Norm Asbjornson is a double-digit millionaire, the boss of more than 1,400 people and more successful than he ever imagined. But underneath the suit and tie and behind the blue Icelandic eyes, is a kid from the little farm town of Winifred, Mont., who started his first business by hauling garbage in a Model T for 25 cents a barrel.
"I really thought I was making a lot of money," said Asbjornson, 73, founder and president of AAON, a Tulsa, Okla.-based heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) manufacturer with annual sales of $280 million and which is traded on the NASDAQ.
A 1960 mechanical engineering graduate from Montana State University, Asbjornson credits his success to hard work, learning from his failures, the upbringing and values his parents gave him and his education at MSU.
"From the standpoint of making money, there is absolutely no question in my mind about how my degree helped me," Asbjornson said. "I wouldn't have had a prayer without an education."
But the most important things he received from his education can't be measured in dollars.
"An education gives you a deeper understanding of the world, and with more knowledge you get more happiness out of life," he said.
"There are certain things we have the opportunity to experience and one of those is the satisfaction of giving back for what you've received," Asbjornson said. "You may not understand that feeling until you've embarked on giving, but as you go through it you'll find out it is a very rewarding experience."
In 2003, Asbjornson endowed a $1 million scholarship fund for graduates from Montana high schools with 100 or fewer students. He also has created an endowed scholarship specifically for graduates of Winifred High School who attend MSU, and created an endowment for the Burns Technology Center to develop innovative distance learning programs for rural Montana schools.
In 2006, he gave more than $600,000 in cash, equipment and technical advice to create a one-of-a-kind HVAC laboratory in MSU's College of Engineering. AAON gives research grants to the College of Engineering on a continuing basis.
"Students benefit from Norm's involvement in many ways-working in the HVAC lab sharpens their analytical and design skills," said Robert Marley, dean of the College of Engineering. "That hands-on experience makes them more successful at winning competitive internships as undergrads and makes them sought-after graduates."
Asbjornson also gives of his time and ideas as a member of the MSU Foundation board and a member of the College of Engineering advisory council. He has been a major philanthropist for his home town of Winifred as well.
They are gifts given by a man who has worked hard his entire life. At his birth, his parents lived in a one-bedroom, 800-square-foot home without indoor plumbing, running water, a telephone or electricity. When he was 6, Asbjornson was driving tractors for farmers. He sold soda pop bottles and newspapers.
Though it was the Great Depression, childhood was a happy time for Asbjornson.
"I didn't feel like I was missing anything," he said. "I had great parents and it was a good life."
When he was 10, Asbjornson's uncle offered to give him a Model T in return for feeding and watering hundreds of chickens.
"I thought I had arrived," Asbjornson said.
For a summer, Asbjornson hauled hundreds of gallons of water to the chickens from a well a block away using two small pails. On payday he learned the Model T had been covered in a flood, the engine too rusted to start.
Undeterred, he worked on the car in his father's garage until it ran. Then he became his own boss and went into the garbage business.
"My parents felt one of the finest things they could do was teach me independence," Asbjornson said. "I couldn't have asked for better parents," he says of his mother, who was a teacher, and his father, a mechanic and farm implement dealer.
In their honor, he has created the Eric and Boots Asbjornson endowed scholarship at MSU. It is awarded to needy students from Fergus or Petroleum counties who have overcome personal adversity.
He went to Montana State College, as it was known then, in the early 1950s to study mechanical engineering. He struggled with math and science and in his second year dropped out, joined the Army and ended up as a tank mechanic in Korea.
"I came back determined to be a better student," Asbjornson said. "I realized that to control my life I needed an education."
For 28 years after his graduation from MSU, he worked his way up through the HVAC business until he founded AAON in 1988.
"I was 52 and a millionaire. Most people would just hang on, ride it out until retirement," Asbjornson said. "But I decided to gamble every dime I had to get this company and make it work."
AAON has been profitable from day one. It manufactures commercial air conditioning equipment weighing from 200 pounds to 20,000 pounds.
Asbjornson credits his success, in part, to learning early on not to be afraid of failure. He was not a great success in high school or college, but he persevered. His fortunes diminished twice before starting AAON, once through divorce and once when a real estate investment went sour.
"There are many very talented people who do not handle failure well, and thus do not succeed as well as they should," said Asbjornson, who received an honorary doctorate from MSU in 2004. "I learned never to let the weight of failure discourage me. I really appreciate the hard times in my life. I've come to believe my greatest moves forward were largely attributable to those negative times that made me shape up my life in a way I'd not have otherwise done."
Other of his early life lessons-learned from his parents-are gratitude and stewardship.
"I think it's an absolute must for everyone to give back to what made them successful. I had a lot of help from MSU and Winifred," Asbjornson said. "I can't repay those who helped me, for they're gone. But I can give to the next generation. I think everyone should balance the books and thank those people and institutions who helped them and also give to the next generation.
"It's a responsibility we all have."