Wayzata man pens autobiography detailing his storied life and career.
It would be impossible to reach 96 years of age without collecting a few stories along the way. Kingston Fletcher has amassed an entire book of them—300 pages worth—in Divergent Paths: A Life Reexamined. “Part of it is an ego trip,” Fletcher says. “I wanted to be remembered.”
With the help of business journalist Carol Pine, Fletcher self-published his intensely readable autobiography last September. Among the many tales of his fascinating life, the book details Fletcher’s 33 years with Procter & Gamble (P&G) as he traveled the world, opening new markets from Venezuela to Italy to Germany. “It’s post-World War II, and Procter & Gamble realizes there’s a whole world to sell their products to,” Pine says. “Fletcher was given free rein to invent an international business. I told him, ‘I think you had the best job ever.’”
“I preferred the heady freedom of choice,” Fletcher writes. “I thrived on independence, and I saw the opportunity when faced with the unknown or untried. Risk didn’t haunt me. It stretched me. I was more competitive than ambitious; more studious than free form; more optimistic than wary.”
Fletcher’s book begins with the death of his father when Fletcher was just 16—a pivotal moment for a young man, who was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. Fletcher was born and raised in Minneapolis, the youngest son of Alice and Clark Fletcher. His father was a senior partner at the Minneapolis-based law firm of Fletcher, Dorsey, Barker, Colman and Barber.
Fletcher enjoyed a privileged upbringing, attending Blake School and Yale University. Summers were spent at the family’s Lake Minnetonka cottage known as Sunset Point in Deephaven—a home that Fletcher later purchased for himself in 1990. It was there that he began a lifelong relationship with sailing—one that would earn him the distinction of being the oldest continuous racing member of the Minnetonka Yacht Club at 89 years old. “He’s inspirational,” Pine says. “A truly remarkable man.”
Student of the World
Fletcher knew that his father expected him to study law, but his untimely death meant that Fletcher was free to chart his own course. “I don’t think I would have liked to be a lawyer,” Fletcher says. Though he didn’t want to study law, “I certainly wanted to emulate my father’s success,” he writes. “I had a vision for myself, however murky. ‘I know I’m going to be successful,’ I whispered. ‘I don’t know how … but I will.’”
Fletcher opted to study English literature at Yale, emphasizing the importance of “being able to express yourself in written form.” Despite dropping out of school to pursue sports broadcasting, Fletcher graduated from Yale in 1948 and spent several months writing press releases at a small public relations firm in Minneapolis.
Fletcher would get his first taste of international business when his brother, Clark Jr., invited him to sell Studebaker cars at a dealership in Mexico City. Though it was not a fruitful venture, Fletcher got his foot in the door at Studebaker’s corporate offices, which would eventually land him a job in Belgium as the assistant to the manager for its Western European division. “There, I found I had some affinity for languages,” says Fletcher, who has picked up French, German, Italian and Spanish over the years.
Being in Europe following the end of World War II was a fascinating experience for Fletcher. “Most of it was being rebuilt,” he says. Fletcher found that he “became a student of the world,” playing witness to the aftermath of war. He would continue his global education in Venezuela when he became Studebaker’s regional manager in Caracas in 1950.
Two days after arriving in Venezuela, Fletcher met the woman who would become his wife. “Across a crowded room, I saw a 5-foot-2 enchantress, who I wanted to know,” he writes. “She was Doris Eileen Calderwood, who the American State Department had just transferred to Caracas. She had a warm smile, an engaging personality and obvious intelligence. I was smitten.”
But it was Fletcher’s pursuit of Calderwood that would spell the end of his career with Studebaker. After 14 months of nonstop work, Fletcher informed his boss that he would be taking a vacation with Calderwood, leaving no forwarding address or phone number. When he later returned to headquarters, Fletcher was told that he was no longer employed with the company. “It was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me,” he says.
A New Opportunity
In 1951, connections Fletcher made in Venezuela resulted in a job offer from P&G. Fletcher jumped at the opportunity. “That’s what I did for the rest of my business career,” he says.
According to Fletcher, post-World War II, P&G was one of a handful of large American companies “exploring the frontier of international business.” But before Fletcher could travel the world again, he had to earn his stripes stateside. He began calling on grocers in southern Florida. After five months on the job, Fletcher was one of the company’s top salesmen. He was encouraged to stay on the U.S. sales track, but he had international dreams. In 1952, Fletcher went to Toronto as an assistant to the brand manager of Tide—the company’s top product. Fletcher was on his way—until he was unexpectedly drafted into the U.S. Army.
Fletcher took a leave of absence from P&G, reluctantly joining the 9th Infantry Division at Fort Dix in New Jersey. “Everyone tries to avoid heavy weapons,” Fletcher says. “I got active in trying to get into something else.”
He landed a special assignment in the Public Information Office where his background in public relations, marketing and sports announcing paid off. Fletcher helped produce a 13-week, 30-minute radio variety program “aimed at giving Americans a better understanding of Army life while promoting goodwill.”
Following his stint in the Army, P&G called on Fletcher to take on a position as an advertising manager in Mexico City. While there, Fletcher and his wife welcomed their only child—a daughter, Alison Fletcher. Alison would hardly know Mexico, however, as just two years after her birth, Fletcher was transferred to England and then Venezuela.
“It was an exciting time,” Fletcher says, summing up their time in Venezuela in three words: “Bombs and bullets.” He recalls violent riots stirred up by Fidel Castro sympathizers and the threat of terrorist attacks against American companies. “Through all of this, we made our own rules,” Fletcher writes. “P&G headquarters in Cincinnati had no useful experience with 1960s international terrorism.”
In the ensuing years, the family tried to put down roots in Cincinnati, but P&G kept finding new work for Fletcher, first in Italy and then Germany, “the largest and most profitable gem in the company’s international crown,” says Fletcher.
By 1972, Fletcher had returned stateside as vice president of International “with a portfolio of countries that read like roll call at the United Nations.”
Fletcher’s last assignment for P&G came in 1977 when he was asked to be the Cincinnati-based point man for Japan, a division known as a “graveyard for careers.”
“Overall, I had more executive experience with our international businesses than anyone else,” he writes. “The assignment in Japan was my duty to take—not my preference.” Culture clashes and differing values abounded, and after seven years of trying to stem the losses in Japan, Fletcher was taken off the job and ushered into retirement. He was 59.
Energy to Spare
“I thought, ‘Well, what am I going to do?’” Fletcher says. He still had plenty of gas left in the tank, so he worked to save the Cincinnati Opera Company from ruin, dabbled in teaching, headed up a Sister Cities program and joined a literary club. “I wanted to stay busy,” he says.
At 70, Fletcher also took up competitive sailing. He bought a 21-foot Yngling racing keelboat, named it Kingling, brought it to Lake Minnetonka and got to work assembling a team. “I was 75 in 2001 when our team began to show real promise,” Fletcher writes.
On a Clear Day
In a life that saw Fletcher moving frequently, summers at Lake Minnetonka were a rare constant for him. “I loved growing up on a lake,” he says.
Fletcher witnessed the area transform from a summer cottage getaway to a full-fledged suburban area of Minneapolis. “The standard of living has raised,” he says, noting that Wayzata was once so quaint, it didn’t even have a restaurant to its name.
Much of Fletcher’s beloved Sunset Point, which Alison now owns, has remained as it once was. “It became a family center,” Fletcher says. Perched on an arm that extends into Saint Louis Bay, directly across from the Minnetonka Yacht Club, Sunset Point is known for its stunning 180-degree views of the lake.
Seven years after Doris’s 2008 death, Fletcher moved to Minnesota permanently. He now lives with the “second love of his life”—Anne “Topsy” Simonson—at her home just off of Shoreline Drive. On a clear day, it is possible to catch a view of Sunset Point from their deck. “We don’t know how much life we have left,” Fletcher says. “But we’re going to enjoy it.”
Fletcher now has his sights set on a second book—a collection of papers he wrote for his literary club in Cincinnati. He may be 96, but he’s certainly not letting that hold him back.
Divergent Paths: A Life Reexamined ($20) is available at amazon.com.