Fantastic Four

    Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:39 pm

    Four chief executive officers are leading the fundraising drive to transform their alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, into a nationally recognized research center that has cutting-edge partnerships with its local business community. The Milwaukee CEOs are working to raise $100 million for the university by June 30, 2009.

    The fundraising drive is being led by: Gale Klappa, president, chairman and CEO of Wisconsin Energy Corp.; Dennis Kuester, chairman and CEO of Marshall & Ilsley Corp.; James Ziemer, president and CEO of Harley-Davidson Inc.; and Edward Zore, president and CEO of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. Inc.

    Another top local business executive, Sheldon Lubar, founder and chairman of Lubar & Co. Inc., has been named honorary co-chair for the campaign.

    “When we are successful, the campaign will re-energize UWM,” Ziemer said. “We’re going to establish this campus as a research institute that will breed new business in and around the Milwaukee area, providing jobs and creating revenue for the city, county and state. We’re going to bolster the university and attract new teaching talent. And we’re going to fund some programs that have special emphasis on educating our diverse population.”

    The CEOs aren’t just raising money for business education programs at UWM.

    “My bias is to the business school, but there are other parts of the university that are equally important to others,” Kuester said. “The grads are the raw fuel that feeds a lot of businesses around town. They’re looking for local jobs and provide us with the human resources to run our businesses.”

    Since it was launched three years ago, the UWM campaign has raised about $70 million in funding, including a $10 million donation from Lubar, earmarked for UWM’s business school, which has since been renamed the Sheldon B. Lubar School of Business.

    Lubar said he donated funds and became involved in the fundraising campaign because of the university’s importance to the business community and Milwaukee in general.

    “UWM probably retains more of its graduates than any of the other universities in the (UW) system,” he said. “A good share of the leadership of Milwaukee businesses are people that were educated at UWM. It’s vitally important, not just from a business standpoint, but from an engineering, nursing and liberal arts one.”

    After living in other large cities in the United States and abroad, Klappa returned to the Milwaukee area in 2003 to lead Wisconsin Energies. A 1972 UWM graduate, Klappa lived for more than 30 years outside of Milwaukee and saw the impact research universities have on local economies.

    “One of the fundamental lessons that I see unfolding from other first-class research universities is that patents and ideas get spun out into startup businesses,” Klappa said. “Many of those startup businesses end up growing within a 25-mile radius of the university.”

    Many large corporations have cut back on their research staff, which gives a university such as UWM an opportunity to partner with the businesses, Lubar said.

    If done effectively, the university could act much like an outsourced research department for large corporations, fostering both large donations, lasting relationships and jobs for its graduates.

    “You have the top three (research universities) like (John) Hopkins, Michigan and the University of Wisconsin,” Lubar said. “The large amount of money for research attracts the really extraordinary scientists and their research teams. Soon you have cells of leading-edge scientists in your community, and things sprout from that.”

    The importance of having a highly reputable research-oriented university in a city hasn’t been well-explained in Milwaukee, Lubar said, leading some in the area to downplay the importance of a research institute.

    “A lot of the people I know, who (normally) would have a better handle on this, don’t understand the significance that research can bring to a community,” Lubar said. “In many ways, the future of Milwaukee does rely on how successful the people in Milwaukee are in upgrading their level of education.”

    UWM’s prestige and the quality of its programs are crucial to the future success of the Milwaukee area and its citizens, Lubar said. The city’s business leaders need to care about the low numbers of students graduating from high school, and the relatively low rate of bachelor’s degrees held by residents of the city.

    “Companies locate in and expand in places where there is a source of educated workers,” Lubar said. “That really is the tall and short of it. How can you get to college if you haven’t graduated from high schoolω It’s critical. Our future depends on it. I truly mean it.”

    The co-chairs and Lubar have tapped into their own networks of business contracts to solicit donations for the university, Zore said. The group holds teleconferences at 7 a.m. every other Friday, discussing who they might next approach for donations.

    “This $100 million is not the beginning or end, it’s just a phase,” Zore said. “It’s an ongoing challenge to get the revenues that the school needs to function.”

    Klappa said he is impressed by UWM Chancellor Carlos Santiago’s plan to improve the school’s engineering program.

    “If you think about advanced engineering and Milwaukee’s past as the tool shop to the world, advances in engineering and related technologies are still important to the economy here,” Klappa said. “I would hope that a decade from now, we would look back and say the university has gone to new and higher level in terms of practical, effective research, and that a stronger engineering school has helped southeastern Wisconsin maintain manufacturing at a high level.”

    Zore hopes more people in Milwaukee and across the state will pay more attention to the niche programs UWM has developed, which aren’t offered elsewhere.

    “The school has a lot of special competencies,” Zore said. “One crowing jewel is the Great Lakes Study Center. Everybody in the community should pay more attention to it, because it is increasingly important to look at our water resources.”

    The fact that four UWM alums have become CEOs of such prominent Milwaukee companies is not lost on V. Kanti Prasad, dean of the Lubar School of Business.

    Maintaining a connection with the business community is an integral part of running the school, Prasad said, because the school needs to know what businesses need from its graduates.

    “It is so important that we stay focused and connected,” he said. “Our graduates have to be educated with the right curriculum, so we have to know what is important to the business community.”

    The Lubar School of Business is in the early stages of developing a new program to open lines of communication with other schools at UWM, so that developments in the engineering, physics, science or art departments might be connected to young entrepreneurs in the business school.

    “We are trying to come up with a mechanism to team (the non-business student) up with one of our own students and give them the necessary background,” Prasad said. “We’re working on one idea where we could give them some kind of financial support through a competition. Those ideas are at the formative stage, but we recognize the importance of the idea.”

    For more information about UWM’s ongoing drive to raise $100 million in pledges, call Lucia Petri, the school’s vice chancellor for development, at (414) 229-3011.

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