If you’re going to work in the dairy business, you have to get up long before the sun rises. You have to develop an appreciation for the quiet of those lonely pre-dawn hours and get comfortable driving down long country roads alone in the dark.
Mark Davis knows those early mornings well. He was up early as a teenager, working for his father’s creamery. He was up early as a college student, trying to pay his tuition at Minnesota State University, Mankato by driving the milk truck from farm to farm. He was up early as a young father, struggling to build a business that one day his children would help him run.
“It was romantic to be the only one up in town at 3:30 a.m.,” Davis remembers. “It was just me and the bakers back then.”
Davis doesn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn anymore. At 75, he no longer runs the day- to-day operations of any of the family businesses, which include Davis Family Dairies, Cambria and Sun Country Airlines. But Davis still keeps an office at the Le Sueur headquarters of Davis Family Dairies, and he still gets there bright and early most days.
“Now I get up at 5:30,” he says. “I just like to. I get a lot of reading done early in the morning— newspapers, industry journals, all of that. That’s how I like to start my day.”
Such dedication has been a hallmark of Davis’ career—and one of the traits that Al Annexstad, his longtime best friend, says has made him so successful. “He has tremendous drive,” Annexstad explains. “He’s a very bright person and is very well read on any subject you might want to get involved in. But I also think that he’s an extremely humble person. He’s the same guy I knew when we were kids.”
Annexstad thinks so highly of Davis that he nominated him for the Horatio Alger Award, which honors “leaders who have succeeded, despite facing adversity, and who are committed to both philanthropy and higher education.” Davis was one of 13 people selected as award winners in 2016, and he joins Annexstad as a member of the prestigious Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans.
“The entrepreneurial spirt and determination that Mr. Davis displays are traits that all members of the Horatio Alger Association possess,” said Bryan Trott, the president and CEO of the association. “We recognize that those who demonstrate an unwavering will to succeed—despite facing seemingly insurmountable challenges—so often accomplish what seems to others to be impossible. Mr. Davis is living proof of this philosophy.”
Mark Davis learned about hard work from his father, Stanley. In 1936, Stan Davis took an apprenticeship at a creamery in Norseland, Minn., where he learned everything he could about the butter business. The hours were long and the work was hard, but the experience paid off in 1943, when he and a partner purchased the St. Peter Creamery. That’s where Mark Davis learned about the business— and about the value of hard work, too.
“My brothers and I had the privilege of working alongside him in the creamery,” Davis says. “I saw how hard he worked and the hours he spent making that business what it was. My dad set an excellent example for all of us.”
Davis’ children give their father credit for doing the same. “We didn’t even realize that we were learning to work hard,” says Mitch Davis, general manager of Davis Family Dairies. “We were so happy just to be with him. He always set an example for us: He worked a lot, but he enjoyed the work. He put a lot of time and energy into it, and we were glad when we got to be there with him.”
Marty Davis laughs that although his father did indeed lead by example, he also had other ways of teaching his children what was right and wrong. Marty remembers driving home from the University of Minnesota for a Saturday morning shift collecting milk from farmers. When he climbed into the cab of his truck, he found a thick envelope taped to the steering wheel.
“He had written me a long letter about what he was observing about how I was handling things,” says Marty, who is now the president and CEO of Cambria. “He wrote us lots of letters, often to correct us but also to say something that he appreciated or was proud of. Then he’d tell me what I needed to change.”
“I’m pretty sure I received more letters than the others, because I needed them,” Mitch Davis adds. “I still have them, and I still read them.”
There was at least one time that Marty found his dad waiting on the curb for him when he pulled in to the creamery after a shift. One of the milk producers had called and complained that Marty had revved his engine in the farmyard, and Mark wasn’t happy about it. “He chewed me out pretty good,” Marty remembers. “He told me that it doesn’t matter what the farmer says or does, you never argue with him. The farmer is always right no matter what, because he’s the farmer—and that’s all you need to know.”
Mark Davis already understood the importance of farmers when he enrolled at Minnesota State Mankato. Although he was working toward a degree in business administration, he enjoyed his history and political science classes more. “Honestly, the business classes didn’t mean much to me until I was involved with my own business,” he says. “Then it all fell into place.”
What he remembers most now, however, is what he learned from a philosophical standpoint about the importance of competition. As an athlete—Davis played football and baseball—he already understood the value of competition.
At Minnesota State Mankato, he learned how to apply competitive theory to building business relationships.
“People live it all the time, but nobody ever really talks about it,” Davis says. “Competition drives the world. But here’s the key: You can compete with people and still be their friends.”
Davis has always placed a premium on building and maintaining relationships. Mitch says that his dad genuinely likes almost everyone that he meets. “He doesn’t pretend to like people—he just really does,” he explains. “He has a natural, trusting way with people, and you’d have to be a real schmuck to reverse that.”
“Everybody always followed my dad,” Marty adds. “He has that charisma, that personality, that touch with people. People trust him and believe in him. In all the years that I’ve worked alongside my dad, I’ve seen a lot of people respond to him and look up to him.”
Mitch and Marty say that much of their father’s success relates back to the character traits that make him who he is: persistance, optimism and trust. Both wish they were a little more like him in those ways. “I’m wired a little differently,” Mitch admits. “I have to make an effort to be more like him. I don’t have the natural optimism or trusting way that he has.”
But both also see his influence rubbing off on them. Marty, for example, has tried to adopt his father’s “curiosity-decisiveness quotient” when it comes to balancing the quest for innovation with the need to be decisive. “My dad has that balance down about as good as anybody I’ve seen,” he says.
Mitch remembers that, even after long days at work, his dad would come home and play catch with him. “Now, having my own kids, I know what a sacrifice it was,” he says. “I don’t know how he juggled it all, but he always did.”
He’s still juggling. Davis and his wife Mary make an effort to get to as many of their grandkids’ events as they can, from baseball games to dance competitions. But Mark is always ready to head back to the o ce bright and early in the morning to get a head start on his reading for the day.
Marty says that his dad is still far too young and healthy to have a legacy yet. But it isn’t hard to see what that legacy might be—and it goes far beyond the success of his business interests, which earned the family a spot on Forbes Richest Families list in 2014 and 2015.
“It’s his reputation,” Mitch says. “I have never heard anyone say anything negative about my dad. Never. Nobody in the international dairy processing industry has a bad word to say about him.” —By Sara Gilbert Frederick
Mark Davis and Al Annexstad met in third grade in St. Peter and became best of friends. They spent afternoons up at the Gustavus Adolphus campus, where Annexstad’s mother worked in foodservice. “We’d go up and have a California hamburger,” Annexstad remembers. “We pretty much grew up on that campus.”
The two still get together for hamburgers whenever they can—although Annexstad now spends most of his time in Georgia, while Davis makes his home in St. Peter. “Just last week we had dinner together in Minneapolis,” Annexstad said in September. “We try to see each other as often as we can.”
Davis’ wife Mary is also best friends with Annexstad’s wife Cathy. “They grew up in Le Sueur together and are lifelong friends as well,” Annexstad says. “We’re pretty lucky that we married gals who are best friends, too.”
Annexstad says that one of the reasons that he and Davis have remained friends for more than 60 years is because they understand their own unique strengths—and admire what’s dfiferent about each other. “We definitely don’t have the same personality,” he says. “We are similar in our drive to succeed, but not in personality. We complement each other, which is why we’ve been able to be friends for so long.”
“We’re really lucky to have this friendship,” Annexstad adds. “It’s really a treasure.” —S.G.F.