Weathering The Storm

Posted on Oct 1, 2009 :: Development
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Fond du Lac taps into strong manufacturing base to keep humming along

Adjusting to what the market wants is a proven business success strategy and it’s one J.F. Ahern of Fond du Lac has followed as it grows its environmental services segment and the company’s bottom line.

“More businesses are interested now in energy efficiency and other environment friendly options,” says Jim Jarvis, executive vice president of J.F. Ahern’s industrial contracting division. “Environmental service is an area we see for big growth potential. We have seen a big increase in work despite the economic downturn because businesses are seeing the ROI of environmental friendly options and programs.”

The company also benefited from the federal stimulus dollars going into some community wastewater treatment projects. “Some projects just in the talking phase before are now going out to bid and are moving along fast because those dollars are now there,” Jarvis says.

J.F. Ahern, which was named one of the country’s top 200 environmental firms by a national engineering magazine and employs about 350 locally, is just one Fond du Lac County business finding success even as the future of Mercury Marine’s local manufacturing facilities captured headlines last month.

“There’s a lot of positive business news in Fond du Lac County and while Mercury Marine is important to our economy, it’s not the only company here. We have brought in some new companies and really focused our business attraction and retention plans, which have proved to be successful,” says Brenda Hicks-Sorensen, president of the Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corporation.

She points to four companies that have moved – or will soon be moving – into new facilities:

» F. Ziegler Enterprises, a Fond du Lac manufacturer, moved to a new facility earlier this year and has undergone expansion to keep up with customer demand. The company plans to add up to 35 employees over the next few years.

» Advanced Paper Enterprises of Ripon has moved into a new 60,000-square-foot facility and added two machine lines. The company plans to add up to 33 jobs over three years.

» McNeilus Steel Inc. is building its first Wisconsin facility – a 112,000-square-foot distribution center in Fond du Lac’s Southwest Industrial Park. The project is expected to create up to 30 jobs locally and up to 50 jobs over the next three years.

» Chicago Tube and Iron Company will move this month into a new 117,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution facility in the newly developed Fox Ridge Business Park located between Hwy. 41 and Hwy. 175 in Fond du Lac. CT&I is relocating its Wisconsin Division operations from Milwaukee to Fond du Lac and will employ about 35 people.

“Our manufacturing base in Fond du Lac County remains significant. There’s a lot of good news out there,” Hicks-Sorensen says. “We are very active working with our current businesses and trying to make sure their needs are met. It’s all about building trust and relationships with companies and being proactive.”

Other solid manufacturers include Brenner Tank, which won a $15 million order earlier this year from Navistar Defense of Warrenville, Ill., for 480 tanks; Marchant Schmidt, which manufactures equipment for the food and dairy industries around the world; and cheese makers Saputo Cheese and Grande Market Cheese.

Moraine Park Technical College is also growing. The school – which has its main campus in Fond du Lac and branches in West Bend and Beaver Dam – saw double-digit enrollment increases, says Sharon Nevins Holmes, the college’s vice president of marketing and college advancement.

A part of that growth can be directly tied to more people heading back to school after being laid off, she says.

“We’ve seen a 17.4 percent increase in the number of class sections offered to meet students’ demand,” says Holmes, adding that estimates put its unemployment and dislocated worker enrollment up 66 percent from a year ago. “We are definitely seeing a funding crunch. Students’ tuition only pays a portion of actual costs so we’re working with the state and workforce development boards to see what kind of additional funding may be available so we can continue helping students reach their goals.”

Local businesses of all sizes will benefit from a new economic development program: the Impact! Economic Gardening Program. Run by the Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corporation and the Center for Enterprise Development, Impact! is designed to grow the local economy from within, Hicks-Sorensen says.

Economic gardening is a model based on the premise that entrepreneurs at all levels drive the economy. The program creates jobs by supporting existing local companies by providing access to technology for finding or expanding sales opportunities, creating supply chain efficiencies, and understanding competition.

Impact! has received a $437,899 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration, which will fund the program implementation and three years of service.

“It’s something we’re definitely excited about,” Hicks-Sorensen says.