Associated Bank

    What Makes Wisconsin so Special?

    When I started to think about moving to Wisconsin in late 2009, I came across an article in Southwest Airlines “Spirit” Magazine in which each state was ranked on two dimensions. (1) Did people who were living in the state want to stay there or move away, and (2) did people who were not living in the state consider moving there. Wisconsin was characterized by an overwhelming majority of people already in the state who wanted to stay, and in contrast by a very small percentage of people who are not in the state considering moving there.

    So what is it about Wisconsin, I thought, that makes living and working there so attractive, but nobody on the outside seems to know or care? Over the last four years I have had the opportunity to travel throughout Wisconsin, get to know the regions and develop a deeper understanding of what the answers to that question might be.

    A cradle of success

    My first observation was the disproportionate share of titles won by the states sports franchises, notably led, of course, by the Green Bay Packers. But also, I noticed the unusual rate of highly successful companies that have their roots and home in Wisconsin. This included well-known brands, large public companies, as well as privately held, second or third generation businesses of all sizes and business models.

    In 2010, Associated Bank organized an event called “Building a Winning Franchise” to explore the common roots of this success. Our panel of speakers including Mark Murphy, Willie Davis and Aaron Rodgers for the Packers, as well as John Bergstrom, David Kohler, Craig Culver and Mary Ellen Stanek (Baird) helped us distill numerous insights. Some of them seem more familiar, such as focus on your talent, keep the customer in mind at all times and create a strong culture within your organization. But two stood out for me as truly unique:

    Make your own opportunity, consider necessity the mother of innovation and a changing environment an opportunity to reinvent yourself. Wisconsin has built economic diversity through stages of its evolution — from lumber and paper, to agriculture and food products, to becoming a true manufacturing hub in the country. Turning a horse trough into a bathtub, absorbent paper into a diaper, or the idea of treating a customer as a guest into an unmatched service philosophy are only some of the examples how problems and challenges led to new products or new skills and ultimately created competitive advantage.

    Honor tradition and be mindful of your history. In a fast-moving, forward-looking society, nothing could be easier than “focusing on what is next” without considering what has already been. Preserving the legacies and lessons learned from prior generations creates a more deeply rooted culture, which not only inspires, but also trades off the chase for a quick success against the steady creation of something that can be sustained. This spirit of tradition is not only alive in the stands and tunnels of Lambeau Field, but equally in the conference rooms, sales floors and machine shops of many of Wisconsin’s leading businesses.

    The value of collaboration

    Fascinated by these early insights, I was curious to learn more. Through my involvement with New North, one of several economic development organizations in the state which are showcased in this issue of Wisconsin Biz, I had the opportunity to meet leaders in business and education and become involved in the discussions that aim to help enhance the economic strength of the state. Among the many lessons learned, one stands out.

    Create a bridge between businesses and education, and good things will happen. Wisconsin is home to fascinating collaborations, such as bringing engineering into an elementary school curriculum (Fond du Lac), creating new study programs to meet the needs of fast growing financial services companies (Oshkosh and Manitowoc) or making substantial investments to train a workforce that can meet the skill and labor demands of a booming shipbuilder (Green Bay and Marinette). Unique structures, such as the Northeast Wisconsin Educational Resource Alliance (NEW ERA), and the open dialogue through platforms like the New North are assets that cannot be easily found in other places.

    I am certain that my journey of discovering the secrets of success of this state will have many more rewarding chapters, and I would invite you to share your perspective with me. I have already found a true sense of pride for being part of this state along with a growing belief that every minute and every dollar we invest in “Remaking Wisconsin” can pay dividends beyond our expectations.

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