By Jesse Marx
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"We went down to Venezuela this past year and met the Nigerian Ambassador," Proudfit says, pushing his untouched plate forward and folding his napkin. "We were in this beautiful home, having dinner. It was just a social affair. But by the end of the evening, we were down on our knees, down on the floor praying. Tears were running from his eyes. To this day, I bet he remembers being on the floor, praying about the children starving in Nigeria. Because that's where his true heart is. Not to just politely shake someone's hand, but to figure out what really moves them--that's my job."
As a young man, Proudfit says he had no idea that "God was alive." He didn't set foot inside a church until he was a teenager. Since early on in his life, though, he's been ambitious, driven by the work ethic of his generation. "My father was a workaholic. I'm a workaholic. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day," Proudfit readily admits, with the signature dash of hyperbole no one in his circle faults him for.
He doesn't talk much about his late father, or his life as an only child, except to say that it was hard-scrabble. His father was a saloon keeper in St. Paul at a time when liquor and organized crime were synonymous. Listen all you like, you won't hear any anecdotes from that era, no vivid details. Just vague phrases like "rough stuff--rough, rough stuff." "What's important," he'll tell you, "is that my father wanted something better for his son. When I was in the fifth grade, he sent me to a private school."
While in high school at Breck, Proudfit earned a spot on the all-state basketball team while pulling down mediocre grades. After graduation he attended a pre-military-academy prep school in Minneapolis with the hope of improving his academic standing, then, in 1951, went to Kings Point--a training academy for the Merchant Marines. For 12 months he sailed from Italy to Spain to Morocco, loading fuel onto American bombers bound for the Korean War, and shipping munitions to Yugoslavia. (To this day, he daydreams of traveling around the world on his own boat. He could afford it, but there's so little time, so many children....)
After coming ashore, Proudfit married, spent a couple of years teaching wannabe cadets at his old prep school, then took a job in sales at a custom molding business in St. Louis Park. Six years later, in 1961, he started his own plastics company out of a double garage in Wayzata, molding parts for some of the first desktop calculators. By 1963, business for Proudfit's Cardinal Industries--a custom plastic and rubber parts producer still in operation--was booming.
Every six months, Proudfit says, he and his associates expanded the business twofold. At the end of the 1960s, small towns in Texas and South Dakota--hoping to create blue-collar jobs and solidify their tax base--were busy wooing Cardinal away from Minnesota. When a Milwaukee company approached Proudfit with an emergency order that needed to be turned around in a matter of days, he moved into action and relocated his employees to Aberdeen, S.D. Within 48 hours, Cardinal had a production line up and running.
It's this kind of opportunism, Proudfit says, that eventually led Cardinal to build a trio of plants and employ hundreds. And though he won't be specific about numbers, the company made him a wealthy man by the mid-'70s: a millionaire.
Proudfit's favorite story has become a sort of legend among born-again Christians who've heard it. And who knows? Thousands more, come the dawn of 2000, may be telling the tale by candlelight as they munch on Future Foods' fortified rice.
In 1974, Proudfit's frantic pace began to worry his wife and four young daughters. They wanted him, at age 45, to slow down. But it was not, and still is not, in Proudfit's character to lounge around on a beach somewhere. So, in an attempt to placate his family and still keep moving, he embarked on an extended working vacation in Honduras, where he says a crew of American physicians had gone to assist in the cleanup after Hurricane Fifi. It seemed the ideal compromise: Proudfit would get to travel, something he'd enjoyed since his days as a sailor, and as a part of the deal, he would also get a chance to help the less fortunate. These trips to Honduras became annual events.
"I was a good Sunday-morning Christian," Proudfit says of that time. "But I didn't know God." By 1984, it was time for an introduction: "One evening I was driving back to the village in our van, all alone on this bumpy, deserted road, and I heard a voice. It said, 'Stop the car.' And I thought, 'Wow, I'm losing my cookies. Bellevue, here I come.' Then the voice came again: 'Get out.'
I sat with my hands frozen on the wheel. 'This isn't real. This isn't real life,' I thought. Finally, I opened the door and stepped out onto the road. The voice said, 'Look up.' And I saw 8,000-foot mountains. I saw lush, green vegetation. I saw white clouds nestled in those mountains. The voice said, 'I made all of this for you.'