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Live Your Dream

Christopher Dahl, CLA alumnus and entrepreneur
January 14, 2015
The company:
Radio AHHS, CTD Properties

The mission:
Providing children's radio
programming and
managing real estate
investments

Remember the iconic SuperBowl 2000 commercial in which tanned and weathered cowboys ride across the prairie, herding cats and feeling mighty proud about it? “Anybody can herd cattle,” drawls one cowpoke. “Holdin’ together ten thousand half-wild short hairs—that’s another thing altogether.” Not only do many call it one of the best SuperBowl commercials ever but it solidified the phrase “herding cats’” as a part of the American vernacular.

That commercial spot and many more were created by the creative shop created by Christopher Dahl. He is the CLA alumnus whose film production company produced the herding cats commercial for the technology giant then known as Electronic Data Systems. Dahl remains proud of it, even though it might now seem like a foreshadowing of a chapter in his own career. Two years later, his New York production company went out of business, the result of both an agency strike and the 9/11 collapse of the nearby Twin Towers. “For the first time in my life,” says Dahl, “I felt like I was living in the herding-cats commercial.”

“I'm just not cut out to work for
somebody else.”

But as the cat herder might say, anybody can lose a business. Getting back in the saddle is another thing altogether. And that’s what Christopher Dahl has always done best.

When Dahl graduated from CLA with majors in history and English, he already knew that he wanted to run his own company. Even after he got his first job at Knox-Reeves Advertising—where he soon became the youngest account executive in the country—he was itching to get out on his own.

“I’m just not cut out to work for somebody else,” he laughs. “But when I got out of college, people weren’t employing CEOs without any experience.”

So he read business journals and researched brands and, at the tender age of 25, left to start his own hair products company. This began a series of chapters that marked the next decade of his entrepreneurial career: He would buy a company, expand its products, enlarge its distribution, and then sell it. While the wide range of his disconnected products—from photo finishing to sewing notions to toys—may seem odd at first glance, Dahl does not think so.

“It’s very helpful to read about the business success of other people,” he says. “Once I got interested in, say, photo finishing, I would read all the trade publications I could about the business and then all of a sudden, I knew about photo finishing.”

Though he relied on a network of support—in particular the Young Presidents Organization (YPO) for CEOs and company presidents under 40—Dahl also happens to be extraordinarily gifted in seeing possibilities where others don’t. And this ability is what led him to buy a radio station and develop programming specifically for children.

“I had no idea about format,” he says, “but I did know this: When I grew up, I listened to the radio. In that format in those days, the Lone Ranger would drop behind a rock for about a week and I couldn’t wait to get home to find out what happened. So I said, ‘Why don’t I put children’s programming on the radio?’”

There were plenty of naysayers who said kids don’t listen to the radio. But Dahl believed that was because there was nothing for them to listen to, no equivalent of his own childhood Lone Ranger experience. And so he started Radio AHHS. It would be the first business he actually started from scratch.

“My business had been opportunistic up until Radio AHHS,” the name for his station which soon blossomed in to a national network. “I felt that doing this was giving something back,” he says.

It was extremely successful. At one time, Radio AHHS covered 40 percent of the U.S. and became the most listened-to station in the Twin Cities. It was so successful, in fact, that the Disney company decided to compete. Dahl found he couldn’t win the consequent David vs. Goliath (make that Mickey) match. After an exhausting and expensive litigation with court findings in his favor, he decided to sell his 13 major market stations (for $74 million) and move on. Though a disappointment, it wasn’t the end. Instead, he bought a commercial film production company, which is how the cat herders came to be part of SuperBowl 2000.

Following the 9/11 disaster, he sold his company, but hardly left his entrepreneurial life. Today, he manages real estate, describing his career as “a landscape littered with things I could have done or mistakes I made. You might have some colossal failures but I’ve always been able to get on with life and new successes, never letting those failures define me.”

Which brings us back to cats, since one of Dahl’s favorite reflections is from a poet famed as much for the Broadway show he inspired as for his poetry. “Only those who will risk going too far,” said T.S. Eliot, “can possibly find how out how far they can go.”

What she says:

“CLA lets you form your own expectations about what to do and how to do it. For Plato and Socrates, it wasn’t about getting an MBA; it was about learning to be a person. It was study in the liberal arts. It’s about teaching people how to live their lives, not just balance the books.”

“I think an entrepreneur is someone who embraces other’s dreams as part of their reality, someone who says, ‘I can make this happen.’ Some people stop at the dreaming process. An entrepreneur says, ‘All these things I’ve dreamed about have come true.’”