Wisconsin: The center of things in so many ways

    Wisconsin’s location, in the middle of the country, is a plus for business.

    “We consider ourselves to be centrally located. We can hit both coasts with our trucks in a few days,” said Kurt Penn, founder and chief executive officer at Good Foods Group. Penn will move his specialty foods company from Chicago in early 2013 to Pleasant Prairie, along the I-94 corridor in Kenosha County.

    The proximity to raw food materials grown and produced in Wisconsin also makes is easier to do business here, Penn said.

    Wisconsin has access to two waterways: the St. Lawrence Seaway via Lake Michigan on the east and Lake Superior on the north, and the Upper Mississippi River on the west.

    The state is linked to two other major metro areas by rail and interstate highways, with Chicago to the south and the Twin Cities to the west.

    Tim Roberts, of Catalyst Exhibits, is another CEO who moved a company to Pleasant Prairie recently, from Crystal Lake, IL.

    “The ability to get to O’Hare, downtown Chicago and Mitchell Field is quicker than in Crystal Lake (in northern Illinois),” Roberts said. His company makes trade show displays for business clients.

    That ease of movement between Wisconsin and major cities near its borders is a selling point for companies hoping to lure workers to Wisconsin, says James Hill, executive director at the La Crosse Area Development Corp.
    “We’re between the biggest cities in the Midwest, the Twin Cities and Chicago,” Hill said. It’s possible to drive to either of those metros for a city weekend, and still get back to La Crosse’s scenic setting on the Mississippi to start the work week.

    “One of the benefits I promote is our closeness to Minneapolis,” says Michael Schatz, economic development director for the City of Eau Claire. “If a business there wants to have a satellite center, management can go back and forth in a day.”

    Schatz’s city of about 70,000 people is a hub for the Chippewa Valley in the northwestern part of the state.
    Dick Uihlein, owner and chief executive officer of Uline Inc., a distributor of shipping, industrial and packaging materials to businesses throughout North America, has hopped the border twice into Wisconsin.
    Uihlein moved the company’s headquarters in 2010 from northern Illinois to Pleasant Prairie in Kenosha County. The $100 million, 1.25 million-square-foot facility now houses nearly 1,200 workers. An expansion is in the planning stages.

    Uline also has announced that it will move its Eagan, Minn., facility, near the Twin Cities, across the border into Hudson, Wis. The company has a 600,000-square-foot facility under construction, with a plan to open in Hudson by the fall of 2013. About 300 jobs will move to Wisconsin for the new plant.

    “We just weren’t able to find land in Minnesota where we wanted to be,” said Uihlein.

    The ease of finding a desirable site in Pleasant Prairie also was a big factor in the 2010 move, he said.

    Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. announced a plan in December to build a $300 million, 30-story office tower at its downtown headquarters campus near Milwaukee’s lakefront. The tower will replace an older building and provide space for an additional 1,700 employees that the company expects to hire in coming years.

    “It’s a premier location,” said Tim Gerend, a Northwestern Mutual vice president who is overseeing the expansion. “It’s right across from the lakefront and the Calatrava (the Milwaukee Art Museum’s wing that was designed by the internationally-known Spanish sculptor).”

    “We’re excited about some of the things that are going on in Milwaukee,” Gerend said, citing a new lakefront development plan.

    Helios Solar Works chief executive officer Steve Ostrenga looked at sites in Florida and Texas before choosing the Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley, a longtime industrial area, to open the business two years ago.

    “It was a confluence of factors,” Ostrenga said. There was demand in the area from customers for his company’s solar panels, he found private equity investors in the region and he was able to tap into Milwaukee’s labor force.
    “We have good access to employees from the north, west and south. There’s a good public transportation system,” Ostrenga said.

    For Helios, the center of things is the best place to be.

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