of Walton Street Capital of Chicago bought the Hilton in downtown Minneapolis for $143 million, renovated part of the building and then r

Schafer: Home real estate may be immune to the pandemic, but commercial properties aren't

It's easy to guess where it's really painful, with social distancing keeping lots of people from shopping in stores or staying in hotels.
Attorney Joe Cotchett, left, gestures beside Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, right, and his wife Janet Hill during a zoom media conference on Thursday

Schafer: Pandemic-driven virtual conferences may be here to stay

The marketers at Minnesota’s media companies came up with clever State Fair T-shirts this year after all, like Minnesota Public Radio’s “The Great…
People shopped at a Target in Brooklyn, N.Y., in May. Target reported record growth in the second quarter.

Schafer: Diverging effects of the pandemic visible in the numbers at Target, Walmart

It has long been understood that these two companies have a different core customer, even with a big overlap in merchandise at similar prices.
Rob Weber, co-founder and managing partner of Great North Labs, in a 2019 file photo.

Schafer: Can a downturn actually be the right time to start a business?

Recessions do seem to create more incentive for potential customers to look for cheaper or more efficient ways to do things.
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, expecting a huge NFL payday, is pushing to play this season.

Schafer: Will it take a pandemic to finally change college sports?

Without money, the unfairness in the way risks and rewards were spread around gets exposed.
Caesar Russell, cycling instructor for Wellbeats, a St. Louis Park-based firm that offers videos and other online fitness programs.

Schafer: The best-kept secret in town? An at-home workout provider takes off in the pandemic

Usage of the fitness and wellness coaching service of Wellbeats skyrocketed, but this was not some sort of accident.
Terry Rasmussen, CEO of Thrivent Financial, shown in 2019.

Schafer: How Thrivent is gently raising its distinctive profile in a moment of change

A new marketing campaign aims to build more awareness of Thrivent as a financial services business that remains interested in helping people live a life of greater purpose.
The once-beloved SuperAmerica stores here aren’t even called SuperAmerica anymore. They got rebranded to Speedway.

Schafer: SuperAmerica, a well-liked Minnesota brand, has seen six owners churn through in a decade

Even for a time swirling with deals, this recent history seems absurd.

Lack of diversity among top executives contributes to racial wealth gap

Wealth inequality does not get nearly the attention it deserves, and nothing like the focus on income inequality.It's the hand-wringing over the role played by…