Oftentimes, when looking back on one’s life, there are a few phrases that stick out among the rest.

For Jim Conn, 78, that statement of advice outlines three key phases of life: Learning, earning and returning.

Conn spent his childhood years in Alexandria and returned to live in the area later in life.

As a 10-year-old, he discovered his knack for business by gathering a dozen worms and frogs in exchange for a nickel at Lund’s Bait Shop.

Although he took a slight detour in college and his early career to pursue engineering, Conn spent the majority of his professional life in head positions of businesses.

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And since retiring, Conn has sought out ways to serve others with his extra time and slower lifestyle.

“You need to take those things, those valuable lessons you’ve learned in life, and try to give something back,” he said.

Phase one: Learning

With his father mostly absent as a traveling salesman and his mother running a household of six children, Conn, being the oldest, would go off on his own solo adventures.

“I had no restraints when I was a youngster,” Conn said.

He and one of his neighbor friends would take a tractor into the woods and barge into trees. The top of one of them fell onto Conn’s head and knocked him out cold.

“We made our own fun,” he said. “That’s what I would classify as adventure at that stage of life.”

When his family still lived near the Twin Cities, Conn’s father would take him flying. Even though Conn was less than 8 years old, his father would prop him up on his briefcase and let him steer the plane.

That’s what planted the seed of his love for aviation. Over the course of his lifetime, from his first airplane ride with his father in 1947 to his current volunteer flying expeditions, Conn estimates he’s flown more than 6,500 hours.

Not long after his woodsy expeditions collecting bait for the local shop, Conn started a summer business in his teenage years called Lakeside Spraying. He used his father’s tractor to spray resorts and residences for mosquitos.

Conn attended St. John’s University to study pre-engineering but stopped part-way through to enlist in the Air Force, where served as a missile systems analyst.

He later completed his mechanical engineering degree at the University of Minnesota, but had doubts about pursuing a lifelong career in the field. But by the time he tried to switch into the business program, he wasn’t able to make the change unless he stayed in school for another year.

Wanting to finish his education and move on, Conn started applying for engineering jobs. After checking with his wife Anita on a cold, February day, he accepted a job as a test engineer for the Navy in Hawaii, where he rode on fast attack nuclear submarines and destroyer class surface ships.

Jim Conn and his wife Anita visited Pearl Harbor in 1970. Jim accepted a position as a test engineer for the Navy, so he and Anita lived in Hawaii for four years. (Contributed photo)
Jim Conn and his wife Anita visited Pearl Harbor in 1970. Jim accepted a position as a test engineer for the Navy, so he and Anita lived in Hawaii for four years. (Contributed photo)

Phase two: Earning

But after spending four years in Hawaii, Conn said business still beckoned. After his father announced his retirement, Conn relocated his family to Fargo, N.D., to take over the business Wood & Conn.

“I thought I knew everything when I was younger,” Conn said. “I thought I was the smartest person that there ever could be in business.”

In retrospect, Conn said he’s realized there were significant mentors who helped him along his path: His business partner at Wood & Conn, a farm equipment supplier, and his later boss in Rice Lake, Wis.

Conn described these mentors as those who stood back and guided him, making sure his ship wouldn’t be steered off course in one direction or another while providing support for Conn in his wake.

In the course of seven years, he helped Wood & Conn grow its annual revenue from $300,000 to $4 million. Including the Redwood Falls branch, that number doubled $8 million. Conn even started flying his own airplane to call on dealers.

Although he enjoyed the good times, one of the biggest lessons Conn said he learned from his six decades of business experience was that he learned the most about success when times were tough.

When the farm economy turned south in the early 1980s, Wood & Conn’s revenue dwindled from $8 million to $2 million. He had to cut employees, pay back $1 million of overdue loans and eventually file for bankruptcy, while his business partner, Dave Wood, quit.

Although it took a few years, the business’ reorganization worked. It was a downsized version of its former state, but Wood returned to the company. Conn, however, was mentally worn out and had lost his passion for the business, so he announced his resignation without another job prospect in sight. He asked around in his hometown of Alexandria and his wife’s hometown of Rice Lake, Wis., which is where he landed his next business job.

Conn switched gears and became the vice president of sales and marketing for Rice Lake Weighing Systems for a decade. From 1985 to 1995, he helped sales revenue grow from $8 million to $40 million and the staff count rose from 85 to 300 employees. Conn also took on additional responsibilities as chief pilot for the business, overseer of the company’s new aviation department and airport commission chairman while a new city airport was being constructed.

“It was substandard, it wasn’t safe,” Conn said of the old airport. “So, I decided to get involved.”

While he juggled these three full-time responsibilities, Conn said he was losing his grip on the fourth: Devoting time to his young family.

Conn looked up to his father as a successful businessman and family provider, so he followed in those footsteps, even if it meant he wasn’t home very often.

“Those were the genes I grew up with, and I couldn’t help but not,” Conn said. “As I was helping grow businesses, knowing that I was neglecting my kids, I didn’t seem able to do anything about it because I was so driven, so consumed.”

If there was ever a deep-rooted fear in his life that went mostly unnoticed, Conn said it would’ve been his fear of not having a job to be that family provider.

He left his job of 10 years to partner with Northwest Venture Capital in Minneapolis. Conn said he missed the ownership role in business, so his goal was to purchase a small manufacturing company in Fridley through his new role. The company did buy out the small business StreamFeeder and implemented a new management system. Conn helped expand the business model to $12 million with 40 employees, continuing that pattern of growth from previous positions.

“In the earning phases, acquiring was very important to me,” he said. “Acquiring from the standpoint of supporting my family, taking care of my family financially. That was just such a driving force.”

From left to right, Jim, his wife Anita, their three children (Laurie, Jackie and Brian) and Jim's parents (Clair and Monica Conn) gather in front of Jim's plane in 1977. After his father's retirement, Jim took over as co-owner of Wood & Conn and helped lead the business into a seven-year growth period. (Contributed photo)
From left to right, Jim, his wife Anita, their three children (Laurie, Jackie and Brian) and Jim's parents (Clair and Monica Conn) gather in front of Jim's plane in 1977. After his father's retirement, Jim took over as co-owner of Wood & Conn and helped lead the business into a seven-year growth period. (Contributed photo)

Phase three: Returning

In the early 2000s, Conn took odd jobs as a contract pilot and moved back to Alexandria so he could serve as a primary caregiver for his elderly parents. They tore down their lake cabin and built a residential home so he and his wife could stay in the area year-round.

“I was winding down in terms of my business career, so the logical thing was to move to Alexandria,” he said.

Conn spent a few years as a partial owner and managing partner of the Glenwood-based business Thawzall, which makes heaters for construction and industrial use. He then worked as a business development manager at the aviation business Tanis, which Conn planned to eventually buy from the owner.

Instead, his departure from this role marked the conclusion of his entrepreneurial career.

After his retirement, Conn has continued flying and giving back by providing free flights for individuals who need assistance getting to medical appointments.

He started a few years ago with veterans, but those flights were often national and too far for Conn to travel. He found two other organizations to work with, LifeLine Pilots and Angel Flight Central, which are much more regionally focused.

He receives email updates almost every day, describing potential trips to transport people.

“All of a sudden, I’m like a kid in a candy shop going, ‘Wow, look at all the reasons and excuses I have to go flying,’” Conn said.

But as he’s gotten older, he’s noticed his reflexes, hearing and vision start to fade. Conn must retake a physical evaluation every year to maintain his aviation license.

“I’ve always had a tremendous amount of energy, and I’ve always been able to channel and focus that energy to accomplish the things that I really felt needed accomplishing,” Conn said. “It’ll be a very sad day in my life when I am no longer capable of flying, when the time comes that I can’t help other people out.”

In another act of giving back, Conn was a guest featured on a four-part podcast through WeMentor, where he outlines his career, life path and lessons for budding entrepreneurs and small business owners.

Above all else, Conn said he wants to be remembered as someone who gives back, utilizing what he learned and earned in order to return those gifts to others.