Chris Hess took over as CEO of Goodwill of North Central Wisconsin last March following the retirement of Bob Pedersen, who led the Menasha-based nonprofit organization for 26 years. Hess joined Goodwill from ThedaCare, where he served as vice president of market development and sales. Prior to that, he worked at U.S. Venture and Genco. A Kenosha native, Hess earned his bachelor’s degree from St. Norbert College, which introduced him to living in the New North. He stayed in the region after college and later earned his master’s degree in business administration from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
Hess spoke with Insight Managing Editor MaryBeth Matzek about what drew him to Goodwill, the challenge of overseeing a nonprofit organization that provides services in 35 counties across north central Wisconsin and what it is like following Pedersen, a well-known community and business leader.
Insight: When most people think of Goodwill, they think of the stores, but there is a lot more to the nonprofit. How do you describe the organization?
Chris Hess: Goodwill has 24 different programs, which are funded from the retail operations. The programs are all mission-focused in their activities. There’s a broad range within those 24 programs, but their mission and vision are the same. Our mission is to elevate people by eliminating barriers. Our decisions are based on that mission. For example, with FISC, we assist people with financial barriers by helping them develop a budget or a debt mitigation plan. Then there’s a program like the Miracle League (Goodwill runs leagues in the Fox Cities, Manitowoc and the Eau Claire area) that eliminates any barriers so every child gets the opportunity to play baseball with the help of a volunteer.
We served more than 72,000 people last year — a new record — in 35 counties. Our programs can be scaled, but we are intentional in what we do. If there’s another local organization doing something similar to one of our programs, that’s fine. We don’t need to be repetitive. We also are open to partnering with local organizations on different projects.
Goodwill is a very different business from ThedaCare and U.S. Venture. What drew you to the organization?
I love the ability to make a visible impact on the communities where we live and work. When I was with ThedaCare, there were good programs we were working on, but there were many steps we needed to go through to make things happen. At Goodwill, we can see our mission lived every day — elevating people by eliminating barriers — and see that immediate impact of what we’re doing.
Goodwill has two distinct operations — your retail stores and then providing programs to people
in need. Is it a challenge managing such different sectors?
They have different focuses. Goodwill needs to change with the needs of the community as well as evolve with industry changes. With retail, more shopping is being done online, so Goodwill got into e-commerce. We launched restitch.com, where we sell higher-end women’s clothing with those proceeds going to help people in our local programs.
Each program is managed accordingto the different need it is designed to meet. Back to the Miracle League, we want to help as many children as possible play baseball, and that means getting out the word about the program so kids can sign up and then having enough volunteers to help.
Goodwill has always been known for its job training programs. If you talk to any business owner, they discuss the war for talent and how it’s so hard to find employees. Our core competency is helping people with barriers find jobs.
We work with people of all abilities to provide them with the skills and training they need — that knowledge may be something we can help share with others in the New North.
You followed Bob Pedersen, who was at Goodwill for a long time and made quite an impact in the community. Is it challenging to follow someone like that?
Bob meant a lot to many people and what he did here was tremendous. We are different leaders with different styles, but we are working towards that same mission of elevating others. As a leader, you need to find your own identity.