It is with terrible sadness that I report today about the death of George Dalton, an irrepressible American entrepreneur who was always willing to share his kindness, his wealth and his wisdom.
George had been sick for the past seven months after he developed complications from his latest open heart surgery. He passed away Friday at age 83.
At his core, George was an optimist. He was perpetually looking for the next great venture. He often told me he could never retire.
I can’t count how many times George and I met for coffee in Milwaukee’s Third Ward. I always tried to glean as much as I could from such an accomplished man, but very often, he would turn the conversation and wanted instead to ask questions about my life, my career and our company.
He always had a way of turning most conversations back at you. Inevitably, he would talk about his love of animals, especially his dogs. Then he’d twist your arm and get a donation out of you for the Humane Society.
George was the consummate American entrepreneur. He had an inherent, insatiable curiosity. He had that proverbial twinkle in his eye.
In my final conversation with George, he expressed concerns about American companies as they tried to recover from the Great Recession. He said American entrepreneurs must continue to be “swashbucklers.” He said they must never stop pushing forward. They must be bold, he said.
George’s professional obituary chronicles his entrepreneurial journey.
He grew up in Chicago and attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. He served in the U.S. Army in the Panama Canal zone.
He eventually found his way to Milwaukee when he was hired to oversee Marine Bank’s tabulating department. In 1964, George left Marine Bank and helped form Midland Bank in downtown Milwaukee. At Midland Bank, he created and ran Midland Data Processing, which supported the bank and provided data processing services to other banks.
Midland Bank was acquired by First Bank System in 1978 and changed the name of George’s subsidiary to First Data Processing Inc. First Data Processing grew to $14 million in annual revenue by 1984, when George was offered the opportunity to buy it out. He and a group of investors did so, forming Brookfield-based Fiserv Inc.
Fiserv was formed by the merger of First Data Processing and Sunshine State Systems, owned by Leslie Muma.
Contacted today by phone at his home in Florida, Muma told BizTimes, “George obviously was my partner for a lot of years. He was the best partner a guy could ever ask for. Neither one of us would have accomplished what either of us accomplished without the other. His can do, we will win positive attitude permeated our company and was part of the culture. He had a tremendous ability to find the good in people.”
George was the chief executive officer of Fiserv from 1984 to 1999 and chairman of the board from 1984 to 2000.
Jeff Yabuki, who was George’s hand-picked successor as the CEO of Fiserv, gave this statement today to BizTimes: “Fiserv is greatly saddened to learn of the passing of our founder and former Chairman and CEO, George Dalton. It was his vision to create an organization with the best people that would work together to create value for financial institutions. That strong foundation has led to the global enterprise Fiserv is today. We will continue to carry on with his legacy and the example he set for us. Our thoughts are with his family as we honor his life and accomplishments.”
George decided to retire from Fiserv because he feared shareholders of the publicly held company would wonder if someone in his 70s could still run the business effectively. However, George quickly grew restless. “(His retirement) didn’t last long because I found myself bored,” George said in a previous BizTimes interview. “I didn’t have anything (to do) I was passionate about. I had to do something. I couldn’t just sit here like a hump. God put me here for a purpose.”
Just months after retiring from Fiserv, George created Call Solutions, which later changed its name to NOVO 1 Inc. George sold NOVO 1 in 2009:
During his career, George acquired more than 100 companies with Fiserv and NOVO 1.
I recall once asking him how he evaluated other companies for acquisitions. He would begin by walking the floor with the current owners and managers. He watched closely how the employees on the floor reacted to the bosses as they walked by. If the employees showed disdain or worse yet, didn’t’ even know the bosses, he wanted nothing to do with that company.
“Every acquisition I ever did with Fiserv I told them, ‘I didn’t acquire you because you are bad. I acquired you because you are good,” George said. “There’s nothing wrong with being a fixer, but I’m not a fixer. I take something and make it better.”
George was the 2005 recipient of the first BizTimes Milwaukee Bravo! Entrepreneur Lifetime Achievement Award.
George took pride in how he treated his employees.
“Unless you have a career path for someone you are being unfair,” he said. “(Business owners) should try to help people with their careers. An employer’s obligation is certainly to his customer, but also to his people.”
His latest venture was as a partner with Susan Wehrley at BIZremedies.com.
“My heart is hurting right now. I feel completely blessed that George and I had the opportunity to work together to create The Power of Employee Engagement program. I truly believe he wanted to leave that behind as a legacy for other leaders. He was my mentor. I’ve worked with a lot of leaders over my 24 years and I have to say he was really a standout guy,” Wherley said today. “He found the perfect balance of goal- oriented perseverance and assertiveness but was also able to listen, be actively engaged and open minded. I don’t know very many people who have perfected that balance as beautifully as George had. Everyone in the Milwaukee community I’m sure feels a tremendous gratitude that he was an integral part of our business community and our philanthropic community for so long. He never retired. He continued to want to impact the business community for the positive, and I think that’s a fabulous thing. But of course, our community has lost not only a mentor but a dear friend and that makes my heart ache.”
Anne Zizzo, president and CEO of Zizzo Group Marketing + PR + New Media in Milwaukee, is among the many Wisconsin business executives who counted George as a mentor.
“I am just incredibly sad that he’s gone. He is a man who just kind of reached in out of nowhere and decided to take the time to mentor me, to learn about my business, to be a resource, to guide me, Zizzo said, adding that George believed in taking risks and rewarding the employees who helped him succeed.
As I recovered from a surgery of my own three years ago, I recall the first phone call I received on my cell phone in my hospital room came from George. He wanted to know how I was doing. And he wanted to wish me a speedy recovery.
Like so many people, my life was made better by having crossed paths with George Dalton. I miss you, my friend.
Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes. For more click on the following video compilation.