Brenda Hicks-Sorensen

Posted on Nov 1, 2009 :: Face Time
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Brenda Hicks-Sorenson, president, Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corp.

Brenda Hicks-Sorensen has seen a lot in her nearly 15 years as an economic development professional. But as president of the Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corp., she found herself in the eye of the storm as the Mercury Marine drama unfolded this past summer. She sat down with Insight Associate Editor Rick Berg to talk about what those critical days were like.

We had been keeping a close eye on the marine industry so it wasn’t necessarily a surprise to us, but in early April, as Mercury Marine officials shared with us that they needed to make some hard business decisions, it was eye opening for a lot of people. We were very fortunate that the state of Wisconsin was with us from those very early discussions, so we knew that the state was going to be a strong partner.

We did an economic impact analysis and even I was surprised when we started looking at the impact and we really tried to make sure everyone understood how important this was.

We knew from the company that they had a number of issues with the long-term cost structure with labor and other components that we had nothing to do with. But we knew that we had to have a strong incentive package. In July, when Mercury Marine went public, we knew we had done what we needed to do and from that point on, we just tried to be respectful of the labor discussions.

Those labor negotiations wrapped up in August and the company announced that on Sunday, Aug. 23, there was going to be a vote on the contract – the company’s last, best offer. That’s when the roller coaster ride started. The company and the union leadership was trying to educate the employees about what the contract said, but there was a rush in less than a week’s period of time.

When the union did not ratify the contract, I went into the office and it was just the most incredible sadness. We had already decided that we were going to focus on keeping Mercury Marine’s headquarters here, but there was just something so wrong about not having the manufacturing here.

By Tuesday, employees from Mercury Marine were calling — wondering if there was something that could be done. I can’t tell you how many times we thought it would go to another vote or it wasn’t, on almost an hourly basis. Those were some of the most incredible highs I’ve ever experienced and some of the most incredible lows. We were in meetings from 6:30 in the morning and wrap up at 8 or 9 at night.

That Saturday things were changing so fast, I’d be on the phone and by the time I hung up there would be several new messages and I would listen to how much things had changed in just those few minutes. I don’t know if any one person will ever truly understand what took place that day. The vote started again Saturday night, but by Sunday morning the company was saying that there wouldn’t be another vote. There was anger, frustration, sadness.

But then, as early as Sunday evening, there were some indications that there might still be a glimmer of hope and then on Tuesday the company announced there would be another vote. You had Mark Schwabero, the president of Mercury Marine, saying that when you have hundreds of employees signing a petition asking for another vote, you can’t ignore that.

The vote was to be on Friday, and we scheduled a press conference for 8 p.m. Friday night. I had a yes packet and a no packet for the press conference. I think the no packet is still in the trunk of my car. Several of us were out to dinner and watching TV, and as the news started to come across the screen, I got a call saying the vote was yes, and then all of our phones were ringing.

There was a collective sigh of relief in the community. I had businesses tell me that on Saturday they had one of their busiest days of the year and we had home builders tell us they started getting calls again right away on Monday. At FCEDC, we always have a good number of startups in the works, but one of the scary things during the process is that things got very quiet. On Monday, our phones started ringing again.

It’s nice that we can recognize how important Mercury Marine is, but now we can all breathe and focus on all the other good things that are happening.