How they got there

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 10:57 am

Stanek overcame adversity in male-dominated industry

By Molly Dill, staff writer

Mary Ellen Stanek has never had a boss who wasn’t male. In fact, she’s often the only woman in the room.

But she hasn’t let that stop her. Stanek, one of the top-ranking women at Milwaukee-based Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc., has faced her share of adversity on the way up, but has worked to remain positive and change minds from within the company.


“One of the great things about investment management and asset management in particular, is our results are so objectively measured. If you can perform and if you can produce competitive results, it’s hard to ignore whether you’re 27 or 57, male, female, orange hair.

“(I use) that as a strength and let my capabilities and my track record speak for itself and to try to not get hardened by that and to remain laser-like focused on what we’re trying to do here, what we’re trying to accomplish. You need to constantly keep pushing and helping open people’s minds.”

Finding mentors and sponsors to advocate for her was key, as was their advice and encouragement as she managed her career and family, Stanek said.

As chief investment officer at Baird Advisors, president of Baird Funds, and managing director and director of asset management at Robert W. Baird, as  well as a member of several corporate and nonprofit boards, Stanek’s plate is full. And that’s the way she likes it.

Stanek, 61, gets to work by 6:30 a.m. (an hour later now that her three kids are out of the house) each day and gets things done.

“If you’ve had a tough day, I always say get up the next morning and let’s go,” she said.

She started coming in early so she could be home to care for her children, and she’s come to appreciate that quiet time to think and innovate.

Stanek has an integrated calendar and brings her “holistic me” to work. She was the second grade room mother and the young CIO at the same time.

Not only did Stanek have to convince male colleagues she was capable of handling the workload, but she also had to prove her mettle and leadership capabilities early in her career.

She grew up working in the Illinois community bank where her father was president, helping with any tasks she could. That’s where she learned to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

Stanek attended Marquette University, and then in 1978 took a job in marketing at Xerox Corp., where she went through the company’s sales and marketing training program.

“Looking back on it, it was an absolutely world-class sales and marketing training at the very beginning of my career that has been incredibly helpful and impactful,” she said.

Despite that invaluable training, Xerox wasn’t the right fit and Stanek in 1979 joined First Wisconsin Trust Co., launching its money market funds and completing basic analytic and administrative work. Her experience in banking, stellar grades and willingness to do any task set her apart.

In addition, Stanek completed a research project on the concept of duration and how it could be applied to the management of bond portfolios, through which she became an expert as First Wisconsin pioneered the technique. In 1983, her boss was hired away by JPMorgan Chase to execute the concept there, and she was selected to be the next CIO at First Wisconsin.

“First Wisconsin Trust Co. looked around and I had as much experience as anybody with the concept, but I had just turned 27, I had four years of experience, I was pursuing my MBA at night.

“My boss…had said to me in the beginning, yes you’re really busy, but you should go get your MBA at night and then the CFA designation. He said to me, ‘There will never be a better time. You need to go do this.’ I look back on that advice and yes, it was juggling a lot of balls, but I was so grateful because he helped position me for when the opportunity came. And it came far earlier than I would have expected or than typically would have happened.”

The rest was history. Stanek has led the group that is now Baird Advisors for 34 years. She advises young people to always look for opportunity, since you never know when it’s going to come along and you can’t control when it happens.

Mentorship and employer flexibility are important to Stanek, and she works to pass down tips from what she learned along the way.

“The whole (Marquette) Jesuit philosophy of educating people for others instilled in me was at a very early age, was that this degree and this education wasn’t just about me, it was about what I was going to do with it for others.

“Certainly one of the strengths I have is people. I think my people skills, my ability to sort of read situations and see the whole field and be able to bring the best together on the field and bring the best out of people.”

Stanek has grown her group over her storied career and now manages $52 billion at Baird Advisors.

“I wouldn’t say that I set out to be a top-ranking woman,” Stanek said. “I would say that I have high expectations of myself and when I’m going to do something, I’m going to give it everything I’ve got and I want to do well.”

Ugo Nwagbaraocha sees the big picture

By Andrew Weiland, staff writer

West Allis-based Diamond Discs International, a supplier of construction tools specializing in diamond-edged cutting blades, core bits and small power tool items, plans to move its headquarters to a larger facility in the city of Milwaukee.

For the company’s owner, Ugo Nwagbaraocha, the planned move is about more than just a need for more space. As an African-American business owner who considers himself a “boundary-less visionary,” Nwagbaraocha feels an additional obligation to create job opportunities in the city. The company currently has about a dozen employees and plans to add another 20 to 30 over the next two to three years.


“Being able to hire from the city of Milwaukee is one of the things I have been very passionate about for a long time,” Nwagbaraocha said. “When we look at the employment shortages, or the skills gap, or the perception of crime, or the reality of crime, what are things that I can do as a business owner to impact that?”

Nwagbaraocha acquired Diamond Discs International in 2007, after working there for about five years as director of sales. The company was a Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce Future 50 award winner in 2010 and 2016.

When he talks about his “humble success,” Nwagbaraocha is quick to credit his parents, Dr. Victor and Pauline Nwagbaraocha. They immigrated to the United States from Nigeria in the early 1960s, shortly after they were married. They both graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Victor later received his doctorate from Marquette. He was a professor at Milwaukee Area Technical College for 37 years and was involved in forming numerous community and religious groups.

“When my father passed away six years ago, there were so many people that said they never would have achieved success if it was not for my father motivating and encouraging them,” Nwagbaraocha said. “Not only did my parents have their own success, they impact so many other people’s success. If they are able to do that with the sparse resources they had, and I have abundantly more resources available to me, then I have no excuse.”

After graduating from Nicolet High School, Nwagbaraocha went to Colorado State University on an academic scholarship. He also hoped to play basketball there, but that didn’t work out and he eventually transferred to UWM.

While in college, Nwagbaraocha worked during the summer, providing security at Summerfest and ethnic festivals. During his last year of college, he started working at a machine shop tooling company, Foremost Industrial Exchange.

“It was really my first opportunity to work for a company where there were people making what I thought at the time was very significant money,” Nwagbaraocha said. “To be side-by-side with someone making six figures, I thought, ‘If this guy can do it, why can’t I?”

After graduating, Nwagbaraocha moved into a managerial role with the company. He doubled the performance of his division and after a year considered going to law school, but the owner of the company convinced him to stay. He remained with Foremost until the owner retired.

After working in the financial consulting and communications industries, Nwagbaraocha was recruited to join Diamond Discs International as director of sales.

After about four years, the ownership asked if he was interested in buying the company.

“It was what I always wanted to do, to have my own business,” Nwagbaraocha said.

To buy the company, Nwagbaraocha sought advice from consultants and received assistance through the Greater Milwaukee Committee’s Initiative for a Competitive Milwaukee. One consultant suggested he meet with Cory Nettles, managing director of private equity fund Generation Growth Capital Inc.

“I thought I was going to have a 10-minute conversation with him,” Nwagbaraocha said. “The first 20 or 30 minutes he was intensely drilling me, finding out about the company and what my aspirations were. But then I remember the next 70 percent of the meeting was, ‘Hey, how can we help you?’”

Nettles made some referrals for banks and advice.

Nwagbaraocha established a banking relationship with BMO Harris Bank and Curtis Disrud of Winter, Kloman, Moter & Repp S.C. became his accountant.

“I tell any business owner, get a great CPA,” Nwagbaraocha said. “He’s worth his weight in gold.”

Nwagbaraocha said his wife, Sheila, provided tremendous support and business insight from her experience as a project manager for GE Healthcare.

The deal was completed in 2007. It was a rocky start for the new business owner as the Great Recession took hold. The company had to catch up on some payments to vendors, while many of its customers were going bankrupt.

“It was baptism by fire,” Nwagbaraocha said.

At the time, masonry contractors for residential buildings were the bulk of the company’s business and those firms were failing as the housing market collapsed.

But Nwagbaraocha found other customers for the company’s diamond-edged cutting blades. The housing market was in the tank, but homeowners who were able to upgrade decided to remodel instead of move.

“What did that mean? It meant people were investing in kitchens and that meant marble and granite countertops,” Nwagbaraocha said. “Another big thing was landscaping with hard decks, outdoor patio decks in stone. Stone that needed to be cut.”

Those customers helped to turn Diamond Discs around. Then Nwagbaraocha started to pay attention to the increase in infrastructure projects across the country, in part because of federal stimulus funding. But the company had to increase its inventory to serve the large construction firms that did massive road construction and bridge building projects.

“That became an industry that changed us around,” Nwagbaraocha said. “The companies we’re doing business with now are a lot larger than those that we were doing business with 10 years ago.”

Meanwhile, the company kept in contact with the customers that were struggling to pay their bills during the recession. Some of them have recovered now that the construction industry is booming, and have remained loyal to Diamond Discs.

“When the rough times happen, that not only exposes what your real character is, it also is an opportunity for success,” Nwagbaraocha said. “Some of these guys that made it through the rough times have exploded, and those guys they remembered us…and now they are very loyal to us. If we were always looking at things just transactional, that would never happen. Being visionary, not being myopic, not being transactional, not looking at things just as a commodity, looking at that relationship, building that reputation, these things are huge and really differentiate us and I think are some of the reasons we have had some of the humble success that we’ve had over the years.”

Irgens has built a  base for success

By Corrinne Hess, staff writer

Last spring, as developer Mark Irgens was putting the finishing touches on 833 East, downtown Milwaukee’s first new office tower in more than a decade, he heard BMO Harris Bank was issuing a request for proposal for its own new downtown office tower.

Irgens knew at least five other developers were going after the project, so he decided to take a risk.


Irgens put forward a proposal that solved two problems for BMO. He would develop a new, 25-story office tower adjacent to BMO’s existing building in downtown Milwaukee and then repurpose the former M&I Bank headquarters building at 770 N. Water St.

The idea won Irgens Partners LLC the business, and further secured Irgens’ place as one of the most dominant players in the southeastern Wisconsin commercial real estate market.

From The ASQ Center in downtown Milwaukee to GE Healthcare’s offices in Wauwatosa, the 72 projects Irgens and his team have developed since he started the company in 1998 are some of the most recognizable in the area.

“When I started the company, I think my goal was much less,” Irgens said recently, sitting in his fourth floor conference room in 833 East. “I had a much more myopic view of the world. But as we continued to succeed, I was able to see a much bigger picture, so I was able to learn along the way and see more opportunities.” 

Irgens, who recently turned 62, grew up in Wauwatosa. He was an accounting major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1970s, but when an advanced accounting course stumped him, he dropped the class and needed to replace the five credits.

That is how he met one of UW’s legendary professors, Jim Graaskamp, who was teaching an introduction to real estate and urban land economics class.

“He was an influencer in my life,” Irgens said. “He was a dynamic speaker and very enthusiastic. He got sick when he was in college and became paralyzed, but made the best of it. There is a whole generation of people who were trained under him who have become entrepreneurs.”

Irgens spent the first five years of his career as an appraiser and then a commercial loan officer at a bank.

By then it was the early 1980s, and the high interest rates and bankruptcies Irgens saw his clients experiencing became part of a continuing education that stuck with him when he started his own company.

Irgens convinced Appleton-based Oscar J. Boldt Construction Co. to start a development arm and hire him to lead it, which he did for 15 years before purchasing the assets and more than 35 employees with three partners in 1998, when the Boldt family decided to exit development.

The group invested about $65,000 of their own money and borrowed “a bunch of money” to start Irgens Development Partners LLC (now Irgens Partners LLC).

“We were very leveraged, so from that standpoint, it was motivating for us to work hard,” Irgens said.

One of Irgens’ first projects was with fellow developer William Orenstein.

The two partnered to redevelop the former Gimbels building into The ASQ Center in downtown Milwaukee. The project was completed in 2001.

“Folks like (Orenstein) and the Boldt (chief financial officer) and president were true gentlemen and really good people to work with, and that is how we like to do our business,” Irgens said. Orenstein died in January 2016.

Irgens himself is a gentleman. And reserved.

He believes in always being prepared, protecting his reputation and making sure every project has two ways out.

During an interview, Irgens quietly refers to himself as “secretly hard driving.”

“There are a lot of moving parts (in real estate) and it is hard to get them all lined up to get a project to work,” Irgens said. “The architecture needs to fit the financial model. We want to build grand projects, believe me, but we base our success on our stakeholders’ success.”

Driving around southeastern Wisconsin, Irgens doesn’t have to look far to see his work.  He said the biggest thrill is when the buildings are just coming out of the ground.

“I usually drive past projects that are under development to see how they are doing,” Irgens said. “Most of the intellectual work has been done prior to putting a shovel into the ground. But when I’m actually seeing a building coming up and starting to take shape, I find that really satisfying.”

When asked his favorite project, Irgens doesn’t name a building. Instead, he says it is the business he has grown over the past 19 years.

“We have been very fortunate,” Irgens said. “The way I look at is, we didn’t have any grand plan to be the largest office developer (in the area); our plan was really to do the best we could at every individual development and choose the best location. The location and the quality of real estate is really important because then you can weather the ups and downs much better.”

Irgens’ current partners are Jaclynn Walsh, Duane Nolde and David Arnold. The company is currently in a legal dispute with two former partners.

Walsh has been a co-owner since the beginning. In 2014, she was promoted to president and chief operating officer of the company.

Irgens views the company he and his partners started nearly 25 years ago as a first-generation organization that will continue on when he decides he doesn’t want to work as much as he does now –although, with several projects in the pipeline, he doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.

“We are trying to build a base, as opposed to growing as fast as we can,” Irgens said. “So it has been fairly gradual. We don’t try to get out in front of our skis too much.”

Jagdfeld seeks the right answers

By Arthur Thomas, staff writer

Aaron Jagdfeld used to come in to Generac Power Systems Inc.’s office on Saturdays to complete work he wasn’t able to get done during the week. An early riser by nature, it allowed him to get in a half day of work and return home.


It also just so happened Saturdays were when Generac founder Bob Kern would spend time in the office visiting with employees, getting to know them and asking a lot of questions.

“That was his time to kind of walk the building and connect with people outside of the normal craziness of an eight-to-five day full of meetings,” Jagdfeld said.

He says those Saturdays helped him get to know Kern and learn about the business.

Years later, Jagdfeld is running the company Kern founded and he continues to apply lessons learned from those Saturday morning conversations to leading the company, especially when it comes to asking questions. He said people sometimes assume a chief executive officer won’t be asking questions because they “just know” or feel like someone in their positon shouldn’t be asking.

“That’s never bothered me,” Jagdfeld said. “I’d rather engage somebody and get the right answer.”

When Jagdfeld first joined Waukesha-based Generac in 1994, he wasn’t sure exactly how long he would stay and acknowledged he saw the opportunity as “more of a stepping stone.”

Jagdfeld grew up in Wisconsin and attended the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, in part because it allowed him to continue to run track. The school didn’t have an engineering program, so Jagdfeld opted for accounting, since it also incorporated math.

After graduating, he took a job in the Milwaukee office of Deloitte & Touche LLP and had Generac as a client.

“Growing up, I was always one of those kids that was very mechanically inclined. I was always a kid who was taking stuff apart, trying to figure out how it worked, driving my parents nuts,” Jagdfeld said.

He expected Generac would be one stop on an accounting career path that would take him from company to company as he built his skillset. Instead, Jagdfeld found that an interest in the products, manufacturing and the business helped propel his career.

“I’ve always been a big believer that if you work hard, you work smart, you do the right thing, that good things will happen,” he said. “Sometimes they don’t happen as quickly as you want, sometimes they don’t happen exactly the way you want, but I think in the end, they do happen.”

It also didn’t hurt that Generac was growing and expanding, building toward its eventual sale to CCMP Capital Advisors LP and other investors in 2006.

“A lot of it was because we were growing. I think when companies grow, it presents all kinds of different opportunities,” Jagdfeld said.

A larger company might limit the opportunities for people to stretch themselves into new, more challenging roles, but at Generac, Jagdfeld went from accountant to corporate controller to chief financial officer, and finally, to president and chief executive officer before his 40th birthday. 

“You always have this feeling, this nagging sense in the back of your mind like ‘Am I ready for this?’” Jagdfeld said of taking on a new role. “You just have to have the right attitude, the right confidence level and you also have to ask a lot of questions.”

He sees two types of employees generally. One group that’s focused on getting work done and asking what else they can do to contribute. Another group is focused on themselves and on bolstering their own career.

“There’s an appropriate time to have that,” Jagdfeld said. “To walk into your boss’ office with that only on your mind, I think, is wrong.”

He added it is important for managers to understand, appreciate and respect that not everyone within a company is going to want to understand the entire business. Instead, some employees may just focus on doing their job well.

“They’re a very important part of the base of the company,” he said, adding the role of leaders is to make opportunities available to those who want them.

“There’s this prevailing wind that companies should provide all this opportunity to employees on a silver platter,” Jagdfeld said. “It’s up to you. If you want to take that (opportunity) and grab the next rung on the ladder, that’s up to you; don’t expect me to put that rung in front of you.”

When it comes to reaching the top positions in a company, Jagdfeld returned to what he feels helped him advance at Generac and has kept him with the company for more than two decades.

“When it’s hard for you to connect with the product, I think it’s really hard for you to go and take that really high-level role in a company,” he said. “You have to have a genuine interest in the product.”

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Andrew Weiland
Andrew Weiland is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, Weiland is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, and son, Zachary. He is an avid sports fan and enjoys coaching his son’s youth baseball and basketball teams.

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