Founder: James H. Binger
For more than 25 years, James H. Binger ran his private business interests from an office high in the IDS Tower in downtown Minneapolis. Below lay the city he had done so much to shape.
To the south stood the original Guthrie Theater, the dynamic professional company Jim had supported since it had come to town in 1963, and of which he was a lifetime board member. To the north lay the Mississippi River, on whose banks the Guthrie was to build its dramatic new home, and where The McKnight Foundation ran the social, arts and science programs Jim helped develop and manage as a director and head of the investment committee. Jim too moved to the riverfront in 2003, renovating a condo in the historic St. Anthony neighborhood.
To the east lay the Metrodome, home of the Minnesota Vikings professional football team, which Jim cheered and once co-owned; and beyond that his hometown, St. Paul. And to the west lay the suburbs of western Hennepin County, where Jim founded the Twin Cities Polo Club in honor of his longtime passions, polo and horses, and where he and his wife of 62 years, Virginia, lived.
Jim’s office not only looked outward on his world but also reflected the inner man–his taste for bright colors, contemporary furniture and art, as well as his love of theater and horses. Photographs of champion racehorses and Broadway hits reflected personal interests he had turned into thriving enterprises. At one time he had owned a horse farm in Florida, and for nearly 30 years he owned the Broadway theater company Jujamcyn, transforming it from a small, unprofitable business into a robust, highly respected creative and business enterprise.
A Man of the World
Just as his extraordinary head for business and wide range of interests set Jim Binger apart from the crowd, so did his physical presence–his long, purposeful stride, white hair and chiseled features. Horseback riding, in-line skating and tennis kept him fit. In his 80s, he still followed a disciplined exercise regimen that gave him an unusually straight and distinguished bearing. You couldn’t miss Jim Binger when you saw him from a distance.
Jim Binger lived almost all of his life in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, but he was a world traveler and a man of the world. As president and later chairman of a Fortune 100 company, Honeywell, for 17 years, he led the company through a remarkable expansion into the defense, aerospace, and computer industries. Time Magazine credited him with turning around Honeywell’s struggling computer business with shrewd product development that bested what I.B.M. was doing at the time. He also revamped Honeywell’s sales approach to emphasize profits over volume and stepped up international sales.
Born on May 16, 1916, in St. Paul, Mr. Binger was the son of a physician, Dr. Henry Binger, and Mrs. Vida Binger. He grew up on St. Paul’s Summit Avenue, down the street from his high school sweetheart, Virginia McKnight. Her parents were William L. McKnight, the man who built the 3M Company into an international powerhouse, and Mrs. Maude McKnight. Jim Binger and Virginia McKnight were married for more than 62 years, from June 24, 1939, until she died in December 2002. They had three children, James (Mac), born in 1941; Cynthia, 1942; and Judith, 1946. (Judith died in 1989.) Except for a short stint in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, the couple remained in the Twin Cities, settling on Crosby Road on Lake Minnetonka in 1954 and staying there until Virginia’s death.
Mr. Binger graduated from St. Paul Academy in 1934 and from Yale University, where he studied economics, in 1938. He entered law school at the University of Minnesota in 1939 and completed his L.L.B. degree in 1941. His first job out of school was with the firm that is now Dorsey & Whitney. One of his clients was Minneapolis-Honeywell Regulator Company, which later became Honeywell, Inc. Mr. Binger joined Honeywell in 1943, rising through the ranks to become president (1961-1965), chairman of the board (1965-1974), and chairman of the executive committee (1974-1978).
A Quiet Philanthropist
Honeywell was hardly the only beneficiary of Mr. Binger’s visionary leadership. His generosity with his time, money and intellect improved the quality of life in the Twin Cities. Most notably, he helped shape The McKnight Foundation into Minnesota’s largest private grantmaker; became the largest donor to the University of Minnesota Law School; and enabled professional theater to flourish in the Twin Cities.
In 1974, when his father-in-law asked Virginia McKnight Binger to run The McKnight Foundation, Mr. Binger joined McKnight’s board of directors, along with the couple’s children. He headed the Foundation’s investment committee and helped establish the fiscal policies that remain in place today, including managing the Foundation’s investment portfolio so that grantmaking capacity would stay ahead of inflation. He extended the Foundation’s grantmaking reach into brain research, the arts and international grantmaking. He guided his children and grandchildren in the business thinking he believed necessary to effective philanthropy, and today they oversee the McKnight Foundation with his principles in mind.
Jim Binger had loved theater since he saw his first Broadway play as a Yale student, and in 1976, he and Virginia took over William L. McKnight’s struggling theater enterprise, which at the time included two Broadway theaters. The Bingers named their company Jujamcyn Theaters, after their children’s names: Judy, James and Cynthia. Mr. Binger actively managed the company with his producer/collaborator, Rocco Landesman, who purchased Jujamcyn after Mr. Binger’s death. Theater is a notoriously difficult business, but Jujamcyn thrived, eventually owning five of Broadway’s most successful theaters–the St. James, Al Hirschfeld, Virginia (now the August Wilson), Eugene O’Neill and Walter Kerr. Jujamcyn productions have received 33 Tony Award nominations, with such hits as Angels in America and The Producers.
Mr. Binger also was a director of the Vivian Beaumont Theaters, a member of the executive committee of the League of American Theaters, and a lifetime member of the board of the Guthrie Theater. The Guthrie praised him for energizing interest in theatrical productions across the country. After his death, the League of American Theatres and Producers dimmed Broadway marquees at 8 p.m. one night in tribute to Mr. Binger.
A lifelong polo player who competed internationally, Jim Binger purchased land to found the Twin Cities Polo Club in Maple Plain and helped purchase land for the Gulfstream Polo Club in Florida, where the Bingers owned a house in the 1960s. His interest in horses also led to another of his successful businesses. From 1978 to 1987, Mr. Binger owned Tartan Farms Corporation, a Florida company founded by his father-in-law that bred and raced thoroughbreds. Tartan Farms bred many of the great thoroughbreds of the 20th century, including Dr. Fager, Ta Wee and Dr. Patches. When the farm was sold, Mr. Binger contributed several major pieces of equipment and fencing to help establish a new retirement facility for thoroughbreds in Ocala, Florida. For this support, Mr. Binger was named 2000 Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation Champion.
Over the years, Mr. Binger also served as a director of several for-profit and nonprofit boards, including the International Peace Academy, the Atlantic Institute of Foreign Affairs, Northwest Airlines, 3M Company, Chase Manhattan Bank, and the Advisory Committee on Trade Relations. He was a quiet philanthropist. Among other causes he supported without fanfare was the University of Minnesota Law School, where he was the largest individual benefactor. Mr. Binger founded his own investment firm, Tartan Investments, in 1978.
He demonstrated his personal commitment to philanthropy by establishing the Robina Foundation in 2004. Through the work of the Foundation, significant philanthropic investments will be made in pursuit of innovation in critical social issues.
On November 3, 2004, James H. Binger died at age 88. His vision, sense of adventure and generosity, and commitment to creative endeavors will endure.