With 38 years of economic development experience under his belt, Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corporation President Steve Jenkins has been in his current role since early 2012. He has served in similar positions nationwide, including most recently in Topeka, Kan. Insight Executive Editor Margaret LeBrun sat down with him to talk about his vision for the county-wide, private-public partnership.
Today we’re always in a flux of change. We have to ride that wave, and figure out how we take advantage of that.
We’re seeing tremendous expenditures in automation, which affects employment – particularly in the manufacturing sector. This is a manufacturing region and we’re going to have to figure out how to deal with the fact that there are not going to be as many manufacturing jobs – but there are going to be good jobs. We’re going to have to look at different measurements as they relate to what is successful in economic development.
A lot of people fear change. I’m one of those who thrives on it. I believe that change always presents opportunity.
We have enhanced our existing business program, particularly as it relates to primary employers. My director of business development, Bill Stemeimel, has brought some unique perspectives to that position because he was in industry and had served as a consultant. He’s putting into place some really innovative programs.
Our growth has been primarily in the existing businesses. We’ve had a tremendous amount of growth in our existing manufacturers in the last few years.
Alliance Laundry has undertaken a large expansion, Wells Vehicle Electronics consolidated their forces into Fond du Lac and are finishing up on a major expansion right now; they included a research center. Mercury Marine is in the process of expanding their operations. A little company called Advanced Tooling in Mt. Calvary is a very sophisticated tooling operation for manufacturers in the medical industry. They just doubled in size, both in building and employment – they’re up to about 50 employees now.
Fond du Lac County is ranked as one of the highest concentrations of advanced manufacturing in the nation. Milken Institute ranked us very highly: We were in the 19th position out of 360 metros in the United States. Most people don’t realize that those manufacturers are there, but there are highly sophisticated and advanced manufacturing techniques inside those buildings.
MAG, which used to be Giddings & Lewis Machine Tools, which has now been purchased by Fives Group, France, does custom manufacturing equipment. They employ about 260.
Fond du Lac County has the state’s biggest dairy, Rosendale (parent company MilkSource owns 15,000 head of cattle at three locations in the region). That’s phenomenal. They’re a good example of how even the agriculture industry is changing because a lot of that is mechanized.
We just funded a major project for LaClare Farms, near Pipe. They are a goat milk and cheese processor and make nationally award-winning goat cheese. They are building a new facility that will involve 600 to 800 goats for milking, a processing facility and a retail shop. They’re now getting requests from all over the nation for raw milk.
We just adopted a new vision statement: “We will be the most effective economic development organization in the state.” I am a strong proponent of steward leadership; I believe I serve every single citizen that lives in Fond du Lac County.
Early in my career, I was at an event one day and a lady tapped me on the shoulder and she had tears in her eyes. She said, “I want to thank you.” And I said, “For what?” And she said, “Well, because of what you have done, my husband has a job that he never dreamed he would ever have. And my family has things that we thought we would never have.”
That has influenced my philosophy about being an economic developer. It’s about people. Some you might never meet in your lifetime – but you impact them in a positive way.