A growing trend

Major players in Fond du Lac County expand, but worker shortage looms large

Posted on Jun 30, 2017 :: Economic Development , Insight On
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

When Steve Jenkins first heard $4 billion, he was sure he’d misunderstood.

Had he really heard billion, with a “b”? The Fond du Lac Economic Development Corp. had commissioned a study of the economic impact Mercury Marine brings to the county, and the final numbers exceeded his expectations.

“The figures are mind-boggling, particularly as it relates to output,” says Jenkins, the outgoing president of the FCEDC.

The numbers are even more impressive taking into consideration how much the company has grown in just eight years. The nearly $4 billion figure is an increase of $1.7 billion from 2009, and the company has added more than 3,500 jobs in that timeframe. The study, conducted by Austin, Texas-based economic consulting firm Impact DataSource, looked at Mercury growth between 2009 and 2016.

Since 2009, the Fond du Lac company has tallied more than $830 million in research and development and capital investments, including five expansions, two of which opened in 2017. It added 53,000 square feet of manufacturing and office space at its headquarters and opened a new 49,000-square-foot electro-deposition paint system expansion.

Lee Gordon, director of global public relations and communications for Mercury, says the boating industry is recovering after the economic downturn, growing at 5 to 6 percent a year, but not yet fully up to pre-recession levels.

Boating has grown globally and in both fresh and saltwater, Gordon says. Salt is hugely corrosive, so the company, which sells to every country in the world but five, dips each engine in paint three times. The expansion allows Mercury to dip more engines more quickly, getting them to customers faster.

“Once they get on the water, all they have to worry about it is having fun,” Gordon says.

In March, the company announced the commissioning of the largest high-pressure die casting machine in North America. Brought over on 17 oversize truckloads, it allows Mercury to create castings that no one else in the industry can make and incorporates automation. “It’s actually allowing us to hire more people versus downsizing because of the automation.”

While Mercury is awash in success, it faces one formidable hurdle. Fond du Lac County’s 3 percent unemployment rate is great news. “On the flip side of that, there’s not a lot of people looking for work,” Gordon says. “I would say that probably keeps us up at night more than most things.”

The company has more than 100 job openings in areas including manufacturing, sales, marketing, machining and especially engineering. To address the problem, Mercury has invested in the Fond du Lac STEM Academy as well as working to draw more veterans and women into its ranks.

“When you think of manufacturing, you think it’s dirty, it’s gruff,” Gordon says. “It’s not. It’s actually really cool.”

Awash in demand at Alliance Laundry

Increased domestic and international demand drove the expansion of another big player in the region: Ripon’s Alliance Laundry Systems. Randy Radtke, global public relations manager, says the company is growing quickly, thanks to Alliance’s reputation for quality.

In April, the company moved into a new 19,810-square-foot building that houses sales, marketing, engineering and project development. It also completed its 193,000-square-foot global distribution center. The former 147,000-square-foot warehouse will become the hub for Alliance’s manufacturing operations and is expected to be completed
in April 2018.

The company, which employs about 3,000 people, took advantage of investment incentives from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., the FCEDC and the City of Ripon. Radtke says these played a vital role in expansion efforts. “They’re really not going to get done without those kinds of incentives,” he says. “That was definitely a key element to things going forward.”

Alliance is working on developments in wet cleaning, a type of professional cleaning that provides a more environmentally friendly alternative to dry cleaning. It’s also focused on helping businesses like commercial laundry operations and hotels operate more efficiently.

“It’s a phenomenal story, and we’re just happy they’re headquartered in Ripon,” the FCEDC’s Jenkins says.

The company is hiring, with the greatest needs in areas like manufacturing and welding. “We like to think we bring a lot to the table in terms of employment,” Radtke says.

Jenkins, who departed the FCEDC for a new role as president of the Sandoval Economic Alliance in
Rio Rancho, N.M. in June, says the talent shortage won’t be resolved overnight and will take a generation
of work to address.

“The presence of advanced manufacturing is an exceptional strength (of the region),” Jenkins says. “And with that, I also caution that manufacturing has changed a great deal.”

To keep up with the changes, Jenkins says we need to develop a workforce of the future. That demands cultivating a STEM-educated workforce, he says, and all stakeholders must develop a cohesive strategy and work together.

“Workforce development is too fragmented,” he says. “My parting word of advice is we need to get that act together quickly.”

A whole new ballgame

Fond du Lac is crawling with sports entertainment, thanks to its new Northwoods League team, the Dock Spiders.

The baseball team kicked off its inaugural season with its first home game June 1, and general manager Ryan Moede says it’s already generating a lot of buzz and positive feedback. “I couldn’t ask for a better night for the opener,” he says.

Playing home games at a newly expanded Herr-Baker Field on the Marian University campus, the stadium holds just under 2,000 people. Along with its regular nearly 1,500 seats, it features the Dockyard, a group area that holds up to 300 people, and the Boat Launch, a “free-range” space, that accommodates 200.

The team has sold about 300 season ticket packages so far and has drawn spectators from across the region, including west of Ripon, Elkhart Lake and Beaver Dam. The team partnered with Grande Cheese to provide a kids’ area featuring speed pitch, a bounce house and playground equipment. Adults can sip Dock Spiders Pale Ale, which Fox River Brewing Co. created with the team.

The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers organization owns the team, and Moede hopes to bring the Rattlers’ vibe of affordable family fun to Fond du Lac. “Having that family-friendly atmosphere is what we’re really trying to push.”

Organizations merge to create Envision Greater Fond du Lac

It’s all about collaboration. The Fond du Lac Area Association of Commerce and the Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corp. will join forces under unified leadership to strengthen the greater Fond du Lac region, working together to foster economic and workforce development.

The new organization is called Envision Greater Fond du Lac Inc., and it has named Cecilia Harry as its first CEO.

Harry, who holds a certified economic developer designation, comes to Envision Greater Fond du Lac from the Greater Fremont Development Council and the Greater Omaha Economic Development Partnership in Nebraska. She has experience working on capital investment campaigns, strategic planning initiatives, workforce development partnerships, marketing and project management.

Set to assume her new role July 17, Harry says her first priority is assessing both organizations and determining how they will work together as a new entity. She hopes to take both organizations’ assets and increase the value they deliver to members and partners.

“There’s a lot of great things going on in the region,” she says. “I think both organizations have very strong programming right now.”

Steve Jenkins, president of the FCEDC, announced plans to leave the organization and join Sandoval Economic Alliance in Rio Rancho, N.M. Jo Ann Giese-Kent, FCEDC’s vice president of entrepreneurship, research and innovation, will leave that role for a position as a lead instructor in Moraine Park Technical College’s new business analyst associate degree program. Sarah Spang, the organization’s director of strategic initiatives, will transition to the role of coordinating the IGNITE! Business Success program.