Curt Sampson, a plain-talking telecommunications executive from Renville County, was also a horseman best known for the $10 million investment in 1994 that revived shuttered Canterbury Park, the track-and-card casino that prospered under Sampson’s ownership.
Sampson died Thursday at the age of 87. Through a career that began in 1955, when he graduated from the University of Minnesota, he built three multimillion-dollar tech companies, including Communications Systems and Hector Telecommunications, launched in his hometown of Hector, about 85 miles west of the Twin Cities.
A homespun millionaire, Sampson never acted like he was a big deal, recalled associates.
“Curt talked about a corporation’s duty to its shareholders, but also its duty to employees and the greater community, including Hector and the people whose livelihoods were involved with Canterbury Park, long before the Minnesota statutes were formally amended to explicitly acknowledge a board’s ability to consider all these constituencies,” said Thomas Lovett, a business lawyer who represented Sampson for 35 years. “He loved to visit the factory floor at [Communications Systems] or the paddock before races at Canterbury Park.”
Sampson also loved playing in the town baseball league. During a 2006 discussion about the sale of Hector Communications, Sampson couldn’t resist recalling his pitching performance a few nights earlier. About 1,200 folks showed up to watch Sampson, then 73, throw for nearby Fairfax against the Dundas Dukes.
Sampson was an all-star for the Minnesota economy, thousands of employees and shareholders.
After working for three months as a Minneapolis accountant after graduation from the U, Sampson returned to Hector for the rest of his life. He helped build Minnesota Central Telephone, then Midwest Telephone Co. and in 1970 formed Communications Systems, which went public in 1981 and sells telecommunications products and services from the Twin Cities. Sampson sold Hector Communications in 2006 to another rural telecom company in a good deal for shareholders.
“I knew Curtis for nearly 30 years and he was always a gentleman in every sense of the word,” said Roger Lacey, a former 3M executive who succeeded Sampson as CEO of Communications Systems. “He was a grand guy, a consummate entrepreneur who mixed fun and tenacious friendship alongside a powerful commercial mind.”
Sampson and his son Randy, now chief executive of Canterbury Park, began racehorse breeding in the 1980s. They raced the family horses at what was Canterbury Downs after it opened in Shakopee.
The track was losing $10 million in 1992 when it was closed by a former owner. The Sampsons and a South St. Paul businessman purchased Canterbury and surrounding property in 1994. Sampson bet $2 million in cash and took a loan for another $5 million, the nucleus of a $10 million acquisition.
“I could have lost it all,” he said last year. “But … we had a shot to make it work. And right away it did.”
The owners took Canterbury Park public later that year.
“It had taken our whole team [at Communications Systems] 15 years to generate 1,500 good jobs,” Sampson said in 2012. “In one fell swoop, by buying Canterbury, there [were] 1,500 people back to work.”
Sampson was known for loyalty, ethical dealings and community service, said associates.
The Sampsons, with legislative support, were able to diversify into poker and other gambling pursuits at Canterbury.
They entered into a partnership with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, owners and operators of Mystic Lake Casino Hotel, just 3 miles from Canterbury, that “solidified the future of racing and breeding in the state,” according to a statement from Canterbury Park.
In addition to son Randy, Sampson is survived by his wife, Marian, daughter Susan, sons Paul and Russ, 11 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren. Services are pending.