WORTHINGTON - Go ahead. Tell Kevin Donovan “no,” or that something can’t be done, or that he isn’t the man to do it.
Then sit back, hang onto your hat and hope you haven’t bet against him - because he’ll strive to make it happen, however long it might take.
“I’m used to having people say ‘no’ to me, but that pushes me all the harder to make it work,” attested Donovan, a Worthington resident and businessman for 34 years.
“But it’s hard for me to say ‘no’ when someone asks me to be on a committee, especially one that’s involved with raising money for a good cause.”
That two-pronged attitude - never letting a “no” defeat him while nearly always saying “yes” when called upon himself - has served Donovan well and propelled him to a distinctive role in Worthington at a critical time in the community’s development.
Learn about what’s pushed Donovan to a high level of personal success, community commitment and economic development vision.
Born smack in the middle of five sisters and one brother to staunch Irish Catholic parents in working class Austin, Donovan remembers attending 7 a.m. mass with his siblings each weekday. His devout mother and salesman father were willing to sacrifice in order to see their brood educated in the local Catholic school system; Donovan graduated from Austin Pacelli Catholic High School in 1972.
“With seven kids, we didn’t have a lot when I was growing up,” acknowledged the 62-year-old Donovan. “Tuition for Catholic schools was heavy. My parents taught me that with faith and a hard work ethic you can succeed.”
That determination wasn’t enough, however, to keep Donovan from letting his rambunctious personality shine through.
“In high school I played football and pole vaulted in track, and I was on the homecoming court but I was kind of a troublemaker and joker in school,” he admitted. “At that point I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life.”
Immediately following high school, Donovan didn’t think college was in the cards so he worked at a meat-packing plant for the summer and then at a speaker factory the rest of the year.
“That was enough to convince me I needed to get an education,” Donovan said.
Thus, Donovan headed to Minnesota State University-Mankato (then Mankato State University) with the idea he’d become an industrial arts/driver’s education teacher.
“Halfway through that program, I found out what a guy who was a couple years ahead of me was making in the same field - a startlingly low salary - and I decided I needed to get into business,” Donovan explained.
Ultimately, Donovan graduated with a business degree - but not before he went through a pivotal crucible that continues to impact his attitude and achievement to this day.
“The first summer I was in college, I went to work selling Webster Dictionaries, educational books and Bibles door-to-door for a national company,” Donovan said.
Donovan’s father was incredulous about his son’s money-making scheme.
“He asked, ‘Where are you going?’ and, ‘You’re going to sell door-to-door? You couldn’t sell yourself out of a wet paper bag,’” recalled Donovan.
“I said, ‘That’s true, but I can learn,’” he retorted.
Donovan initially traveled to Nashville, Tenn., where he spent two weeks in a Dale Carnegie training course with other young sales recruits.
“On the last day they told us where we were being sent to work, and we had to find our own place to stay, working on straight commission,” said Donovan, whose first assignment was in New York.
As a somewhat naïve 19-year-old from southern Minnesota, he set to work in the Big Apple, cold-calling at 80 to 100 doors daily, working 80 hours weekly, finding success with maybe 10 to 15 people on a good day and even being robbed in the Bronx.
“That’s where I got my determination to never quit, and began realizing that when I heard ‘no,’ it just meant, ‘Great, you’ve got me closer to my next ‘yes,’” said Donovan, who took the lessons of Dale Carnegie to heart; indeed, he has all of Carnegie’s books close at hand on a shelf in his office.
“Now, people sometimes tell me, ‘Kevin, you’re a born salesman,’ but I think that’s like saying someone is a born doctor,” he said. “I taught myself how to listen to people, read their responses, and it was a great, great experience.”
So great, in fact, that Donovan made enough money to pay for his subsequent college years - including a winter ski trip and spring break. The following few summers he rejoined the company, but in the role of a manager training other college kids to do the job.
In 1982, after earning his bachelor’s degree and spending a few years working for a Mankato-based company, Financial Consultants, as a real estate property manager in Rochester, Donovan arrived in Worthington.
With all the necessary securities credentials secured, Donovan signed on as a registered representative for IDS Financial Services (now Ameriprise). Five years later, he became a district manager for the company, hiring and training people across southwest Minnesota for a 12-year period.
“We have a team practice here,” said Donovan, referring to his partner and longtime office mate Elwin “Woody” Aggen.
“About 10 years ago, Woody and I became partners and owners of this Ameriprise franchise,” said Donovan. “In about five years, I’ll probably sell my part of the practice to Woody, and that’s what’s nice about a franchise - having an asset you can sell.
“I’ve enjoyed my career with Ameriprise,” he continued. “I’ve met wonderful people, and we manage over $110 million of people’s money. We take that very seriously, and we are constantly striving to do the best we can for our clients.
“The job has been very good to me and my family, and I love seeing other families flourish because of the work I do.”
But the ambitious Donovan hasn’t limited his efforts to Ameriprise; about 13 years ago, he and his wife, LeAnn, were attending a corporate awards ceremony in Atlanta, Ga., where LeAnn was being recognized for her work in managing the local Holiday Inn Express.
“We got to talking with the owners of the hotel about the need for more restaurants in Worthington,” explained Donovan.
The more they talked, the more eager the Donovans became about the concept of developing a Ground Round Restaurant in Worthington.
Although the Donovans sold their interest in the restaurant a year and a half later, they’re both delighted that it provides an alternate local dining experience and has proved a popular gathering place.
“That absolutely gives me a sense of satisfaction,” attested Donovan.
Four years ago, Donovan met Minnetonka-based developer Brian Pellowski, who proposed a plan for redeveloping the former Northland Mall site.
Although that failed to come to fruition as envisioned, Donovan and Pellowski (“We’ve become very good friends,” said Donovan) have partnered on filling a gaping hole in Worthington’s community life: bringing a movie theater back into the entertainment mix.
“We knew the town needed a movie theater,” said Donovan, “and it’s now going to be built near the Worthington Event Center.
“Then we’ll lease it to Todd Frager, who formerly ran the theater here; he also operates West Mall 7 in Sioux Falls, another one in Iowa, and manages a theater Brian Pellowski owns in Fairmont. Todd is a very experienced theater manager.”
Donovan is energized by others who share a vision of growth and improvement for Worthington, including City Administrator Steve Robinson and Abraham Algadi, executive director of the Worthington Regional Economic Development Corporation (WREDC).
“Steve has been wonderful for our community,” attributed Donovan. “He’s very easy to work with and so open to new ideas.
“And Abraham has been very good for Worthington,” he continued. “If Abraham hadn’t written a letter to Brian Pellowski, Brian would have never come to Worthington.”
Donovan says he and Pellowski are currently working on a couple of other economic development opportunities for Worthington, but the projects are not yet at the “reveal” stage.
“They will benefit Worthington, and we’ll share more about that in the near future,” promised Donovan.
Robinson is pleased with Donovan’s action-oriented efforts.
“First of all, we’re very excited that folks from the private sector have stepped forward and are willing to make the investment and take the risk to bring a movie theater here again,” said Robinson.
“It’s fun and satisfying to have the chance to offer some assistance, which is the city’s role in private sector growth - to remove barriers to economic development when possible.
“It’s great that Kevin could see the need and was willing to take on this cause, and we’re all hoping it will be successful. Kevin is an example of the type of person we need here, someone who’s willing to take on challenges and lead, largely for the betterment of the city.”
Donovan has served on the WREDC board for the past several years, and Algadi is equally as enthusiastic about Donovan’s participation as Robinson.
“I taught him everything he knows,” quipped Algadi, before seriously acknowledging that it takes differing opinions and personalities to make a successful economic development board.
“With 10 or 11 people on the board, I cherish their different approaches because everyone has unique experiences and outlooks on issues we are facing,” said Algadi.
“Kevin’s signature is questioning everything, but that’s how change is achieved. There’s an old proverb that says you can change the world with three things: with your hands, your speech or your prayers.
“Kevin’s method is by hand, by stepping in and taking action; he doesn’t just talk or pray about something. Still, it’s the variety of backgrounds and voices on the WREDC board that make things work.”
Since he first arrived in Worthington, Donovan has made time for various causes.
“Right away I became a Big Brother at the YMCA because I love kids and I was single then,” related Donovan. “The young gentleman I mentored was later in our wedding.”
Donovan’s list of community service is lengthy and includes presidencies of the Jaycees and the Optimist Club, as well as multiple committee positions with the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce, the Worthington Country Club, his church (First United Methodist Church) and other board memberships (including the Worthington Regional Hospital Foundation Board, the Worthington Windsurfing Regatta, the YMCA Big Brothers and currently, the WREDC).
“I believe in giving back to the community that has helped me,” affirmed Donovan.
Additionally, Donovan shared his skills with the two most recent Vote Yes campaigns (for ISD 518 referendum initiatives) as the volunteer finance chairman.
“I’m a firm believer in the need for a good education, and my kids got great educations here,” said Donovan. “I’ve been in the schools, and I’ve seen teachers’ desks in closets - the space needs are real.”
He also sees the direct link between further local economic development and continued investment in the local school district.
“The number one concern for anyone thinking of coming to this, or any, town, is, ‘What are the schools like?’” he pointed out.
“We need the schools, we need to keep them up to date, relevant and growing, because without that, we’ll stagnate.
“And our diversity is good; growth and change are good,” he continued. “It’s good we passed the Sunday liquor ordinance, too, because there’s not a major restaurant franchise in the country that would come here without that.”
Donovan and his wife, LeAnn, recently celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary.
“She was working at Worthington Federal when I met her; I was actually at the bank with a client when we first met, but she was dating someone else,” related Donovan.
Once again, his college summer salesmanship experience, his persistence - and his refusal to let a few “no’s” get him down - paid off.
“It took me about six months to get her to leave him and start dating me, but she did,” said Donovan.
Then his instinctive work ethic took over.
“About six weeks before our wedding, I told her, ‘You’re not going to see much of me for a while, I have to pay for this,’ so I busted my hump and was able to pay cash for the whole thing,” noted Donovan.
“I set goals for myself and I always have.”
Today, the Donovans have two daughters; Angela, who lives in Sioux City, Iowa, with her husband Brian and their two daughters, and Nicolle, a resident of Akron, Iowa, with her husband Cory and their three young daughters.
“I grew up with five sisters, I have two daughters and they’ve given me five granddaughters,” said Donovan, who’s therefore used to holding his own among females.
He and LeAnn love their home on the west shore of Lake Okabena; in addition to being with family, boating and jet skiing are favorite pastimes, as is traveling.
“We don’t want to go to the same place twice, so it’s always somewhere different,” Donovan laughed, admitting they have been to Hawaii three times; first for their honeymoon, then for a company rewards trip and finally to watch Nicolle, who played volleyball on a scholarship for Briar Cliff College, participate in a tournament there.
“I’ve liked every place I’ve been, but Worthington is my home now; I even have a burial plot pre-purchased here, so I’m not planning to go anywhere else,” he shared.
A turning point for Donovan arrived, unbidden, 15 years ago when he suffered a severe heart attack and was given a three percent chance of surviving.
“The medical staff called my family and said, ‘You’d better come in, he might not make it,’” Donovan related.
Although he knows many are dismissive of the notion, he swears he had an out-of-body experience, seeing himself lying on the operating table while doctors performed a quadruple bypass on him.
“I’d always thought I was a Christian, growing up going to church every day, serving as an altar boy and lector, but as I was lying there, surrounded by my family and a sister I hadn’t seen in years, I remember praying, ‘Let me get through this; I can’t leave my family,’” he recounted.
“I believe now that why I’m still here is to sometimes give that message to other people, that Christ is first.
“I got a second chance at life, and that’s why I appreciate my family, my friends and my clients - but most of all, Christ.”
Donovan says he’s more grateful now for everything he has - including his community - than he ever was before.
“It’s unfortunate I had to go through a major medical crisis to discover that, but I’m a better man because of it,” he avowed.
That feeling of gratitude extends to Donovan’s determination to apply his professional experiences, his time and his refusal to be defeated by “no’s” to aiding the town he has grown to love in realizing its full potential.
Affirmed Donovan, “I’m motivated to see this community advance, progress and improve.”