Iconic Milwaukee entrepreneur and philanthropist Michael Cudahy dies at 97

Michael Cudahy. Photo shot by Paul Gaertner.
Michael Cudahy. Photo shot by Paul Gaertner.

Last updated on March 15th, 2022 at 02:18 pm

Michael Cudahy, one of Milwaukee’s most prominent entrepreneurs and philanthropists, died on March 11 at age 97.

After building a successful company that he eventually sold to GE in the late 1990s, Cudahy turned his attention to philanthropy, leaving his stamp on the city most visibly in the opening of Discovery World on Milwaukee’s lakefront.

The grandson of meat-packing magnate Patrick Cudahy, Michael Cudahy co-founded Marquette Electronics with Warren Cozzens in 1964 with $15,000 in capital and 1,600 square feet of factory space on Milwaukee’s north side. They went on to grow it to a $578 million company by the late 1990s.

Marquette Electronics, which later became Marquette Medical Systems, established the nation’s first central electrocardiographic system at Northwestern University Medical School.

Cudahy’s obituary, provided by Feerick Funeral Home, describes the call that preceded that breakthrough:

“Cozzens and Cudahy prospered as manufacturer’s representatives in the field of high-end electronics, but they were constantly on the lookout for a product they could call their own. After a series of modest successes, they received what both men would remember as The Phone Call. A doctor from Northwestern University Medical School wondered if Cozzens and Cudahy could supply him with components for a new type of electrocardiograph system, one that transmitted results to a central receiving station by phone line rather than relying solely on bulky paper print-outs. Warren Cozzens had a rule ready-made for the occasion: ‘Get the order, and then decide if you want it.’ Why, yes, he told the doctor, he and his partner would be glad to work on the idea. The result, after a few meetings, was an order for what Mike Cudahy described as ‘the world’s first central electrocardiograph system.’”

The business continued to grow with Cudahy serving as managing partner and eventually majority stockholder. Its employee count swelled from one in 1965 to 3,400 by the time it sold to GE.

“Climbing higher each year, Mike Cudahy took his company from bulky transistors to integrated circuit boards, from microfilm to magnetic storage, and ultimately to full computerization,” the obituary reads. “It was not unusual for Marquette’s engineers to tackle projects for which the technology did not yet exist; they counted on the field catching up with them by the time they went to market. The result was a steady flow of new products that changed the state of the medical art.”

Cudahy wrote the story of how he and Cozzens built the company in his 2002 book, “Joyworks: The Story of Marquette Electronics and Two Lucky Entrepreneurs.” Cudahy coined the word “joyworks” to describe his work:

“What made the firm unique was not only its constantly evolving product line but the management style and philosophy of its CEO. For nearly 35 years, Mike Cudahy ate, slept, and breathed Marquette Electronics,” the obituary reads. “The company was not the only thing in his life, but it was sometimes hard to identify whatever came second. Despite the long hours and the pressing demands, Cudahy was in his element as Marquette’s leader. The company was his ‘joyworks,’ a term he coined and used as the title of his 2002 business memoir. It provided an outlet for three of his greatest passions—tinkering, free enterprise, and people—and it combined them in ways that were socially useful, financially rewarding, and consistently energizing.”

In 1998, Cudahy, then 74, sold Marquette to General Electric for $810 million.

He quickly shifted his focus to giving back to the Milwaukee community. In the decade following the sale of his business, Cudahy and The Cudahy Foundation donated more than $165 million to community causes, according to his obituary.

He established a reputation for not just giving to causes but taking a hands-on approach to ensuring his money went to worthy projects, including “hiring staff, fine-tuning programs, and weighing in on the smallest details of building design,” his obituary reads.

Over the years, he served as a regent at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, chairman of the Pabst Theater and a member of the boards of the trustees for the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee and Milwaukee Art Museum, and sat on corporate boards across the country.

Of all his ventures, Discovery World captured the most time and effort.

Cudahy spearheaded Discovery World’s development, from its original location in the Central Library to a larger facility adjacent to the Milwaukee Public Museum to its current home on the lakefront, contributing about $30 million to the project.

“For well over two decades he was the organization’s single greatest source of both financial support and creative energy,” Cudahy’s obituary reads. “There were controversies along the way, to be sure, but it would be hard to imagine an undertaking with more dimensions or greater ambitions.”

He also dedicated resources to Milwaukee’s performing arts. In 2002, he purchased the historic Pabst Theater building at 144 E. Wells St. from the city of Milwaukee for $1 and completed a “top-to-bottom” restoration of the theater.

In 1996, Cudahy spearheaded the effort to bring an IMAX theater to downtown Milwaukee.

In the early 2000s, Cudahy contributed to the now-iconic Calatrava addition at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

“… when civic leaders engaged Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to design an addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, Cudahy joined the effort, helping to solve technical problems in the movable sunscreen and funding an artful urban garden designed by legendary landscape architect Daniel Kiley,” according to his obituary.

Cudahy’s beneficiaries included many colleges and universities: the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee School of Engineering, Messmer High School, Pius XI High School,  Bruce-Guadalupe Community School and Marquette University.

In 1998, Cudahy gave most of Hilltop Farm, his family’s summer retreat on Milwaukee’s northwest side, to the YMCA of Greater Milwaukee, which became the Y’s John C. Cudahy Branch.

For his contributions as an entrepreneur and community leader, Cudahy received BizTimes Milwaukee’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013. At the 2013 BizExpo event, he sat down with then BizTimes Milwaukee executive editor Steve Jagler for a conversation about his family’s story and his reflections on building his business.

“Although his most visible success came as an entrepreneur, he was at heart a tinkerer, an inquisitive soul who loved to figure out how things worked and, if possible, how to make them work better—whether they were complex medical machines or entire communities,” his obituary reads. “Cudahy viewed the world as an endless procession of problems to be solved, of opportunities to be seized, and he was happiest when he was in the absolute thick of solving and seizing them.”

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