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‘We are all that glitters:' Standout businesses, entrepreneurs honored at chamber's Celebration of Excellence

"There is nothing significant that we can accomplish alone, but when we gather together, when we work together, when we support each other in pursuit of a shared goal, that’s when we shine," Chamber President Matt Kilian said.

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Chris Close, owner of Close Converse speaks on behalf of his company winning the Lakes Proud Small Business award from the Brainerd Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce during the Celebration of Excellence Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021, at Cragun's Resort. Matt Erickson / Brainerd Dispatch

EAST GULL LAKE — A dazzling display of lights, sparkles and all that glitters took over Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake Thursday, Oct. 14.

Representatives from the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce and its member businesses donned dresses, skirts, shoes, jackets and bowties covered in glitter and were ready to shine as they packed the resort’s sports center for a long-awaited event.

After a hiatus in 2020 due to what outgoing Chamber Board Chair Ginny Knudson called “the unmentionable,” the chamber’s Celebration of Excellence was a lot brighter than in years past.

With “all that glitters” as the theme, lights cast from a silver disco ball danced around the room, adding to the already sparkling crowd.

“Our mission is to strengthen businesses that strengthen our communities and then go home afterwards each day, knowing that we made a difference,” Chamber President Matt Kilian said as he welcomed the crowd.

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The night served as an awards ceremony for local businesses that stand out in their community, as chamber representatives and other community leaders doled out the Lakes Proud Small Business of the Year award, Business Excellence award and the Business Legacy award.

Mary Gottsch, executive director of Bridges Academies, was also recognized for her contributions to the Brainerd lakes business community over the past 30 years, as she looks toward retirement.

“She’s been integral to the success and growth of this chamber,” Kilian said.

But no one person can take credit for the business success of the Brainerd lakes area. The importance of teamwork was a focal point of the night.

“I can tell you the spirit of teamwork is alive in the DNA of our three chambers — not only the Brainerd Lakes chamber, but the Crosslake chamber and the Pequot Lakes chamber,” Kilian said. “…There is nothing significant that we can accomplish alone, but when we gather together, when we work together, when we support each other in pursuit of a shared goal, that’s when we shine. That’s when we sparkle. That’s when we dazzle. And that’s when we glitter. And we are all that glitters.”

Lakes Proud Small Business of the Year

Celebrating businesses with 20 or fewer employees, this year’s Lakes Proud Small Business of the Year award went to Close Converse.

Three principles guide Close Converse in its day-to-day business: faith, family and fun.

“Our vision at our company is to have a profound positive impact on the lives of individuals who interact with Close Converse. We’re in the relationship business, and my hope is that every individual here that encounters Close Converse is left with a positive experience,” owner Chris Close said.

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Anyone living in or even just passing through Brainerd would be hard-pressed not to notice at least one of the recognizable green and white Close Converse signs.

Now the sole business owner, Chris Close took over from founders Kevin Close — his dad — and business partner Rod Converse, who set up shop in 1995. The company has three distinct divisions — commercial real estate, land sales and business brokerage.

Chris Close likened the founding partners to Walt and Roy Disney.

“Rod Converse is very much the creative type — the Walt in the relationship — and my dad is the Roy, and they’ve had a partnership and a relationship almost as long as they’ve been married to their wives, and that partnership continues to this day.”

Chris Close was just out of college when he made the decision to work with his dad in Brainerd instead of taking a job in the Twin Cities. After learning all the tricks of his trade from both his dad and Converse, he hasn’t looked back since, continuing to emphasize the importance of relationships with his employees and clients, making Close Converse a standout small business in the lakes area.

“I know my dad would agree with me that we both ultimately owe everything to our heavenly father. God has blessed us so much with a wonderful family up here at Close Converse, a wonderful community that we have the opportunity to serve, and the opportunity to work and live in one of the absolute most beautiful places on Earth.”

Business Excellence award

Lexington Manufacturing took home this year’s Business Excellence award, honoring businesses for their entrepreneurial spirit and accomplishments. Lexington Manufacturing earned the award for its leadership, innovation, employee investment and community service, as a business that focuses on its employees and never shies away from involvement in community activities.

Employee dedication was a focal point for Lexington President Mike Dillon as well, as he praised his staff for putting in the work to grow the businesses exponentially since its inception in the early 1980s, when it started out in a garage on Lexington Avenue in the Twin Cities.

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The Brainerd operation started just over 20 years ago in the Northern Pacific buildings, making door and window components. The Brainerd plant on Thiesse Road joins two others in the Twin Cities.

“People are everything to us, and our people truly are everything for our company,” Dillon said. “... Challenges are thrown at them every single day, and they never turn their back. They keep coming back for more.”

The company’s workforce has doubled not once, but twice, over the last 10 years, growing Lexington Manufacturing from a $25 million business in 2011 to $100 million in 2021.

Dillon and his team strive to embody their company’s mission — creating opportunities for people in the community through innovative products and services.

“Creating opportunities,” he said. “That’s a big part of who we are.”

Business Legacy award

The chamber’s highest honor is the Business Legacy award, recognizing a lifetime of inspiring leadership.

“Honorees have ignited a local legacy of community and economic strength for generations to come,” chamber board member Mike Schwieters said Thursday. “Our winners have achieved exceptional business success, driven innovation, navigated change … and really overcome adversity.”

This year that honor went to legendary angling duo Ron and Al Lindner, brothers from Chicago who chose the Brainerd lakes area to build their fishing empire.

Along with members of the Nisswa Guides, they developed Lindy Tackle Co. in 1968 and invented the Lindy rig, used by millions of walleye anglers today.

Older brother Ron died in November 2020 at the age of 86, while Al could not be present Thursday. The audience took a moment of silence to remember both Ron and past Legacy award winner Stewart C. Mills Jr., who died in September.

The chamber captured both brothers on video last year, though, and played it for the audience at Cragun’s.

“I was obsessed with fishing from the time I was like 5 years old. There was something about it,” Al said in the video. “With a brother 10 years older than you are, he will take you fishing on a regular basis.”

The duo co-founded In-Fisherman magazine, eventually lending their expertise to radio, television and books as well.

Anything they accomplished, they accomplished together, Ron said in the video.

Ron’s son James Lindner accepted the award Thursday on behalf of his dad and uncle.

“This is really something,” James said. “You know, over the years, I’ve actually been fortunate to work with both of these men for probably — well, my entire life.”

They had passion and drive, guiding not only their own paths but others as well.

“With Al and Ron, one and one does not equal two. One and one equals three and a half,” James said. “... Both of these individuals lived their entire lives on a very simple principle — God, faith, family, fishing.”

The brothers were extraordinarily humble, James finished, as they always knew the family, friends and fishing community they had behind them were imperative to their success.

“Thanks again from the Lindner family,” he said. “It’s a privilege.”


THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .

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