COVER STORY – Taking the lead in Titletown – New Green Bay Chamber CEO brings education to business

Posted on Nov 1, 2011 :: Cover Story
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Over the next few weeks, Green Bay area business and community leaders will be seeing a lot of Laurie Radke.

The newly hired president of the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce is on a listening tour of sorts – meeting with members and other business, community and education leaders to gather as much information as she can.

“It’s the community’s chamber, not mine, and I want to make sure that what we’re doing is what they’re asking for,” Radke says. “Listening and collaboration are essential to ensuring the chamber’s future and the work that needs to be done to make sure we’re a viable organization serving the business community’s needs.”

But Radke, 45, who replaces Paul Jadin (tapped by the governor in January to lead the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.) is confident about the chamber’s future and its role as a community leader to drive collaboration and champion causes essential to helping businesses to not only survive, but thrive.

“I’m excited about the chamber’s possibilities and how we can work with other organizations to make this community a better place to live,” Radke says.

Radke’s face isn’t the only new one on the New North business scene. Earlier this year, Shannon Full joined the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce & Industry as president and CEO, replacing longtime leader Bill Welch. Their arrival – mere months apart – re-energized chamber members looking for new ideas and a fresh approach to doing business.

Full, 36 (see “Face Time,” April 2011 Insight) has already replaced the typical chamber dinner at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel with a red carpet-themed gathering (The Event, which made its gala splash Nov. 3) at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, and is bubbling with ideas for engaging members in new ways.

Businesspeople up and down the U.S. 41 corridor are intrigued by the possibilities in store as they anticipate more changes from these two leaders who seem to have much in common. No doubt they will be unique from each other: Radke comes with a longtime understanding of business needs in the Greater Green Bay area and Full, with a perspective leading chambers in such diverse communities as Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Melbourne, Fla., and Twin Cities North in Minnesota.

“I’m excited to have another strong woman involved in the industry. Laurie has a lot of talents to share with the community,” Full says.

 

Listening to businesses

Radke is no stranger to working with businesses. For the past seven years, she served as dean of corporate training and economic development at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. There, she fostered key relationships with businesses as she took the college’s contracted corporate training program from making about $1.5 million to more than $4 million annually.

“Laurie was excellent at forming relationships with employers. She was very good at listening to employers and finding out what they need, which will serve her well in her new job,” says Jeff Rafn, president of NWTC and Radke’s former boss. “At the same time, Laurie worked hard to develop internal relationships at the college since she knew she had to come back and work with staff members to develop programs to meet employers’ needs.”

At the college, she would meet with business owners about their training needs and then either pair them up with a program to fit their needs or create something from scratch. “It was very individualized,” she says.

That familiarity of working with businesses will carry over to her new role at the chamber. This month, she is intensively listening to concerns that will help her chart a fresh course.

“I’m going to take all of that information and funnel through it before a retreat later this year with the chamber board, where we can map out a strategic plan,” Radke says. “It’s not my plan, but rather we’ll take ideas from the people we’re meeting with to develop a plan that moves us forward.”

The relationship-building skills Radke honed at NWTC will come in handy as she leads an organization that works with businesses ranging in size from one or two employees to companies with more than 1,000 workers. Through the years, the chamber has developed an array of programs to help meet some of those diverse needs.

“The chamber has a lot of programs focused on business development, education, leadership. … I’m not even up to speed on them all, it’s so vast,” Radke admits. “That’s why it’s difficult to classify the chamber as this or that. We work to help businesses, but we also work to help the community through different partnerships, such as being a co-sponsor of the recent Life Study.” (See page 12 in this issue.)

A Manitowoc native, Radke has lived in the Green Bay area since earning her bachelor’s degree in public administration at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She earned her master’s in business administration at Lakeland College, where she later worked in several roles before becoming director of the college’s Ashwaubenon campus. After holding that role for a number of years, she moved over to NWTC.

“I’ve called the Greater Green Bay area home for a long time and I’m very passionate about this community and doing what I can to make it even better,” she says.

Chamber Board Chair Greg Gauthier, who co-led the committee to find Jadin’s replacement, says Radke will help take the organization to the next level.

“The vision for the chamber is to be ‘the’ organization for sage business advice and professionalism, and to contribute to the growth and vitality of the Greater Green Bay area,” Gauthier says. “We are excited to have Laurie at the helm to propel the Chamber forward as ‘the’ go-to organization for the business community,” he says.

 

Helping business at the grass roots

Radke leads a progressive organization recognized for its economic development initiatives – everything from the creation of a business incubator to programs designed to help companies jump into the global exporting market. Earlier this year, the chamber earned a four-star accreditation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, becoming only the fourth one in Wisconsin to earn the honor.

The key to the chamber’s success is listening to businesses and then trying to come up with ways to fill unmet needs, says Fred Monique, vice president of Advance, the chamber’s economic development arm. Monique, who served as interim chamber president after Jadin’s departure, says being responsive to the needs of businesses is essential.

For example, the new Brown County Microloan Program got started because many small businesses were unable to get the funds they needed to get started or expand. “When we counseled business owners, we kept hearing over and over again, ‘I can’t get any money,’ and we knew we had to address that,” Monique says.

Advance then met with local banks to secure funds and the microloan program was born. The program has $595,000 in capital and has made six loans since it got started last spring. “Those businesses wouldn’t be here today or expanding if it wasn’t for this program,” Monique says.

In the Advance Business & Manufacturing Center, the goal is to design services around the people located in the incubator, says program manager Lisa Harmann. “We offer onsite consulting and really do what we can to help businesses get through those first three years, which are the most difficult,” she says. “The goal is to have them graduate from the incubator and get out into their own space.”

Harmann says the new Brown County Culinary Kitchen is another example of the chamber seeing a need and then filling it. She says people would come to the business incubator and be interested in having a food-related business, but the equipment wasn’t available.

“I would just refer them to Algoma, where they have a farm market kitchen, but they were getting full. We knew something had to be done,” she says.

Collaboration – in this case with the Algoma Farm Market Kitchen and N.E.W. Curative – led to the chamber’s launch earlier this year of its commercial kitchen incubator. The space is available for food processors or food service providers to use.

“Someone with the Algoma kitchen had a connection to N.E.W. Curative and they had this equipment and space that wasn’t being used and soon it just all came together,” Harmann says. “So far, the program has exceeded our expectations.”

The chamber has many other programs designed to help businesses grow, including Partners in Education, which links schools, businesses and community organizations, and Current, a young professionals’ organization.

 

Having their say

Legislative issues – whether updating members about laws and regulations or lobbying legislators on behalf of a specific proposal – have long been an integral part of what chambers do. Through the years, chambers across the country have gained the reputation for leaning to the right when it comes to legislation. As part of her reaching-out initiative, Radke plans to meet with businesses that have left the chamber to find out what led them to leave: Politics? Relevancy? Value for their dues ($340 annually for a basic membership)?

“Membership retention is a key issue,” she says. “When we went through the accreditation process, one area we lost points in was member retention, so we’re taking a look at that to see what we can do to improve on it,” she says.

 

Radke says the chamber wants to make sure members and elected officials are well informed about potential legislation and how it may affect the business community. She adds that although the Green Bay Chamber is a part of larger state and national chamber organizations, that affiliation does not dictate local involvement.

“My main job is to listen to our members and develop programs and initiatives that they want. That’s why the listening sessions will be so important. … I’ll be able to hear what’s important to them.”

And from there, the chamber will take a look at its programs and initiatives and see how they match up.

“It’s definitely a team effort – it’s not just me doing this, but all of us here at the chamber,” Radke says. “My goal is to build a platform where we can all come together and work toward the same goal: strengthening our community and the businesses that call it home.”

Radke says one of the chamber’s biggest challenges in the months and perhaps years to come is something she heard a lot about in her former job – the skills gap between the jobs companies need to fill and the available workforce.

“I’m a firm believer in collaboration, and I think by working with businesses, schools and the community in general that we will find a way to bridge that skills gap.” she says “It’s something we all need to work on if we want our community and economy to thrive.”