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Dave Olson and Patrick Springer, Published July 25 2010

Sanford Health: What’s in a name?

The man whose name is now identified with the largest health care system in the region gave away more than $700 million between 2004 and 2008 but remained on Forbes magazine’s billionaire list as recently as last year.

Before he dies, Denny Sanford, 74, plans to give away every penny he has.

“He really treasures the opportunity to see things of great impact take place during his lifetime,” said Brian Mortenson, president of the Sanford Health Foundation, the fundraising arm of Sanford Health, a hospital system that has benefitted from Sanford’s giving and which merged last year with Fargo’s MeritCare.


Sanford was born in 1935 in St. Paul.

He lost his mother to breast cancer when he was 4. His father, who ran a clothing distribution company, died of heart disease when Sanford was 20.

Sanford graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1958 with a degree in psychology.

After college, he was recruited by Armstrong Cork Co. as a sales and marketing manager.

He left Armstrong in 1960 and formed a manufacturers’ representative company that promoted technical construction products through architects and engineers.

Sanford subsequently started a distribution company and in the early 1970s acquired a construction materials business called Contech.

When Contech was sold in the early 1980s, Sanford’s share of the proceeds was $20 million, according to Forbes.

Sources of Sanford’s wealth include a multi-branch bank based in South Dakota, which was renamed First Premier after Sanford purchased it in the early 1980s for about $5 million.

A subsidiary credit card operation, Premier Bankcard, has been particularly profitable. In 2006, it had $310 million in pre-tax profits, about three-fourths of which came from fees, according to Forbes.

Name changer

In 2007, Sanford pledged $400 million to Sioux Valley Health, a South Dakota hospital system that was quickly renamed Sanford Health in honor of its benefactor.

Last November, Sanford Health merged with MeritCare Medical Center to form Sanford Health & MeritCare.

This past week, the name was shortened to Sanford Health.

Amidst ceremonies marking the occasion, Sanford explained why he concentrates much of his philanthropy on children:

“Invest in children because they don’t have a voice,” he said.

“They’re the future of this country anyway, so what better investment,” Sanford added.

The South Dakota businessman had reassuring words for people in the Fargo-Moorhead area who might worry about the implications of the hospital merger.

“These people will deliver,” he said. “Everything they tell you, they will deliver.”

Giving back

In 2009, Business Week named Sanford the 15th-most generous philanthropist in the United States for giving $706 million from 2004 to 2008.

In 2008, he gave $30 million to the San Diego Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, which was formed in 2006 to expand work in stem cell research.

In turn, the organization was renamed the Sanford Consortium.

According to the consortium:

Sanford formed the Denny Sanford Foundation for charitable giving in 2001 and since then has given

$16 million to build the Sanford Children’s Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D., and $20 million to the University of South Dakota for the Sanford School of Medicine.

He also donated $15 million to the Mayo Clinic for the T. Denny Sanford Mayo Clinic Pediatric Center and $500,000 to the HealthEast Foundation in St. Paul for the William Sanford welcome center at Bethesda Hospital.

Other acts of philanthropy include a $70 million pledge made in 2006 to the state of South Dakota for the Sanford Science Center at Homestake Mine in Lead.

In 2003, it was announced Stanford would give $35 million for a proposed football stadium for the University of Minnesota under a deal that would have given him naming rights.

The arrangement faltered when the university and Sanford could not finalize an agreement and TCF Bank secured naming rights for the new stadium.

Last year, the University of Minnesota accepted a $6 million donation from Sanford, and the athletic hall of fame within TCF Bank was named in Sanford’s honor.

At the time, Sanford said he was grateful to his alma mater.

“Particularly because they took a kid from St. Paul in the bottom 25 percent of the high school graduating class,” Sanford said, adding that his heart will always be with the school.


Mortenson, who has worked closely with Sanford, confirmed Sanford’s goal is to donate his wealth before he dies, but he intends to do it carefully.

“There are good ways to give away money and less effective ways,” Mortenson said, adding that Sanford’s preference is to have a very small number of focuses rather than making hundreds, or even thousands, of grants on an annual basis.

“He has really adopted kind of a transformational philanthropic activity, as opposed to incremental,” Mortenson said.

Sanford has a home in Sioux Falls, S.D., and also maintains homes in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Vail. Colo.

In an interview during his recent stop in Fargo, Sanford acknowledged that losing his mother at an early age is one reason many of his charitable contributions target children.

Noting Sanford Health’s focus on health care for children, including a search for a cure for childhood diabetes, he said, “We’re trying to promote good. I kind of look at this as the Mayo for children.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555