Burnsville technology entrepreneur dies at 78

William “Bill” Flies

Flies launched two firms, coached youth sports in Burnsville

A photo of President George W. Bush talking on a secure telephone from the Florida classroom where he was reading to children when he learned of the 9/11 attacks shows a hard plastic key plugged into the unit.

The device, which enabled the conversation to be encrypted, was invented and manufactured by Datakey, a company founded in Burnsville in 1978.

“9/11 is definitely a moment that everybody remembers and was impacted by,” said Tom Flies, the oldest child of Datakey founder William “Bill” Flies (pronounced “fleece”). “To know that his invention in Burnsville was right at the center of it is pretty cool.”

Bill Flies, a farm boy-turned technology entrepreneur who founded two successful companies in Burnsville, where he raised his family and also coached youth sports, died Feb. 19, 2021, at his home in Frontenac, Minnesota. He was 78.

The Flies family lived in Burnsville from 1972 to 2002, moving several times, Tom said.

Datakey, which made more than a million of its signature plastic keys with a memory chip inside, was located off Nicollet Avenue on the north side of Highway 13, Tom said. The product’s most famous application was in the secure telephone units used by presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama.

In 1985 Flies started XATA Corp., which for years was located on Cliff Road near Interstate 35W. Recognized as an industry pioneer in transportation technology, XATA produced onboard computers and software used in the fleets of major companies. He was granted more than 70 patents for his designs.

Flies took both companies public before they went private again, Tom said.

“At heart, my dad was an engineer and a problem solver,” said Tom, who worked for Datakey and for XATA and today is CEO of Sentinel Offender Services in San Diego, California. “He would go out and he was great with customers and understanding what they needed. And it’s rare for people to understand all aspects of computers and technology. He was able to grasp hardware. He knew about electronics and electronic circuits and even plastic moldings and things like that, but he also knew software very well. It was that rare combination of talent that allowed him to take hardware and software and marry it together and create something that was truly unique and solve problems for customers.”

Flies was born in Wabasha, Minnesota, in 1942 and graduated from Plainview High School in 1960. He graduated from Minnesota State University, Mankato in 1964 with degrees in math, physics and business. In 1969, after working for Univac, he co-founded a company called Technalysis.

“He was obviously very smart and he had that entrepreneurial spirit, which is never give up and just keep going,” Tom said.

Tom remembers his father launching XATA in the basement of the family’s home on Woods Trail in southwest Burnsville. Flies’ vision was to create rugged mobile computers at a time when personal computer use was on the rise.

XATA products were used mostly by Fortune 500 companies with large fleets, Tom said.

A father of three, Flies coached youth and American Legion baseball in Burnsville as well as traveling basketball, said Tom, a 1987 Burnsville High School graduate and member of the school’s 1985 state champion football team.

Tom also played on the 1983 state champion Babe Ruth baseball team his father coached.

After starting XATA Flies used a company computer to keep team statistics, said Tom, who remembers players checking out the dashboard computer in their coach’s van.

“He was very approachable and well-rounded in most subjects and pretty down-to-earth, and kind,” Tom said.

In 1987 Flies and his wife, Linda, founded Chateau Frontenac Ltd. to redevelop a historical community in Frontenac on the shores of Lake Pepin, where they operated a bed and breakfast for several years.

Flies enjoyed collecting vintage cars and restoring tractors with his nine brothers. He and Linda spent winters in San Diego, where he enjoyed attending his granddaughters’ dance recitals.

He is survived by his wife; sons, Tom (Kris) and Marc (Aimee); granddaughters Alexandra and Kendall; brothers, Ken, Jim (Sharyn), John (Joyce), Gerry (Irene), Dave (Jeannine), Don, Steve (Pat), Paul (Gwen) and Kevin (Rhonda); and sister, Debbie. He was preceded in death by his parents, Paul and Lois, and daughter, Marette.

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