Ron Olson
Ron Olson
May 2, 2014

Ron Olson, a Carroll-born and Manilla-raised named partner with a Los Angeles firm that has collected a string of honors from American Lawyer magazine, wanted to talk about Nile Kinnick, the Heisman Trophy-winning Hawkeye whose life ended during World War II service.

Olson is a man very much in the Great American Now. He serves on the board of Berkshire Hathway and plans to be with his close friend Warren Buffett during the annual shareholders' meeting this weekend in Omaha, Neb. Olson represented Google during the hurly-burly days of the Internet Goliath's initial public offering.

His client list reaches deep into the A-list of Hollywood shot-callers. Film industry titan Barry Diller made the Google connection for Olson, a 1959 Manilla High School alum.

Hollywood and high finance could come later, though. Talk in an hour-long phone interview with the Daily Times Herald -interrupted briefly by a call to Olson from Buffett - quickly turned to Kinnick, the grandson of a former Iowa governor who died June 2, 1943, at age 24, piloting a Navy plane on a training exercise in Venezuela.

Could Kinnick have been president? Olson thinks so.

Olson has eight grandsons. One of them, Graham Olson, 13, of Pasadena, Calif., completed a project in the second grade on a state and selected Iowa - out of love for his grandfather and grandmother Jane (Tenhulzen) Olson, a native of Denison

"From that day forward that kid is an absolute Iowa nut," Ron Olson said. "I have been taking him back each fall for several years now for one of the Iowa football games."

Olson recalled driving from Des Moines to Iowa City when Graham looked at his grandfather and said, "You know, daddo, Iowa has so much to be proud of."

"It just warms my heart. And this kid is dead set on going to the University of Iowa," Olson said. "He knows everything about the sports teams, particularly football. He knows who they're recruiting. I get a big kick. This is a kid who spent his whole life growing up in Los Angeles and could care less about what's going on out here. It's all Iowa, all the time."

Olson gave Graham a signed letter from Nile Kinnick and copies of his speech in acceptance of the Heisman, which recognizes the country's most-outstanding college football player.

"He is so darned proud to stand up for Iowa and it amazes me," Olson said.

Major awards for Olson

Olson, 72, is a primary lawyer in a firm - Munger, Tolles & Olson - that the American Lawyer magazine has named No. 1 in the nation four times. It's the only non New York City firm to hold the top spot.

What's more, Olson recently earned the Lifetime Achievement Award from American Lawyer, a publication he described as a "credible and substantial" entity in the legal profession.

"Undoubtedly, a lot of things go into it," Olson said. "If you did the weighing in a different way you'd probably end up with some other firms up there with us. It is something to take pride in."

The award takes into account not just professional achievements, but pro-bono activities and how firms treat employees.

Olson spotlights the diversity of people and thought as crucial in the firm's success.

"That's something that frankly attracted me from Day 1," Olson said.

When he first entered the profession, Olson chose not to go to certain corporate firms because he believed they were too homogeneous.

"I wanted to get into an environment where my thinking was challenged," Olson said. "And from that, I hoped, from time to time, I would learn something I wouldn't otherwise learn."

The firm has a broad spectrum of attorneys and staff with political leanings ranging from the conservative to the liberal "and everything in between," Olson said.

"We've got a wide range of not just racial diversity, but gender diversity," Olson said. "It's a very open environment for what we hope is the most-creative kind of lawyering, and along the way, an environment that stimulates broader learning and life experiences."

The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles is undertaking the building of a new building to support legal needs of the most needy in southern California. The Foundation asked whether it could name the building after Olson - and he agreed.


Olson started representing Google's founders -Sergey Brin and Larry Page - when they were taking the business to the stock market.

"They were young, smart as can be, and determined to not only drive their vision for the company, but to do good along the way," Olson said.

Brin and Page worked with Olson on carrying out the vision for the company long-term. They wanted their future-minded innovations to have percolation time, to be protected from quarter-by-quarter tests from anxious shareholders and analysts if they went public.

Olson created a capital structure for Google that consisted of two stocks, one a super-voting stock, and one that would be sold to the public.

"That was designed in order to enable them to take the long-term view of the development of their company and not have to worry about sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into things like the development of Android, which took place over a number of years, and worry about some investor group challenging their capital investments," Olson said.

When Google purchased YouTube, there were challenges from some financial analysts, Olson said.

"At the time, people questioned what they were doing," Olson said. "Of course, today, it's been a huge, huge success."

Olson said Brin and Page are fascinating people.

"They're making a difference that I think is pretty extraordinary and I have a lot of fun being around them," Olson said.

He recalled his earliest days representing Google.

"I'm about as far away from techie as one can be," Olson said. "I'd have a challenge just signing in to get into the Google offices on their little computer system as you enter the place. I'd get in there and I'd see all these kids just being so creative. One would be at the black board and five or six of them would be firing ideas at each other."

Also on the high-profile technology front, Olson has gotten to know Evan Spiegel, the founder of snapchat, a photo-sharing application.

"You probably read about him when he turned down a $3 billion bid for his company by Facebook," Olson said.

Olson said Spiegel is a determined, creative person.

"People like that, if you have a chance to relate to, keep you young, keep you thinking," Olson said.

The Iowa farm

Olson owns a farm between Audubon and Kimballton, where corn and soybeans grow and cattle are raised. He returns for planting and fall hunting and on some other occasions.

Olson's parents, Clyde "Blue" and Delpha (Boyens) Olson, were living in Aspinwall at the time of his birth, but he grew up in Manilla. His father was a successful general broker and insurance salesman.

"My father had an especially strong presence in Manning, selling insurance to most of the major farm-to-market truckers and used Herb Kuel's tavern as a place for receiving messages from farmers who wanted to see him," Olson said.

Delpha Olson worked as a teacher, starting in the Great Depression, during which time she cut wood to heat the school and scooped sidewalks. She grew up on a farm east of Irwin.

Olson remains, at heart, very much the son of Iowa farm country.

"I get great joy out of talking to my tenant on a regular basis," Olson said. "This last week I had a great conversation about selling our fall calves. Unbelievable prices for those. It's a way for me to stay in touch with what I still call my home base."

A member of the board of directors for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Olson drives different routes across Iowa to Rochester. His family enjoys seeing the countryside.

"My sense is the country is on the upswing," Olson said. "We see that in our wide range of Berkshire businesses. We see the comeback in some of the businesses that were slowed down significantly in that 2008, 2009 period. Businesses that related in one way or another to home-building have started to come back. Of course, other areas have continued to excel, such as our insurance businesses and, right there in Iowa, MidAmerican has been fantastic."

Olson said the fundamentals of the Iowa economy give it a major advantage moving forward.

"You've seen what increasing needs are evolving in China and elsewhere around the world for the kind of agricultural commodities that Iowa is a leader in," Olson said.

Olson said he sees tremendous civic pride in Des Moines. The same goes for rural Iowa, he said.

"The farms look prosperous," Olson said. "It's amazing to me how very, very few dilapidated building sites remain. People are taking care of their properties, which suggests not just pride, but the economics are such that they can. So I think there are a lot of good things going on in Iowa."

Born in Carroll

Olson is by birth certificate a native of Carroll -having come into the world in the caring confines of St. Anthony Regional Hospital.

"I have always been proud of that," Olson said.

Olson recalled childhood Easters when his parents would take the family to Carroll to "get something special." A sport coat maybe.

"Carroll has always been a part of my life," he said.

Olson was a close, lifelong friend of the late Kenneth Macke, the former Target retail corporation CEO from Carroll.

At Drake University, Olson was involved with student government and debate and the football team. Olson recalled the old-school practices of the 1950s in which two players competing for a starting job would be thrown into a pit, with the one emerging to get the spot.

"That was pretty tough going," said Olson, who played halfback.

He remembers a strategy the two Drake friends - himself and Macke - employed to surreptitiously hydrate themselves at practice as coaches wouldn't let players drink water in an effort to toughen them. Olson and Macke would bury lemons in the field the night before, dig them out when coaches weren't looking the next day and chomp on the fruit for the fluids.

"He's still a big part of my life," Olson said of Macke. "He and I were very close. And I think of him often and have his picture about at various places to help me reflect on how meaningful he was to me."

Olson remembers dropping off Macke in Templeton, where Macke's grandparents lived, on Olson's way home to Manilla from Des Moines.

"The whole connection to Templeton has remained and thrived since then," Olson said.

Olson said he is in regular contact with Templeton Rye Spirits co-founder Keith Kerkhoff.

"There are a lot of things that keep me hooked in to that environment, and I'm always proud to go around and tell the Templeton Rye story when I happen to be in a restaurant and I want to test their inventory," Olson said.

Fighting for veterans

Olson said Munger, Tolles & Olson has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of mentally impaired, homeless veterans.

"I feel very committed to their cause," Olson said. "I hope the rest of the country begins to take notice and see what these kids need. The president has a way of putting it. It's not right to send these young men and women abroad to fight for their country and then have to come home and fight for a roof over their head. I just wish the VA (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) would do more to implement that."

Olson said there are more homeless veterans in Los Angeles than most places in the United States.

"The mentally impaired are too often basically on skid row, self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, etc.," Olson said.

A family gave prime real estate in Los Angeles to the U.S. government in 1882 to create a veterans home in the West. The land has not been used for veterans, so Olson is seeking a remedy in the courts. And he sees urgency in the cause.

Veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are having major concerns, Olson said

"It's an issue that needs attention across the country," Olson said.

Standing for amateur athletics

Munger Tolles & Olson is defending the NCAA in lawsuits being brought by college players seeking to be paid with class-action lawsuits.

"The outcome, I think, will impact Iowa as well every place else in the United States," Olson said.

Olson said it is important to maintain amateur sports - in spite of what can at times seem like a public groundswell against the tradition.

"I just think it would be a tremendous loss to see our universities professionalized and these kids become employees and start getting agents as they're a junior or senior in high school, and people dueling over them, not by selling the quality of their universities, but by how much money they're going to pay them," Olson said.

Olson said it makes no sense to have a "mini" NFL or NBA operating on the nation's college campuses.

"If this changes, it's going to change our entire structure for the support of a broad range of athletes and participants," Olson said.

Community journalism

Olson is a strong backer of Berkshire Hathaway's continued investments in American newspapers. Olson said the traditional model of newspapers remains viable.

"You're only, I think, right to have confidence if you are in a position to supply something that people need and want and they can't get elsewhere," Olson said. "That, I think, is what explains the interest we at Berkshire have had in the newspapers that we've acquired. Communities that aren't served by the big print or the big Internet facilities still have a desire to know what's going on in their communities."

Retail establishments find that interest worth supporting with their advertising, he said.

"So long as there is that kind of need, I don't see any reason why it cannot be sustained for a good long time," Olson said.

Local reporting is becoming more vital, he said.

"I think you see that throughout the country," Olson said. "The kinds of communities you are serving will have a long and fruitful period before anything erodes that economic base. So to me, that's very worthy."

Olson serves on the board of the non-profit ProPublica, which is involved in sustaining investigative reporters.

"The reporters we've hired have been some of the best that have been at the L.A. Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and so on and so on," Olson said. "And we're giving them the opportunity, the time and the money, to do real extensive investigative reporting. Then the reports get presented by a wide range of other distributors, other newspapers, radio, television. We just distribute the work in a number of different platforms."

Ever the Iowa boy

Olson said he has affection for Iowa and a lot of people in the state.

"I think it's in part because I had a childhood that was not just happy but meaningful," Olson said. "I learned from everybody I associated with, and I feel like whatever I have become today is in large part attributed to those who helped me get started, from not just the teachers and the coaches and so on - a lot of the just plain-old, hard-working folk who you would get to know and appreciate."

He added, "Many, many people filled my life, and it will never leave me."