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William L. McKnight

William L. McKnight (11 November 1887 – 4 March 1978) was an American businessman and philanthropist who served his entire career in the 3M corporation, rising to chairman of the board from 1949 to 1966. He founded The McKnight Foundation in 1953.



William L. McKnight was the third child born to homesteaders Joseph and Cordelia McKnight, who left the East in 1880 to claim a homestead in South Dakota. William was born in the family’s sod house in White, South Dakota.

McKnight attended Duluth Business University, and upon graduation began working for 3M Corporation as an Assistant Bookkeeper in May 1907, at a salary of $11.55 per week. McKnight began to understand the dire financial situation of 3M, and his ideas for making better products and cutting costs gained the admiration of the general manager, who promoted McKnight to cost accountant. Two years after that, he was placed in charge of the company’s Chicago office.

In 1914, McKnight was promoted to general manager of 3M, and moved to the company’s headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota. In June 1916 McKnight became 3M’s vice president at age 29. Soon afterwards, Lucius P. Ordway, the company's President, became ill, leaving McKnight running 3M - he officially became president in August 1929. He served as president until 1949, as chairman of the board from 1949–1966, and as honorary chairman of the board until 1972.

McKnight’s business sense and emphasis on research and development helped bring 3M back from the brink of bankruptcy and turn it into the large, multinational corporation.

Mr. McKnight was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1995.

Business Philosophy

McKnight encouraged 3M management to delegate responsibility and encourage men and women to exercise their initiative and his management theories are still the guiding principles for 3M.

Many believe McKnight's greatest contribution was as a business philosopher, since he created a corporate culture that encourages employee initiative and innovation. His basic rule of management was laid out in 1948:

As our business grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to delegate responsibility and to encourage men and women to exercise their initiative. This requires considerable tolerance. Those men and women, to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good people, are going to want to do their jobs in their own way. Mistakes will be made. But if a person is essentially right, the mistakes he or she makes are not as serious in the long run as the mistakes management will make if it undertakes to tell those in authority exactly how they must do their jobs. Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. And it's essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.

McKnight Foundation

The McKnight Foundation was established by William L. McKnight in 1953. The Foundation is privately endowed and has always been independent of the 3M Company. Bolstered by the estates of both McKnight and his wife Evelyn, the foundation's assets grew substantially in the 1980s. By 2006, it had assets of $2 Billion. The foundation's board of directors is still largely composed of McKnight's descendants, and is chaired by his great-granddaughter, Erika L. Binger.

Thoroughbred racing

McKnight married in 1915 and had one daughter, Virginia McKnight Binger, who married James H. Binger.

William McKnight was a fan of Thoroughbred horse racing and owned Tartan Farm, a breeding operation near Ocala, Florida. He raced under the name Tartan Stable. Among his most noted horses were the Champions Dr. Fager and Ta Wee, and the important sire Intentionally.



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