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William McKnight – The founder of The McKnight Foundation

William McKnight

A businessman whose leadership qualities and management skills were highly valued – William McKnight. The man who served his entire career in the 3M Corporation where he raised to the power of chairman of the board from 1949 to 1966.

Resuming the series of the Remarkable CEOs and Leaders, we are onto our third article about the founder of the McKnight Foundation – William McKnight.

“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.”

– William McKnight

Early life

Born to a family of homesteaders on the 11th of November, 1887. His childhood was spent in the South Dakota, where he attended the Business University. 

As soon as he graduated, he started working as an Assistant Bookkeeper in May 1907 at a salary of $11.55 per week in the company where he would spend the rest of his career, the 3M.


Evolution of 3M - William McKnight

When McKnight was new, 3M wasn’t having the best of its days in terms of financial conditions. Being a man of ideas, William McKnight had vision on how to improve the company by making better products. His plans also included cutting costs which gained the admiration of the general manager. He was so impressed that he promoted McKnight to the post of cost accountant.


William McKnight

Within 2 years, McKnight was the in-charge of the 3M’s Chicago office. His skills boosted his position to that of the General manager in 1914 and moved to the headquarters in St. Paul. His rise didn’t stop there. In 2 more years, William McKnight did what not many had predicted, from nothing in 1907 to the Vice President in 1916, all in a matter of less than a decade.

Leading the 3M

William McKnight

Soon after, when William was named the vice president, the then president Edgar Ober fell ill leaving McKnight to handle 3M. He was officially chosen as their new leader, the president in 1929.

He held the position for exactly 2 decades which saw the rise of 3M. In 1949, he stepped down as the president but stayed as the chairman of the board from 1949–1966, and as the honorary chairman of the board until 1972.

Vision and Skills

3M - William McKnight

William McKnight’s vision towards serving better with finer products and services blended with his superior management and business skills not only saved 3M from the edge of bankruptcy but also helped it transform into a giant multinational corporation.

For his contributions, in 1995, he was honored in the U.S. Business Hall of Fame.

“If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.”

– William McKnight

According to the experts, it is believed that his principles as a business philosopher are what saved 3M. He encouraged the company to delegate responsibility and also motivated men and women to exercise their initiative. His guiding principles are still followed today in 3M as they continue being one of the giants.

William McKnight – The Legacy

 mcknight foundation - William McKnight

Apart from business, McKnight was highly active in serving the society. He believed that he has the responsibility to give people and community back as they have given him so much. In 1953, William McKnight along with his wife, Maude L. McKnight founded the McKnight Foundation. It’s a philanthropic organization that still works for the betterment of the people as its founder hoped and visioned.




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