Article published in The Minneapolis/St. Paul Star Tribune, June 11, 2002. by Jim Buchta, Star Tribune Staff Writer
Companies head Dennis Diaz, MEDA's Entrepreneur of the Year, is grateful for
the guidance of his mentor and friend, Ed Asplin, the former CEO of Bemis
Dennis Diaz, a Filipino immigrant and businessman, remembers the anticipation
of meeting his mentor, Ed Asplin, former head of Bemis, Co. Inc., one of the
state's largest companies.
"I was very excited" and nervous about meeting a man of Asplin's
status, Diaz said of their first meeting more than 15 years ago at the
Minneapolis Club. They had grown up a half a world apart, but the men had an
After many subsequent meetings, Diaz and Asplin still consider each other
close friends. That's why Asplin plans to be there today when Diaz, president
and CEO of BGD Companies, Inc., is named entrepreneur of the year by the
Metropolitan Economic Development Association - the organization that
originally put the two men together.
"There was a common denominator," Asplin claimed recalling the
Philippines, where Diaz was born and where Asplin spent two years on duty
in World War II.
Diaz, 52, hadn't been born when Asplin stood on the deck of a ship and
watched Gen. Douglas MacArthur step onto a beach in Manila. Asplin had never
stopped wondering what had happened to the people and the place he had grown to
admire during his stint there.
During their meetings, Diaz told stories about what was happening back
home. In return, Asplin taught him about running a business based on his
experiences at Bemis. It was a relationship that not many small-business
owners can claim. Often, entrepreneurs such as Diaz don't have access or
connections to people who can tutor them and provide access to money and
When Diaz started BGD with his wife, Angelita, in 1980, he still was
adjusting to Minnesota's harsh winters, after moving here in 1976.
The company was importing place mats, baskets, planters and other gifts
manufactured by a factory owned by Diaz's family in Manila. Nearly 90 percent
of his products were made in that plant.
Then the gift industry changed. As barriers to trade with the Pacific Rim
and the Far East started to fall, more of Diaz's customers started finding
their own direct suppliers, putting the squeeze on his business.
Asplin taught him that if a business isn't profitable, give it up. Diaz
heeded that advice-he knew that if he didn't do something pronto, he'd be out
"He said, 'You're in business to make money, you're not a charitable
organization. If you think the margin isn't there don't be afraid to walk
The company changed strategy. By the mid- 1980's, Diaz's company spent less time on gifts and started
focusing more on high-end products, mostly wicker and rattan made in the
family factory. Then, in the early 1990's the company changed strategy again
because Diaz saw an opportunity to supply the growing number of restaurants,
shopping malls and casinos with upholstered seating, table tops and chairs.
Asplin, who started his career as a banker, stressed to Diaz the importance
of maintaining good relationships with lenders.
"When you tell the bank you're going to go this, you'd better be darn
sure you can do this," Diaz recalled Asplin telling him.
So when Diaz decided to buy a factory in south Minneapolis in 1995, his
company's positive relationship with lenders put him in a good position to get
"Banks depend on your business plan and projections, and you want to
make sure the numbers you provide are realistic and attainable," Diaz
During the past five years, revenue at the company has grown more than 12
percent annually. That's a comfortable rate for Diaz, who said that managing
growth is critical to maintaining good customer service.
BGD also builds seating for most of the
casinos in the state in addition to food courts in several regional malls.
Though his family still owns the wicker and rattan factory in the Philippines,
BGD has limited its sales of those products, which now account for only about
10 percent of his business.
Today, the company is profitable and has 22 employees - 20 of whom are
minorities or women. He attributed much of his success to those first nervous
meetings with Asplin at the Minneapolis Club, where he learned a thing or two
about running a business.
"He's been there before, and I have to listen to what he says,"
Diaz said of Asplin's business acumen. "He helped lay the foundation for