Pioneers of 2013

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Innovative people, organizations and ideas making northeast Wisconsin a better place

Story by Sean Fitzgerald, New North B2B publisher

The year that’s nearly past provided a good deal of innovation in northeast Wisconsin. While some were more impactful than others on the world and on the region, all provided some vision to help pave the way to a better future in northeast Wisconsin.

As we’ve done twice in the past, New North B2B magazine recognized and profiled four instigators of change during the past year as our Pioneers of 2013. Each of these people, organizations and ideas have shifted conventional paradigms, working outside of the box of traditional day-to-day activity to bring a new manner of thinking to northeast Wisconsin.

Capital Pioneer Credit Union merger

In recent years, public relations professionals have been able to spin the word “merger” to explain what die-hard capitalists may have more traditionally referred to as an acquisition or takeover.

In the not-for-profit sector, it’s been used more frequently to describe situations in which one organization with a healthy balance sheet absorbs another weaker organization struggling to survive.

That’s why the announcement this past June that Kimberly-based Capital Credit Union and Green-Bay-based Pioneer Credit Union planned to merge together into a mega financial institution of equals was so noteworthy, earning a spot on our Pioneers of 2013 list. Once fully consummated in the fall of 2014, the partnership of the two credit unions will form the eighth largest credit union in the state and the second largest based in northeast Wisconsin with total assets exceeding $1 billion and a customer base of nearly 90,000 members.

The merger is unique because both organizations are relatively equal is size, equal in strength and equal in cultural values. The financial institution marriage is hardly a case of one absorbing the other – each appears to complement the other’s strengths and areas in need of improvement.

Both have 12 branch locations, though the geographic markets each currently serves barely overlaps, although it’s contiguous.

“We both had our sights set on expanding into each other’s markets, and it just didn’t make a whole lot of sense,” said Alan Zierler, president and CEO of Capital Credit Union. His partner expressed much the same sentiment.

“We wanted to grow to the Valley, Capital wanted to grow into the Green Bay area, and if we both did that we’d just be stumbling upon one another as so many credit unions already are,” said Tom Young, president at Pioneer Credit Union, who will serve as president of the merged organization once all aspects of the merger process are complete next fall. Zierler will serve as CEO.

The merger isn’t expected to involve any layoffs of current staff. All current branch offices are planned to remain open. While there may exist some duplication of roles at each respective corporate office, some employees may be reassigned to new positions being created as the merged organization looks to establish a full-fledged audit department, Zierler explained.

The advantages to members are numerous, both Zierler and Young explained, while the downside risk is virtually nonexistent. Economies of scale will be achieved in marketing, back-end computer services and a doubling of branch locations.

Both credit unions already spend marketing dollars in advertising channels that reach both the Fox Cities and Greater Green Bay markets, Young explained. The partnership will allow for more efficient use of those budgets.

Pioneer was also on the verge of needing to upgrade its technology in the next year or two, Young said, a capital investment that would likely exceed $1 million. Young said Capital’s current system should accommodate the entire needs of the merged organization.

Perhaps most importantly, the merger means no investments will be needed on constructing new branch locations for quite some time. Zierler explained each new location costs an estimated $1.5 million to build and get up and running – that doesn’t even include continuing operational costs once the location is established. Couple that with the increased marketing costs of entering a new market and having to compete against incumbent credit unions which have already fortified their position in the market, and the value of combining existing locations is obvious.

“We’ve just added for our members 12 new offices,” Young said. “It’s a win-win for the credit union, for our employees, and for our members.”

Dick Resch, philanthropist

We generally expect those considered titans of industry to step forward and provide some meaningful philanthropy to our communities in a manner that most of us simply aren’t financially able.

But it’s unusual in this day and age – and rather remarkable – that one individual could make so many substantial contributions to such a broad and diverse cross-section of the community. This past year has been extraordinary for Green Bay area nonprofits which have benefitted from the philanthropic generosity of Dick Resch, CEO of Green Bay-based contract furniture manufacturer KI.

Resch has made a variety of six- and seven-figure donations during 2013 to support health care, recreation, education and arts and culture in the Greater Green Bay area. Other contributions supported innumerable other charities across the community.

While casual observers might want to characterize many of the donations as legacy building, Resch said it’s genuinely an appreciation for the good fortune he’s found since moving to the community in 1964 to take a job with what was then called Krueger Metal Products Inc.

“My family and I had many opportunities to support Green Bay in a community that’s been so good to us over the years,” Resch said.

Resch moved to buy the company from the estate of its founder in 1980 and has made intelligent decisions since to grow the company into a global leader in contract furniture manufacturing with nearly 3,000 employees and annual sales approaching $700 million.

Earlier this year Resch re-upped the $2 million commitment he initially made during the 1990s to the 10,500-seat arena that bears his name, which will continue to be referred to as Resch Center for at least the next two decades.

In September, his company separately recommitted another $2 million for another 20-year extension to its naming rights for downtown Green Bay’s KI Convention Center.

The benefactor noted his favorite philanthropic targets are programs helping youth, wellness, education and community recreational endeavors.

One recent donation of $100,000 to the Green Bay School District supported scholarships for arts programs in a unique collaboration between East High School and the University of Wisconsin Green Bay.

Yet another contribution of $100,000 in late October to the Village of Allouez for the East River Trail will enable a 2014 capital improvement project to widen and resurface the recreational trail. An avid bicyclist, Resch rides the trail four to five times each week, he said.

“Improving the health and wellness of our community has always been incredibly important to me,” Resch said.

Supporting that principle, Resch and his wife, Sharon, also provided $1 million to Bellin Health to create the Resch Medical Unit on the fourth floor of Bellin Hospital in Green Bay. Resch has served on the health care organization’s board of directors for three decades.

Collectively over the years, Resch’s routine gifts have added up to substantial continuing support for many of the amenities which make Green Bay an attractive place to live and visit, including an estimated $1 million to Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary; about $1 million to the Greater Green Bay YMCA, including a $500,000 gift for the East Side Aquatic Center; $500,000 for the Resch Olympic Pavilion at Cornerstone Community Ice Center in De Pere; and a majority of the proceeds for the Resch Family Auditorium at Preble High School in Green Bay.

“We have a lot of employees here, and most of them use these facilities,” Resch said.

Mile of Music

Compiling 107 musical artists across 42 different venues in a four-day period is a robust cultural attraction anywhere. Compact such an event into the most electric 1-mile stretch of Appleton’s thriving central business district along College Avenue during the summer, and such an event has epic potential.

Downtown Appleton’s Mile of Music festival did just that for the first time ever this past August, presenting more than 180 live performances – a majority of which were no cost to attend and enjoy – to an audience estimated at 15,000 to 20,000 attendees. What’s even more impressive is that the inaugural Mile of Music came together in less than five months between March and August after only being conceived by organizers during the holiday season late last year.

“We struck a chord with a high quality event that people were really thirsting for,” said Dave Willems, co-founder of Mile of Music and president and CEO of Willems Marketing, an agency located in downtown Appleton.

Willems and Appleton-based national recording artist Cory Chisel hatched the idea less than 12 months ago, modeling it after the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin that attracts a diverse array of up-and-coming musical acts. Willems attended an early South By Southwest event during the 1980s, and felt Appleton was just as well suited to present a similar offering.

“I thought, what a great way to sample excellent live music, and come and go and discover whether you like blues or zydeco or whatever,” explained Willems.

Mile of Music stretched from Spats on the west end of the downtown all the way to the iconic Memorial Chapel at Lawrence University.

This handcrafted artisan festival, as it was billed, brought droves of patrons into College Avenue restaurants, coffee shops and taverns hosting musical performances for four days straight. While music lovers didn’t even have to shell out a dollar at those free performances, Willems noted most did, getting a meal and a few beers or a couple cups of latte.

“We did this because we wanted to create a boost for all those small businesses who are scratching and clawing in order to remain successful,” he said.

Beyond such a short-term economic impact, the event helps sturdy Appleton’s position on the global music map, a reputation already earned with the presence of Lawrence University.

Willems acknowledges the event couldn’t have been as successful without the influence of his partner Cory Chisel, who attracted much of the talent to the event, including Norah Jones. Chisel and his band, The Wandering Sons, were touring in New Zealand and Australia during November and unavailable for an interview with B2B.

Success last year is encouraging an even bigger and better event for 2014. Willems said he and other volunteer organizers are targeting 200 artists conducting more than 300 performances at 55 different venues in downtown Appleton between Aug. 6 to 10, 2014. Willems reported sponsorship fundraising for 2014 has already surpassed sponsorship commitments for the past year, which when coupled with other revenues, fell about $20,000 short of total expenses. Getting the event’s finances in the black not only will help it thrive year after year, but also helps the Appleton School District’s Music Education Fund as well as the Creative Downtown Fund, the designated beneficiaries of the event’s proceeds.

“With 12 months of lead time (for the 2014 event), it’s amazing to think what we might be able to do,” Willems said.

Growing Oshkosh

Urban farming isn’t a completely new concept in the United States, but it’s a relatively recent phenomenon in northeast Wisconsin.

Late last year another sustainable community-based urban farm initiative started in Oshkosh, and after a successful first growing season during the past year, the endeavor is turning its attention to aquaponic systems to grow leafy greens and raise perch as well as sustainability education at area schools. For these and other groundbreaking developments, Growing Oshkosh rounds out B2B’s list of Pioneers of 2013.

The organization was more than just a dream and vision for Dani Stolley, founder and CEO. Stolley previously worked at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh where she helped drive its sustainability initiatives, and she also chaired the Sustainability Advisory Board for the City of Oshkosh. Her master’s degree thesis on growing local community food and urban farming lead her to enroll in the Commercial Urban Agriculture program through Growing Power, a 20-year-old urban farming institution in Milwaukee.

Upon completion of that program in 2012, Stolley drafted a business plan for a start-up urban farm near downtown Oshkosh. Stolley was given the opportunity to lease an acre of near-blighted property near the Fox River which would be rejuvenated into a sustainable farm growing “a full assortment of nutritionally-dense foods,” Stolley said. Through year-round sales of its shoots and microgreens at local farmer’s markets and wholesale agreements with local restaurants, Growing Oshkosh was able to analyze its revenue stream and adjust its business model for the coming year.

“We planted a lot of experimental things this year, allowing us to learn what we could sell, what we couldn’t sell, and what we couldn’t give away,” Stolley said.

The organization receives nearly 3,000 pounds of old, outdated produce from area grocery stores each month that would normally be landfilled to support its vermiculture activities to generate worm castings and enrich the soils used for growing. This coming year Growing Oshkosh has planted hybrid limequats – a cross between a lime and a kumquat – as well as specialty beans, garlic and mushrooms.

It’s also established an aquaponic system to farm-raise fish, and while urban farm operations typically use such systems for tilapia because they’re easier to raise, Stolley plans to support area Friday night fish fries with locally-raised perch.

Stolley and her board of directors acknowledge there’s a tremendous educational aspect to the work Growing Oshkosh is performing, and to that end, they’ve established gardens at three public schools in Oshkosh this past year, affording students an opportunity for an outdoor education in agriculture and sustainability. The group hopes to establish 20 school gardens by 2020.

Ultimately the goal of Growing Oshkosh is to educate the community about good healthy food and to deliver local economic impact. And with the Americana tradition of rural family farms falling by the wayside in favor of large corporate agricultural interests, urban farming is destined to fill a growing gap in a community’s food chain.

“This is the way food is going to be grown in the future, and we wanted to get in on the ground floor,” Stolley said.