Biography

Giving all to improve the human condition

From rural communities across the Upper Midwest to remote villages in Ghana, Africa, in research labs, exam rooms and at patient bedsides, the transformative power of Denny Sanford’s generosity is immeasurable.

To date, the philanthropist has given Sanford Health nearly $1 billion to care for people around the world and to develop the next generation of treatments and cures. He is a driving force in modern medicine, empowering researchers and clinicians to think big and pursue bold, innovative endeavors at a pace not otherwise possible.

 

Early life in St. Paul

Denny Sanford was born on December 23, 1935, to William B. and Edith Sanford. He was raised, along with his older brother, Byron, in a working-class neighborhood of St. Paul, Minn.

At just 4 years old, Mr. Sanford lost his mother to breast cancer, leaving a painful void in his life. By age 8, he was working at his father’s wholesale garment business. Every day after school, he caught a trolley downtown to spend afternoons sweeping floors and stocking shelves.

Following high school graduation, a brush with the law marked a turning point in Mr. Sanford’s life. A judge gave him an ultimatum to either attend college or serve a full sentence in juvenile detention.

Mr. Sanford wisely chose the latter and enrolled in the University of Minnesota.

While at college, tragedy again struck the Sanford family when Mr. Sanford’s father died of heart disease. Mr. Sanford took it upon himself to console his younger half-brother, Chuck, and became something of a father figure to the young man.

He managed to continue his studies and in 1958, Mr. Sanford graduated with a degree in psychology.

Rise to success

Shortly after college, Mr. Sanford was recruited to work in sales for Armstrong Cork Company, a manufacturer headquartered in Pittsburgh, Penn. He quickly excelled as one of the company’s top-performing salespeople. Nevertheless, when he approached his boss about a deserved $50/month raise, his request was denied due to company policy.

With that, Mr. Sanford struck out on his own.

In the 1960s, he established Contech, Inc., a national company based in Minneapolis, Minn., that manufactured sealants, coatings and adhesives. He also married his first wife, Anne, and welcomed two sons, Scott and Bill.

In 1972, Mr. Sanford took Contech public at $5 per share. Ten years later, in 1982, he sold the company at $35 per share, earning considerable profits for his shareholders and making himself a multi-millionaire.

At that point, with his two sons grown and in college, Mr. Sanford was ready for relaxation and a warmer climate. At the age of 47, he retired and moved to Florida. He pursued passions, including golf and sailboat racing, but soon grew restless.

 

Back to business

Mr. Sanford’s retirement was short-lived. He still had an entrepreneurial impulse and returned to the Twin Cities in the 80s to establish a venture capital firm.

The firm, Threshold Ventures, provided financing to young entrepreneurs. Of the 28 companies that Mr. Sanford financed, 18 went on to become successful public corporations.

In 1986, Mr. Sanford received an urgent call from a friend who needed to sell his bank located in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Mr. Sanford accepted the offer, purchasing the bank and changing its name from United National Bank to First PREMIER Bank.

He recruited a handful of bright young executives, including Miles Beacom and Dana Dykhouse, who helped First PREMIER flourish and expand to include PREMIER Bankcard. Both organizations are now among the nation’s leading credit card providers.

The success of these companies allowed Mr. Sanford to think bigger about his legacy. Remembering his own humble beginnings and the hardships he endured as a child, including the devastating loss of his mother to breast cancer and father to heart disease, he grew passionate about creating a healthier, more hopeful future for children.

“It’s fine to be successful,” Mr. Sanford said. “But what do you do with it? How do you impact people? That’s really a credo that I live by.”

 

Success to significance

While contemplating his legacy, Mr. Sanford agreed to meet with Kelby Krabbenhoft, president and CEO of Sioux Valley Hospitals and Health System in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Krabbenhoft presented Mr. Sanford with his vision to build the region’s only free-standing children’s hospital. If Mr. Sanford would donate $16 million to the project, Krabbenhoft pledged to raise the remaining $16 million needed to make the dream a reality.

Mr. Sanford briefly considered the proposal before responding, “OK. Let’s do it.”

That meeting sparked a philanthropic partnership and friendship between the two men that would shape the future of health care in Sioux Falls and beyond.

Krabbenhoft made good on his promise to match Mr. Sanford’s gift and construct the children’s hospital, but he had even bigger ambitions for the health system.

A historic gift

In 2005, accompanied by Becky Nelson, Sioux Valley Medical Center president, and Brian Mortenson, Sioux Valley Foundation president, Krabbenhoft flew to Mr. Sanford’s home in Vail, Colo.

While there, Krabbenhoft laid out an aggressive plan to accelerate medical research and expand health care delivery. He then made the audacious ask for a $400 million gift, and for Mr. Sanford’s consent to rename the organization Sanford Health.

Mr. Sanford agreed to both, joking to the group, “I guess we should all be happy my name’s not Krabbenhoft.”

 

The transformation of Sanford Health

On Feb. 3, 2007, Krabbenhoft stood before a crowd of hospital employees and business leaders in downtown Sioux Falls to announce Mr. Sanford’s $400 million gift — the largest known gift to an American health care organization.

“Pay careful attention,” he said. “History is being made, and you are witnessing it.”

That historic gift propelled the health system from a small regional provider to one of the largest health systems in the nation. Today, Sanford Health operates 44 medical centers, 482 clinics and more than 200 Good Samaritan Society senior care locations across 26 states and nine countries, expanding access to cutting-edge care to thousands of patients and families.

“It transformed our worldview,” Nelson said. “And it transformed our whole culture with the attitude that ‘we can.’”

Mr. Sanford’s gift and continuing generosity to Sanford Health also catalyzed the “Sanford Initiatives,” a collection of bold research and patient care endeavors that are confronting some of the world’s most urgent health challenges:

 

The Sanford Initiatives

The Sanford Project

The Sanford Project is focused on ending type 1 diabetes, a chronic disease that impacts more than a million Americans.

Sanford Imagenetics

Launched in 2014, following a $125 million gift from Mr. Sanford, Sanford Imagenetics is working to fully integrate the tools of genomic medicine into primary care for adults.

Sanford World Clinic

Sanford World Clinic carries the power of Sanford Health around the globe, partnering with communities to build a sustainable health care infrastructure and ensure underserved populations have access to the care they need.

The Edith Sanford Breast Center

Honoring the legacy of Mr. Sanford’s mother, whom he lost to breast cancer, Edith Sanford is revolutionizing the future of breast cancer care and research.

fit

fit is designed to help children adopt healthy lifestyle habits, and ultimately combat the rising obesity epidemic, through a holistic approach grounded in scientific and behavioral research.

 

“Most physicians can only dream of what it would be like to practice not only on the cutting edge of medical advancement but also working to fundamentally change how patients are treated,” said Eric Larson, MD, a Sanford Health physician. “The creation of this environment does not occur spontaneously. It requires great leadership and generosity at a level not previously seen.”

Giving it all away

In 2010, Mr. Sanford signed the Giving Pledge, joining the world’s wealthiest individuals and families in committing to give away the majority of his wealth.

He has professed a desire to “die broke,” and has thoughtfully invested in causes close to his heart. In addition to donating nearly $1 billion to Sanford Health, he is a generous supporter of other health care and research institutions on both coasts, children’s causes and education initiatives.

“My motto is to ‘Aspire to inspire before you expire,’” Mr. Sanford is fond of saying. “Do something for someone else. Get them inspired.”

Now in his 80s, Mr. Sanford maintains a youthful exuberance, living up to his nickname, WOLT, for “World’s Oldest Living Teenager.”

While he takes his philanthropic and business investments seriously, he is also passionate about golf and traveling, and cherishes time with his grandson, William.

 

Legacy

Mr. Sanford has ignited a spirit of philanthropy in the Dakotas and beyond. Today, Sanford Health is a testament to what is possible when people think beyond themselves and take action to improve the human condition.

“I strongly believe that it’s not enough to just achieve whatever level of success we can while we are alive on this earth,” Mr. Sanford said, “but, rather, take whatever we have and turn it into something significant.”