Northeast Wisconsin business people are generally risk averse. They tend to be modest, not boastful. These were among many points addressed by the study that became the foundation for New North, Inc. as they relate to the culture of our entrepreneurial climate.
Our cover story on Todd Thiel and the international investment company he runs from rural Calumet County, McKinley Reserve, proves that not every small-town entrepreneur fits such stereotypes. Thiel has taken risks that would blow away the pages of any report chiding businesspeople in these parts for their lack of chutzpah. He has not always been successful, but few rewards come without risks.
The Northeast Wisconsin Economic Opportunity Study, released five years ago, pointed out that we need to get over our risk aversion to accomplish truly great things. It also urged working together to save and grow jobs, encourage the development of cluster industries, support an entrepreneurial environment, embrace diversity in hiring decisions and put a much greater emphasis on higher education.
After talking with David Ward of NorthStar Economics for this month’s Face Time (page 17), I was prompted to revisit the study. I found it online at www.neweconomyproject.org and felt as if I had stumbled on an old map for buried treasure. Following the efforts of New North closely for the past five years, it was interesting to see that we have already encountered many of the landmarks on this journey toward a vibrant future economy.
For anyone who wonders “What has the New North done lately?” I suggest reviewing that document side by side with the 2009 New North Report to the Community, produced by Insight Publications and mailed with this month’s issue. It’s truly remarkable what has been accomplished in five short years.
Among them are efforts to target and support new growth industries, and one recently recognized is cellulosic ethanol. Phase 2 of a study on the former NewPage paper mill in Niagara (see page 10) indicates that the defunct plant would be the perfect facility for cellulosic ethanol production. The realization that the region was ripe for such an industry hit Ward when he saw a satellite map of northern Wisconsin in the fall and saw the vibrant reds and yellows. “It turns out to be probably the finest hardwood stand in North America,” he said. “This is really a unique asset.”
Certainly, among our unique assets are the major manufacturers that still call Northeast Wisconsin home. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently toured Oshkosh Corporation (page 12), which won a series of large contracts to build military vehicles for the war in Afghanistan. I had the opportunity to tour the company with Gates, Chief Executive Officer Robert Bohn and a pool of reporters. We watched the MRAP All-Terrain Vehicles drive up 60 percent inclines – stopping, reversing and then muscling back uphill. Bohn said he never doubted that Oshkosh could produce 1,000 such vehicles a month – and indeed has come in ahead of schedule at every turn. The company has called back some 1,200 workers to get the job done.
Also in November, I went to Fond du Lac County for the announcement of a nearly half-million dollar federal grant to help grow small business through an economic gardening program called Impact! (page 11). Smiling faces conveyed optimism that was a world away from the anxiety that swept the community when Mercury Marine threatened to move its headquarters out in September.
Given the still challenging economy, it remains to be seen what 2010 will bring. Ward planned to share updates on the state of the New North during the summit Dec. 8 at the KI Center in Green Bay – the same venue where he presented his study five years ago. Considerable work still needs to be done, of course. But I think we can agree on one thing: We are lucky to have a map to follow, this time around.