Generous, inspirational, humble and hard working. These are just a few ways Black Woods Group founder and owner Bryan Flaherty was described last week by those who knew him.
Flaherty died Tuesday at the age of 66 after losing a battle with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a disease that affects the liver and required a liver transplant. Just three years ago, Flaherty won his battle with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis with a double lung transplant, but died before he could get a new liver.
Flaherty was born and raised in Duluth. He graduated from Duluth East High School and attended St. Cloud State University. He started his restaurant career in the kitchen of a Perkins Family Restaurant and became vice president of operations for corporate before returning to Duluth and branching out on his own.
Flaherty started The Black Woods Group in 1994, building locations in Duluth, Proctor and Two Harbors, as well as opening Black Water Lounge, Greysolon Plaza and Tavern on the Hill.
Thoreson said the loss of Flaherty has left an enormous void for all who knew him and worked with him.
“He really was a selfless leader who never thought you worked for him. It was more like you worked with him, and he built that team around hard work and laughter,” Thoreson said.
Thoreson said Flaherty never forgot that he started in a kitchen and made a point to visit “the heart of the house” whenever he spent time in the restaurants.
“He repeatedly reminded us that we would be nothing if we had a weak kitchen and that we had to never stop thanking and appreciating the people in the heart of the house,” Thoreson said. “It wasn't just the manager that got facetime. It was the cook and the dishwasher that got a handshake or a pat on the back. He invested himself into every single person and it made people feel valued.”
Not only did Flaherty make people feel valued, he was extremely generous, whether people knew about it or not, Thoreson said.
“When I think about things that made him stand out from other people, is that he was so generous and he had zero boundaries with his generosity and never gave a second thought,” Thoreson said.
According to Thoreson, Flaherty helped take care of funerals for employees and employees’ families, as well as sent meal certificates regularly to the families of those deployed with the 148th Fighter Wing in Duluth.
“I could go on and on about what he has done and most of these things, no one would know because he always kept everything that he did under the radar. He would always say, 'It's under the radar,’” Thoreson said. “His level of generosity was always incredible, and he always taught us that you really weren't given until it hurt.”
One of the generous events Flaherty was known for was the Black Woods Blizzard Tour, a snowmobile ride fundraiser for ALS. Flaherty was told about the fundraiser by longtime friend and Skyline Lanes owner David Kolquist. Flaherty was very good friends with Kolquist’s brother, who eventually died from ALS.
After his brother was diagnosed, Kolquist said he got involved with The ALS Association, and even started what was called back then the Eggebrecht Chevrolet ALS Walleye Tournament.
“I got to know him a little bit and Bryan came to me and said, ‘Hey if you ever do another event for ALS, I would like to get involved and have my company get involved and be the sponsor,’” Kolquist said.
From there when the idea for the snowmobile ride fundraiser came about, Kolquist thought of Flaherty first.
“ I asked him to be the title sponsor of the event… and the neat part about it is not only did Bryan sign his company up to be the title sponsor, he served on the board for at least the first 10 years,” Kolquist said. “He bought into something that was just an idea and now it has become the world’s largest fundraiser for ALS.”
The Blizzard Tour celebrated its 20 year in February and has raised over $11 million since it was created.
“There's a lot of people that will give your money, but there are very few people that will give you their money and something even more precious, which is their time,” Kolquist said.
Jennifer Hjelle, executive director of The ALS Association, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota Chapter, said she got to know Bryan through the Blizzard Tour.
“Bryan was just as much involved as everyone else. He came to the monthly meetings. He was really in it to figure out how we could constantly do more for our riders and making it a first-class event. His personality lit up a room and he infused this event with his personality, which was really inspiring,” Hjelle said. “He brought life and laughter into everything good, including this event.”
The region’s ALS Association serves over 600 families in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, and Hjelle said all of Flaherty’s decisions were made based on what more could be done to better serve them.
“His commitment was always to the ALS community,” Hjelle said.
Thoreson said Flaherty has spent the past several years planning a succession plan for The Black Woods Group, and they plan to carry on his legacy in every way possible.
“So he prepared us for his passing for several years, but he didn't really prepare us for the actual loss of him,” Thoreson said.