• WisBusiness

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Small business research grants bill deserves quick action in Congress

By Tom Still
Amid a crowded congressional schedule that includes health-care reform and the latest on the economic stimulus plan, it's not surprising that a bill to extend the life of an effective federal research grant program might slip between Washington's legislative cracks.

Here's hoping the future of the Small Business Innovation Research grant program, better known by the acronym SBIR, hasn't slipped too far. This program has turned ideas into products and thriving businesses since 1982 – at a good value to taxpayers. It deserves to be reauthorized.

The delay on Capitol Hill has less to do with Democrats versus Republicans or White House versus Congress than it does small business versus mostly small business. And it's all over an issue most people would find a bit arcane.

A premise of the Small Business Innovation Research grant program is that small businesses are a vital source of new ideas, but they're likely to need some support in the early stages as they turn those ideas into novel products and services. Through carefully metered grants that get larger as an idea gains momentum, businesses can test concepts, build prototypes and more.

Through SBIR and a small related program, 2.5 percent of the outside research budgets of 11 federal agencies (including the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health) are set aside for small businesses. The program funds around $2.3 billion in private-sector research per year. By way of comparison, the federal government spent about $49.4 billion on science and engineering grants to 672 universities and colleges in 2007.

The SBIR program has led to 55,000 patents and the formation of thousands of small businesses nationwide, many of which grew into larger businesses that now employ millions of Americans. So, why not renew the program and move on?

While the bill is mostly settled, a major sticking point is language that would allow small businesses that are "majority owned" by private investment groups – such as venture capitalists – to apply for SBIR grants. For the first 20 years of SBIR's existence, it didn't matter who owned the company. But a 2002 ruling by an administrative law judge changed that. The judge declared that small businesses owned by investment groups with a controlling interest (51 percent or more) could not receive SBIR grants. That's true even if the 51 percent interest is divided among multiple investment groups.

Some small businesses in Wisconsin think the ruling should stand. They worry that venture-backed companies will gobble up all of the SBIR grants if they're allowed back into the hunt. They don't trust industry groups such as BIO, which represents biotech companies of all sizes, or the National Venture Capital Association to look out for their best interests.

Other small business owners say their firms shouldn't be penalized simply because they've attracted investors – because those investors are precisely the people who are likely to help their firms grown. What does it matter, they argue, if a 10-person high-tech company is financed mainly by venture capital?

The most neutral source to weigh in is the National Research Council, a body whose members are drawn from the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine. In a report issued earlier this year on the NIH experience, the NRC came down on the side of letting venture-backed firms compete for grants.

"The impact of the (administrative law judge) ruling falls disproportionately on the most promising firms – i.e., those firms that have been repeatedly selected by both NIH for their promising technologies and by venture investors for their commercial potential," the report concluded. "By selecting out some of the most commercially promising innovative small firms, the (2002 ruling) appears to limit opportunities to exploit the nation's substantial investments in research at NIH."

The report noted that between 4 percent and 12 percent of firms that received Phase II awards during a certain period were "excluded, or possibly excluded," from the SBIR program because of the ruling. The National Research Council also conceded it's hard to know for sure because investment reporting requirements are vague.

A version of the bill favored by the Senate would allow 18 percent of SBIR grants issued by NIH and 8 percent of those issued by other agencies to go to firms with majority venture capital investment. How will those agencies decide which firms are majority-owned and which are not, absent a lot more paperwork? And will the next bureaucratic ruling conclude that companies majority-backed by angel networks (basically, informal networks of investors) should also be excluded?

The National Research Council recommended either restoring the old rules or "making some other adjustment" that will allow venture-backed companies to compete for SBIR grants. That's essentially what the House of Representatives voted to do. It makes sense to pass that version now.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.


Monday, July 27, 2009

Book review: "But Wait... There's More!"

By Terri Schlichenmeyer
by Remy Stern c.2009, Collins Business $24.99 / $32.99 Canada 255 pages, includes notes
It's quarter to two o'dark. You've made like a rotisserie for the last forty-five minutes and it's time to acknowledge your insomnia. You get out of bed, thinking that a few minutes of TV might do the sleepy-trick.

Channel 15 has on that guy with the exercise machine. Channel 7 is showing some juicer program. The woman on channel 51 is displaying some fancy make-up. Doesn't anybody sleep?

Not if they have a chance to sell you something. In the new book "But Wait...There's More!" by Remy Stern, you'll see why those infomercials are on late, why they work, and why you're watching them when you should be sleeping.

Radio, believe it or not, was around awhile before someone thought of adding ads.

The first radio commercial (for an apartment complex in Queens, New York) aired in 1922. Television would later employ similar advertising methods, but infomercials weren't widely used until the Reagan Administration's deregulation.

Today, over 300,000 infomercials air each month in the U.S. and Canada.

There are two kinds of infomercials: the short-form (90- or 120-second "commercials") and the 30-minute "paid program". Short-form spots are novelty-driven; longer programs offer more information and some entertainment, just to catch your eye and keep you hooked.

And then there are the hosts. Creating a show around the wild antics or unique personality of a former-unknown is easy, says Stern, but paying real celebs is always possible. Still, infomercial hosts often become celebrities.

One of the first -- and indubitably the most famous -- info-personalities is Ron Popeil. In the 1950s, Popeil honed his pitching skills from a table in front of a dime store in Chicago, quickly discovering several methods of keeping the lunchtime crowd with their wallets open. Many of his methods are still in use.

So why do infomercials work so well? Stern says we buy from infomercials because it's easy and it feeds our impulses. The products solve a problem (or a perceived problem). Perhaps most of all, we buy because we want to have thighs like Suzanne Somers or muscles like that exercise guy.

So will an infomercial work for your product? Stern doesn't exactly say, but he hints that it's going to cost you to find out. Infomercials can be big bucks to produce, and for every product that succeeds, fifty fail.

I liked this book a lot because it's a pop-culture trip down Memory Lane and a peek inside a business that is lampooned and sneered at, but is more successful that you'd imagine. Author Remy Stern had access to most of the major players in the world of infomercials, and he used it to dig a little. While he's respectful of the industry, he's not afraid to find the dark side of paid programs and their products.

If you've ever grabbed your phone to CALL NOW, or if you wonder how you can get an infomercial for yourself, look for "But Wait... There's More". While it doesn't slice, dice, or give you great abs, it's a pretty good book.

-- Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.


Friday, July 24, 2009

A fifth "T" has joined the North Woods economic vocabulary -- tech development

By Tom Still
ASHLAND -- The image of Wisconsin's Lake Superior region is that of a laid-back vacation getaway, a place where a woman's motorcycle club from Manitowoc can share a lakeside bar with preppie sail boaters from Chicago and a smattering of locals. And everyone gets along.

Tourism has long been a pillar of the economy in the Lake Superior region, along with three other traditional "Ts" -- timber, transportation and taconite, an iron-bearing rock that is still shipped by the ton from the ports in Duluth and Superior.

Of late, however, a fifth "T" has crept into the local development vocabulary -- technology.

Persistent efforts by private industry in the region, backed by economic development professionals, higher education and several statewide groups, have accelerated the diversification of the North Woods economy. Some of those efforts were on display at this month's meeting of the Wisconsin Technology Council in Ashland; others will be highlighted at the Lake Superior Technology Conference, Aug. 5-6 in Ashland. Most important, they're all emblematic of long-term commitment.

A group of Lake Superior region businesses told Tech Council board members how they have come together to forge a Chequamegon Bay area manufacturing alliance that could mean more jobs for area residents and better value for their customers.

The North Star Manufacturing Alliance involves four businesses, including Ashland Industries Inc. in Ashland, Washburn Iron Works in Washburn, Eagle Forge in Ashland, and World Class Precision Products in Bayfield. Products and services produced by the four include metal fabrication, steel and aluminum forging, precision machining, mold, die and pattern making, production welding, paint and powder coating, prototype development, layout and design, and assembly, packaging and shipping.

Bob Peltonen of World Class Precision Products said the alliance combines the manufacturing strengths of all four companies to provide more value to clients by being able to offer them a single point of service for related manufacturing tasks and products.

"Our main objective is that united we can manufacture any project, no matter how large they are," Peltonen said. "Together, we work as one unit, from raw materials to a finished product, with one purchase order."

For example, the alliance enables materials to move from one facility to another with no cost to the customer. It's all done with the latest -- and most environmentally friendly -- technologies. In fact, the alliance hopes to achieve a state "Green Tier" rating for its sustainable practices.

Other examples of economic growth leveraged by technology include businesses in health care, heavy equipment, synthetic lubricants, transportation logistics and biofuels. In fact, the region has an emerging "fuels cluster," according to Andy Lisak of The Development Association, which is centered in Superior. That cluster includes Wisconsin's only oil refinery and a low-sulfur coal terminal, in addition to fuels being derived from plant and wood waste sources.

Investors in the region have come together through the Lake Superior Angel Network, the newest angel group to join the Wisconsin Angel Network. Those investors recently reviewed three homegrown deals involving tech-based companies.

An enduring focal point has been the Lake Superior Technology Conference, which is organized by members of the Wisconsin Innovation Network's Lake Superior chapter and produced with the help of the Tech Council. The conference has highlighted regional assets and added momentum to local development efforts since 2006. The Aug. 5-6 conference will be held at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College in Ashland; to learn more, visit www.wisconsintechnologycouncil/events

The Lake Superior economy may always rest on wise use of the region's natural resources, but technology is increasingly providing added value for customers and jobs for those who produce the goods and services. The region may never be technology hub, but those who care about its future are also determined not to be a forgotten side road.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Re-setting the business exit plan in a tough economy

By Kevin Reardon
No doubt about it. The U.S. economy has been an unpredictable roller coaster for many months. This unpredictability of the markets and the economy has reset plenty of retirement plans, and that's been especially true for business owners.

Business owners on the brink of retirement are facing potentially the worst conditions for selling or handing off a business in decades. But their circumstance should serve as a lesson to their younger and future business owners. You absolutely must build an exit plan that works under both sunny and stormy conditions.

Exit plans are essential in companies large and small, and not strictly for the purpose of letting the owner and founder retire. They certainly set in motion a series of triggering events for the owner to get his or her money out of the business at retirement. However, they also incorporate succession and other strategic moves a company might make to assure its future in family hands or in the hands of a new owner.

That being said, an exit plan isn't born in a day. In fact, many financial experts in investment, tax, valuation and estate planning disciplines think it's wise for business owners to come up with the first broad strokes of an exit plan when they start a company, if possible. If that's not realistic, the plan should be developed within 3-5 years of the date they'd like to exit. A Certified Financial Planner™ professional with specific business expertise can be a helpful liaison who works with other key professionals to help owners find answers to the broadest issues in any company's exit plan, including:
  • The family's business legacy -- should a business be passed on to family or associates, or should it simply be sold or closed?
  • The owner's own career goals -- does he or she want to do this for the rest of their life, or should they make way for other professional or personal directions?
  • The company's overall creation of wealth -- too many people think of a business as a job and a paycheck instead of a creator of wealth that can support one or more generations of a family. A paycheck supports short-term goals; wealth is accumulated money that can either be invested smartly in the business or outside the business to support philanthropy, or family and personal goals.
  • The owner's retirement strategy that allows them to do everything they've dreamed after they leave
Planners can help owners get to more specific questions based on the broader goals they've discussed with family members. Some of these questions include:
  • How many more years does the owner want to run this business?
  • What's the optimal way to get rid of the business when I'm ready to go -- sell it, transfer it to family or associates or just close it down?
  • What's the value of the business now and how can it be made more valuable to potential buyers or for transition to the next generation?
  • If the company is being transferred or sold to family members, is there a growth plan in place that they have contributed to and are therefore likely to follow?
  • What happens if there's an unforeseen event or market downturn that threatens the business or the industry as a whole? Are there healthy relationships in place with potential acquirers?
  • What if there was a great offer on the business tomorrow?
  • If the business is sold, how do owners protect themselves from a personal and business tax standpoint?
  • How does the owner communicate his or her ideas with spouses, children and other family members with a stake in the business?
  • What about employees, clients and customers? How will they be protected if the owner dies or leaves the business?
  • How much money does the owner want after leaving the business and how should it be handled?
  • How should investors in the business be compensated if the owner leaves?
  • Are there specific goals that should be met by the business before the owner leaves?
An exit plan allows an owner not only to move out of a business, but also to make a wholesale career change. No one has to stay in the same industry -- or company -- for life, and with an exit plan, owners leave open the possibility for an endpoint that will allow them to travel, become philanthropic or engage in any number of new activities in business or other walks of life.

While the economy is struggling back from the brink, many smart exit planners realize that there are ways to manage delayed transitions without losing valuable employees. For instance, many owners may elect to take a sabbatical while allowing next-generation leadership to get behind the wheel before an official transition takes place. Such a move lets the next generation steer the boat on the schedule they hoped for instead of standing in place while the owner found her best opportunity to go. The owner, meanwhile, benefits from the chance to step away from the day-to-day operation to better plan their future and the company's.

-- Reardon is owner & president of Brookfield-based Shakespeare Wealth Management Inc.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Tech leaders' poll reflects concern about today; optimism about tomorrow

By Tom Still
You probably don't need a public-opinion survey to tell you most people today think the economy stinks. In fact, nine out of 10 technology executives who responded to the first WisBusiness.com Tech Leaders Survey rated the current economy as "only fair" or poor.

You might be surprised, however, by how many of those same tech company executives are keeping their chins up -- despite a recession that is more than a year old and lingering like a bad dinner guest.

Perhaps it's a testimony to their entrepreneurial spirit, or simply a harbinger that market conditions are improving, but 45 percent of the 277 tech leaders responding to the survey released July 14 said the Wisconsin economy will improve during the next year. Nearly three-quarters of the executives rated the overall prospects for their own companies as good or excellent.

Almost 45 percent of executives who responded to the survey believe the state's economy will improve during the next 12 months. Nineteen percent (18.7 percent) said the state's economy will get worse in the next year, while 36.4 percent believe economic conditions in Wisconsin will stay the same during that period.

Executives who responded to the survey are most optimistic about the prospects for the company they run. Nearly three-quarters of the executives rate the overall prospects for their own companies as good (50.4 percent) or excellent (21.9 percent). Twenty-two percent rate those prospects as only fair and 5 percent rate them as poor. Seventy percent of survey respondents said that things will get better for his or her company during the next 12 months. More than a quarter (27.0 percent) believes things will stay the same for their company in the next year. Only 2.5 percent believe things will get worse.

So, why are these folks so upbeat, especially after the drubbing the economy has taken since mid-2008?

In part, it's because most tech executives are part of the innovation economy. They see silver linings in dark clouds. When those who have been slow to innovate stumble, tech company executives see themselves and their companies as ready to fill the void.

Emblematic of those executives is Dr. Roger Hutchison, president of Digital Data Destruction Inc. and D3 Services Inc. in northwest Wisconsin. Hutchison said he rated the current economy as poor but is "gung ho" on the future for the economy and his own company.

In part, Hutchison said, that's because he perceives the economy has bottomed out to the point where "the value in things exceeds the cost. We've shaken the tree so hard that all the fruit has fallen on the ground, the seeds are planted and many are ready to grow. There's a lot of value out there."

Hutchison also believes the prospects for his company are "excellent" because "we have a fundamental position in a market niche that is growing -- data security within information technology. We expect to start hiring people back and start expanding late this year."

Few tech leaders who were surveyed were optimistic about the current supply of capital. Almost 80 percent of the respondents rate the availability of capital as only fair (34.1 percent) or poor (44.0 percent). But the survey appears to counter the myth that it's hard to find talented workers in Wisconsin. Nearly 60 percent (57.9 percent) of the tech leaders rated as good the ability of the current labor market to meet the personnel needs of their own companies. Almost 20 percent (19.8 percent) described it as excellent. Twenty-two percent of survey respondents rated the current labor market as only fair (20.1 percent) or poor (2.2 percent).

Seventy-five percent (75.2 percent) of executives who took the survey believe the ability of the current labor market to fill their company's personnel needs will stay the same during the next 12 months. Twenty-one percent (21.2 percent) said it would get better.

Hutchison said hiring talented people has not been a problem for Digital Data Destruction, which has a leadership team that includes IT professionals with advanced degrees and security clearance.

"I guarantee you I could hire another six people with credentials like that tomorrow morning, and bring them right here to Bayfield County," Hutchison said.

For Wisconsin's economy, "tomorrow morning" can't come soon enough. Fortunately, there are optimistic tech company leaders out there who can't wait to see the sun rise.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, which conducted the online tech leaders survey in partnership with WisBusiness.com and The Luminis Group. There was a 29.5 percent response rate. Still is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.


Understanding Social Security

By Kevin McKinley
There's more than a little irony to the fact that your eventual personal financial independence is so dependent on Social Security, a government program that enforces mandatory participation.

Another strange development in the Social Security saga is that it was once known as "The Third Rail" in politics because it was not to be "touched" on by intelligent politicians. Now it has become a magnet for partisans of every persuasion.

Not surprisingly, the increased debate over Social Security has inspired some twisting of the truth about the past, present, and future of the program. So it might be helpful to flesh out the difference between fact and fiction.

"Social Security is broke"

Right now, it isn't. In fact, over the almost 75-year cumulative existence of the program, Social Security has taken in much more money than it has paid out in benefits. Currently the surplus sits at about $2.4 trillion.

According to the latest report from the Social Security and Medicare Board of Trustees, that surplus is expected to continue for another eight years, until 2016.

The system will then cease to earn a surplus, but there is a projected interest amount that will be earned on the accumulated surplus that will prevent the extra money from being tapped until 2025.

After that date, the surplus will be drained over the next fourteen years, until 2037. Then, projected benefits would have to be reduced to about 75% of what they were expected to be.

In other words, in about thirty years, if you were expecting to get $2,000 per month, you would instead get $1,500 per month. The money would go directly from workers to retirees, with no accumulating surplus.

"Then everything's okay"

Well, not really. And you shouldn't necessarily be comforted by the notion that a "pay-as-you-go" Social Security system might be able to fund a majority of projected retiree benefits three decades from now.

Notice that the word "projected" appears several times in the discussion above. The actual figures will be much more dependent on how will the U.S. economy does over the coming decades.

The reason is that high unemployment is a double-whammy to the health of the Social Security system. First, "less workers working" means less people are paying in to the program.

And people laid off in their early sixties who would otherwise prefer to be working might be forced to tap the benefits sooner than they would otherwise prefer.

Finally, even "comfortable" retirees could decide to draw their benefits prematurely because of decimated investment portfolios and/or drastically-lowered income from the low rates paid on conservative, interest-bearing securities.

"At least I'll keep what I'm paid"

In theory and regardless of the amount, once your Social Security check lands in your checking account, the money is yours to spend as you please.

But partly in response to past Social Security mini-crises, several provisions have been enacted that could cause you to net out much less than the amount of the check.

First, you'll get dinged if you initiate your benefits before reaching "normal" retirement age—66 years old for those born after 1943, and 67 years old if you were born after 1960.

Second, taking Social Security before normal retirement age can also cause you to lose benefits if you also have earned income during that period. For 2009, for every $2 over $14,160 you earn annually will reduce your benefit by $1.

Third, Social Security income is technically tax-free to retirees. Unless, that is, your adjusted gross income in retirement, added to your tax-free interest and half of your Social Security, exceeds $25,000 for singles ($32,000 for married couples).

Then half of your benefits are taxed at your top marginal rate. If the formula figure exceeds $34,000 for singles ($44,000 for married couples), 85% of your benefits will be subject to income tax.

These levels, by the way, were instituted in 1983, and have never been adjusted upward for inflation. A cynic would say that the bureaucrats knew full well that without adjusting the amounts, more and more recipients would get snared by the formula, and end paying income taxes on their benefits.

But cheer up. Next month you'll learn when you should take Social Security payments, and what you should do before you initiate the checks to ensure you get the maximum possible amount.

-- McKinley bought his first share of stock at the age of 14, and began working for an investment firm at 17. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in economics and history in 1988, he became one of the youngest licensed financial advisors in the country. He is now a Certified Financial Planner practitioner, and owner of McKinley Money LLC, a registered investment advisor in Eau Claire, Wisconsin that provides fee-based financial planning and investment management to individuals and families. Read McKinley's complete bio


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Regional collaboration key to competing in global economy

By John Wiley
By Mark Cullen
In our current national economic climate, it is critical we use every tool at our disposal, every advantage we have. Our actions today lay the foundation for the economic climate of our region in years to come.

Our region is unique -- and fortunate -- that visionary leadership from around the region came together proactively during stronger economic times a few years ago to discuss the future of the region. What is our shared regional vision? What are our assets -- manmade and natural? How can we collaborate to reach a strong, shared and sustainable future for the region?

Now is the time that we reap the benefit of the leadership and vision of stronger times. Now is the time that we need to come together as a region. We can no longer afford to think of competition on a small scale, as we once did, city against city or county versus county -- our competition is now national and international, for resources like workforce, capital and innovation. Last December the State of the Madison Region report issued by Thrive, the economic development enterprise for the eight-county region, provided a glimpse at how we stack up against some peer regions. It was no surprise that we were in the top tier for employment growth, income, and many quality of life measures. The numbers are not as good this year, of course, but as a region we are still doing better than much of the nation and many of our peer regions. Regional collaboration is and will continue to be our strongest competitive edge in today's global economy.

While it may be a natural human response in trying times to "circle the wagons", to pull your resources closer -- now is the time for every county, every community and every business in our region to pull together and share our strengths. We have seen how this benefits our communities: Rock County, of course, is reeling in the wake of GM's pullout, and yet collaboration, diversification of the county's economy, and drawing on the strengths and shared resources of the rest of the region is helping strengthen and build the economy even in these very difficult times. The benefits of this approach include shared resources like data and planning tools, sharing information, leads and best practices in the region, and marketing the region as a whole to the nation and the world (eight counties, eight times the resources -- a strong, attractive package).

We've also seen how regional collaboration is sought after by business: Action Lift Chair, a specialty medical furniture manufacturer, chose to locate its new manufacturing facility in Jefferson County not only for existing assets like skilled workforce and facilities -- but also specifically because Jefferson County is part of a larger, collaborating region that can help their business thrive. Working regionally has become a proven strategy for strong communities, strong states and ultimately, a stronger nation. It begins here -- and we are all responsible.

Thrive exists largely thanks to the contributions of private investors -- businesses that understand that we are stronger working together. Since its inception in 2007 and fully staffed in 2008, Thrive has implemented strong strategies to build our region's economy in ways that preserve and enhance quality of life in the region. The organization has been successful in what it set out to achieve in these past two years, and now is embarking on a round of fundraising to continue delivering value for the next three years. The work of Thrive is critical, and continued support of Thrive is needed. The original investors are stepping up again, and it will require their leadership and that of new investors from all eight counties to keep the momentum going and see even more results that will benefit the entire region. Now more than ever, we must all collaborate as a region to thrive. -- Cullen is chairman of J.P. Cullen & Sons Inc. Wiley in interim chair of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. They are the co-chairs of Thrive Fundraising.

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Real change in health care

By Greg Borca
Congressional Budget Office data demonstrates a 400 percent increase in healthcare spending over the past 25 years. Employer healthcare premiums have more than doubled the last six years, a time in which physician incomes have trended downward. Consumer expectations are higher than ever, since we ignore the consequences of our choices and expect the medical system to fix the problem completely, today and for free. Our multi-trillion dollar healthcare system is broken and frustrated consumers are not even sure who is to blame.

I can offer this prediction: Governmental reform of healthcare will fail – not because I am hedging experience against the plan, but the current plan simply does not reform healthcare. The discussion of reforming healthcare has retreated to a mere expansion of coverage of the uninsured, with debate about the taxes and revenue sources necessary to pay the costs. The reason we have so many uninsured in this country is the spiraling costs and eroding benefit coverage. Our broken healthcare system requires reform so that every American doesn't end up on the government plan due to lack of affordability of coverage, with the excessive cost structure simply then shifted to the federal government.

True reform would create market-changing disruption that breaks down the constituencies which have coalesced and are unintentionally, or intentionally, working in lockstep to make affordable and accessible healthcare coverage unobtainable.

Every solution from the last twenty-five years has failed, the root of which is an over-simplified understanding of the variables which impact the cost of healthcare, how they interact and what type of reform is necessary to have tangible impact in both costs and duration. Because of the complexity, most proposed ideas highlight a single variable of healthcare cost and create simplified, if not naive, solutions to the problem. They receive lots of hype but inevitably fail, because they do not impact enough of the variables affected the cost of healthcare.

I am not a fan of government intervention, yet have seen industry solutions fail for a quarter century, with costs spiraling, creating endless uninsured Americans, and casting an increasingly painful burden on American businesses. Market forces have coalesced to where we have monopolies and oligopolies fighting each other with the consumer being economically harmed in the battle.

Before our government runs away with another multi-trillion dollar solution, why don't we first study and understand the cost problem, and then craft a comprehensive solution that provides for both national coverage and the essential reforms necessary to achieve lasting cost reductions so that those currently insured do not lose their coverage or have it eroded with higher employee contributions.

Read Borca's entire piece for more of his ideas on reform: Real Change in Health Care

-- Borca is co-founder of Doral Dental USA, the largest Medicaid dental administrator in the country. He currently serves as CEO of Vestica Healthcare and a Principal at Wonderbox Technologies in Mequon and most recently the co-founder and CEO of Scion Dental. Greg's wife, Heidi Borca, is a practicing physician in Milwaukee.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Book review: Financially Ever After -- The Couples' Guide to Managing Money

By Terri Schlichenmeyer
by Jeff D. Opdyke c.2009, Collins Business $16.99 / $21.99 Canada 232 pages
You're about to make a serious promise. An oath not for the faint of heart.

It starts with the "love, honor, and obey" bit and morphs into "in sickness and in health".

So far, so good.

But then, you'll say something like, "For richer and for poorer…" and you'll suddenly realize that them's some powerful words. You happen to like a checkbook in the black. How can you make sure your new life with your beloved is more toward the "richer" side and less of the other?

You can start by reading "Financially Ever After" by Jeff D. Opdyke. With this book in hand, your march down the aisle will start out on the right financial foot.

If you're like most people, you've been taught all your life that money is something you shouldn't talk about. Chances are your parents didn't discuss family finances in front of you. But now you're the adult and before you start your life with another grown-up, there are ten questions you should ask yourself and your future spouse.

None of the questions are easy, but they'll get you both thinking about money styles and attitudes toward cash and the lack thereof, least of which being: why buy an expensive, shiny particle of carbon to flash on a finger?

Do you have a basic understanding of money? What is your money history? What do you want to do with your life and your career, and how can money make that happen? What assets and liabilities are you each bringing to the marriage? How have you both used debt? How will you merge finances and delegate financial duties? And – just in case – is there a reason for a pre-nup?

But a pre-nup is so anti-romantic. You're in love and you trust your intended. In fact, you're getting married soon anyhow, so you're thinking about merging your finances now. Why wait, right?

Wrong, says Opdyke. Never join finances outside of marriage. Understand that chits happen, no matter the level of trust. Ask for and offer financial transparency. Communicate. Studies show that money issues are one of the three top hurdles couples face, and fights about finances have derailed many a marriage.

Why make yours one of them?

Looking for the right gifts for those inevitable weddings you'll be attending this summer? It might seem strange, but "Financially Ever After" could be just perfect.

Author Jeff D. Opdyke uses practical, common sense and good advice to help couples avoid one of marriages biggest issues, thereby, in a way, circumventing other problems that arise because of underlying money matters. Opdyke advocates equality and openness, but he also says prenuptial contracts are sometimes near-mandatory and yes, women should have their own credit histories… within reason.

If you've been married for awhile, you'll wish you'd had this book years ago. You may still find some good coaching here. But if you're altar-bound in the near future, find this inexpensive paperback, for sure. "Financially Ever After" is a book you won't want to miss for love nor money.

-- Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

It's not how much you make that matters ...

By Kevin Reardon
Recently one of my kids asked one of the all-time great questions, "Dad, how much money do you make?" Reflecting back to a similar conversation I had with my father, I recall clearly his response. He said, "It's not what you make that matters, but rather what you keep that counts".

During my career as a financial advisor, the concept of keeping what you earn has proven to be one of the main objectives we strive to accomplish for clients, and it comes in several forms:

Taxes: Silently Depleting your Funds

With every dollar earned in the form of wages, we owe Uncle Sam, i.e. the Federal Government, a piece of our earnings. In addition, many of us pay state income taxes, unless you live in a state that doesn't impose such tax. Don't forget that every employee pays a 6.2% tax for Social Security (up to $106,800 in 2009) and 1.45% tax to Medicare (unlimited). Of course, most states impose sales taxes on every purchase we make, pulling more dollars out of our pockets. If you own a home, the property tax is a large annual expense that depletes our budget.


If you're seeking financial independence, having a consistent savings plan is a must. Saving money with a 401(k) or 403(b) employer-sponsored retirement plan is one of the best ways to keep what you earn. Contributions to these types of qualified retirement plans happen automatically and are done on a pre-tax basis. The automatic savings component of these plans is critical, as the dollars come out before you have a chance to spend them. The pre-tax nature of these contributions is important because the government does not tax the contributions going into the plan. Once the funds are inside a qualified retirement plan, the growth of the investments is not taxed until you pull the money out. This allows your funds to grow more quickly than other investments and to build a larger nest egg.

Money inside Roth IRAs not only grows tax deferred, but qualified withdrawals are not considered taxable income. In essence, once money is contributed to a Roth IRA, it is tax-free forever. In 2010, every individual, regardless of taxable income, will be allowed to convert IRA assets into Roth IRA accounts. You will pay income tax upon conversion, payable in 2011 and 2012, but then the funds will be tax-free.


Many of us would cringe at the thought of living on only a few hundred dollars per month, but in some parts of the world that income would put you in the top 1% of all wage earners. Your financial independence relies less on your income level than it does on your lifestyle and expenses. Contrary to popular belief, we do have control of our lifestyle and spending patterns.

The United States has developed a culture of consumption in the last two decades that's eroding people's savings and preventing them from keeping what they earn. The biggest lifestyle budget busters are homes, automobiles, credit card usage, and children. As the size of the American family has shrunk in the last 30 years, the size of our homes has increased dramatically and at great expense. Not only is the purchase price substantially higher than a smaller home, but the annual maintenance, insurance, and property taxes are a larger financial burden. Smaller homes are cheaper and less costly to maintain and help us keep more of what we earn.

The automobile has been transformed in the last 30 years from a mode of transportation to that of a status symbol. The cost of a new luxury vehicle or SUV today may be more expensive than the homes we grew up in. With every additional dollar spent on a car, there are fewer dollars left over for savings. Consider driving your current car longer than you have in the past and consider a more affordable used car for your next purchase.

Credit cards have proven to be the demise of many family budgets, and eat away at our hard earned savings. Charging something on a credit card is easy to do, and allows us to lose sight of our spending habits. Humor your mother or grandmother, and try using an envelope system of budgeting for one month. This entails pulling out a predesigned amount of money from your checking account each month and segregating money into envelopes for various expenses during the month. Allocate a percentage for groceries, entertainment and eating out, kid's activities, gas & car maintenance, etc. When you deplete the envelopes, you are done spending money until your next check.

Children are the other major drain to family's finances. Rarely do we parents say 'No' to our children. Specifically, we don't say no to the cellular phones and the monthly bill that comes with them, the iPods and the cost of the countless downloads, cable TV, and expensive extracurricular events (select sports teams, dance & ballet lessons, school trips or foreign exchanges). Keep more money in your pocket. Teach your children fiscal responsibility, and just say 'No' next time a 'want' occurs.

Keep more of your earnings by clearly identifying your most important goals and recognizing that less important goals and desires need to be avoided. Keeping more of what you earn brings piece of mind as well as financial independence that will last a lifetime.

-- Reardon is owner & president of Brookfield-based Shakespeare Wealth Management Inc.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Who do ya know wants to buy a job?

By Steve Jagler
While attending a conference recently, a couple of friends from Louisiana gave me some friendly grief, telling me how they are "kicking some Yankee butt," or some such.

Amused, I inquired, "What are you talking about?"

They then proceeded to remind me how a few months ago, Gardner Denver Inc. decided to move 230 manufacturing jobs out of Sheboygan to Monroe, La.

This decision prompted Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is believed to be one of the frontrunners for the Republican Party presidential nomination in 2012, to say, "Today's announcement follows a recent trend - since early 2008, leading companies have announced moves of their headquarters or other significant operations to Louisiana from states, such as California, Georgia, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Virginia and Wisconsin. We expect to see even more of these moves in the future as national executives become increasingly aware of Louisiana's recent progress with ethics reform, tax competitiveness and workforce development."

That's a great campaign sound byte (aside from the "progress with ethics reform" part), but let's look a little closer at this Baton Rouge two-step.

Read Jagler's full column

-- Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.


Comparing effectiveness in health care is patient-friendly approach to reform

By Tom Still
President Obama wants a health-care reform bill on his desk before Congress takes its August break, and his deadline has prompted a sizzling summer debate over how to cut costs, raise revenues and extend coverage to more Americans. Not surprisingly, some ideas are good -and some aren't.

As this week's rebellion by conservative and moderate Democrats demonstrated, sorting the good from the bad won't be all that easy - especially over hot-button issues such as whether the federal government should be allowed to sell insurance in competition with private companies, a likely first step down the path to government-run health care.

Fortunately, some building blocks can help form political consensus before Washington's notorious summer heat melts the chances for progress.

The movement toward digitizing medical records, which first gained federal support when former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson was secretary of Health and Human Services, has picked up steam under Obama. Electronic health records will provide a long-term foundation for higher quality care while reducing errors and giving medical professionals better data. It's a ready example of how technology can help patients.

A related patient-friendly idea is the Comparative Effectiveness Research Act of 2009. This bill (H.R. 2502) will ensure that doctors and patients will have the best information available to them to determine the proper course of treatment for each individual patient.

The basic idea behind "comparative effectiveness" is to create a national database to share information about how different therapies, treatments and diagnostics work for patients. Medical professionals would have near-instant access to that information, which would help them tailor treatment plans for their patients.

"Comparative cost-effectiveness information would enable physicians and patients to make more informed health care decisions," the American Medical Association noted last year. "Such information could also be used by insurers, employers, government entities, educators, and others seeking to prioritize which diseases to target, recognize overuse and underuse of specific services, and identify preventive services and treatments demonstrated to yield positive return on investment."

Comparative effectiveness wouldn't limit treatment options or keep new technology out of the market. But it should expand patient options by allowing doctors to find out about cutting-edge treatments and therapies that worked in similar cases. The database should alert patients to what works and warn them about what doesn't - saving time and money in needless treatments.

Patients and physicians would still control treatment options. In fact, they would have more control, because they would be able to learn more about possible options before they tried them.

Moderate and pro-business Democrats such as the "Blue Dog Coalition," which stood up to Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week, back comparative effectiveness. U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, a Democrat who represents Wisconsin's 3rd Congressional District, is a co-sponsor of the Comparative Effectiveness Research Act.

If it becomes a part of the health-care reform mix, this bill will enhance information about treatment options while closing the patient "information gap." It will focus on communicating research results to patients and providers versus making centralized coverage and payment decisions. It will provide information on clinical value and patient health outcomes. It will support medical advances such as personalized medicine. And it will recognize the unique nature and value of targeted therapies that may help people with rare diseases.

Wisconsin is something of a microcosm when it comes to health care in America. It has all of the access, cost and quality of care challenges found in most states - and it also has many pieces of the solution, as well. The state is among the top 12 nationally in academic research and development spending, in good part because so much of that R&D is conducted in areas tied to human health. It has some of the largest private clinics and public hospitals in the region. It has a thriving biotechnology sector, and has become one of the nation's top 10 states in medical device and equipment manufacturing. It is also a center for electronic medical records, thanks to innovation by institutions ranging from the Marshfield Clinic to GE Healthcare to Epic Systems.

Comparative effectiveness offers a way to leverage assets such as those while creating a more responsive, innovative system. In the heat of the health-care debate, let's hope cooler heads keep this idea alive.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.


Monday, July 6, 2009

Bright spots seen for Wisconsin air travelers

By Jennifer Sereno
If there's one thing Wisconsin business travelers can look forward to this fall, it's that, well ... they may be a bit better off than some frequent fliers in other states.

Travelers departing from Dane County Regional Airport and Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport can expect to find competitive fares and schedules that are likely to escape the deep cuts anticipated in other regions when fall flight lineups are released. Still, the experts say, Wisconsin travelers will be affected by some of the same trends that are plaguing passengers everywhere.

The recent announcement of Republic Airways' $31 million plan to buy Midwest Airlines is the latest in a series of mergers and reorganizations that have left veteran travelers and industry experts scratching their heads about what will happen next. In south central Wisconsin, where Northwest Airlines previously controlled as much as 43 percent of the market, that airline's merger into Delta Airlines last October is still sorting itself out.

Scott Mast, an owner of Burkhalter Travel in Madison, which is celebrating its 50th year in business, says the combined Delta and Northwest organization now controls just over 50 percent of the passenger traffic at Dane County Regional Airport.

"Whether that's healthy or not remains to be seen, although fares out of Madison have been relatively competitive," Mast says. "We're certainly not as competitive as Chicago, but it's getting better and we have nonstops to New York, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Dallas, Minneapolis and Detroit, so we've been getting a little bit more."

Sharyn Wisniewski, marketing and communications manager for Dane County Regional Airport, says airport director Brad Livingston paid a personal visit to Delta planners after last year's merger announcement to help them understand the growing needs of the Madison business community.

"We tried to impress upon them to some degree the importance of the routes to Epic Systems, University Hospitals, CUNA and really all of our frequent fliers in the area," Wisniewski says. With all of the airlines retrenching to some degree, it is important to make a continued push on behalf of the area's business travelers, she says.

In contrast to many airports, Dane County's passenger traffic has been on the increase recently, rising 1.3 percent for the first quarter, compared with an 11.3 percent decline nationally. Airport officials are keeping their fingers crossed that performance will pay off when details of the airlines' fall flight schedules emerge.

"We'll see how well we've done," Wisniewski says. So far, "we've done better than many airports. In some places the airlines are just pulling out of airports completely and we have not had that problem. We always like to see things added on new, but at this point we're just trying to hold on to what we have."

The picture is slightly different at Mitchell International, where heavy competition from AirTran already has taken a toll on Midwest Airlines and Southwest Airlines will be entering the market with nonstop flights to six destinations later this year. The planned merger of Midwest into Republic Airlines may give Midwest an opportunity to reinvigorate itself and travelers may benefit from the fight in the short run.

However, says Mast of Burkhalter, none of these competitive changes are likely to reverse the trend toward decreasing customer service and increasing fees tacked on to ticket prices. For example, from the current $15 charge for checking a bag, some airlines are moving to $20 if you pay at the counter (although there may be discounts online); others are charging extra for the additional leg room in exit row seats.

"The airlines are hurting just like everybody else from the downturn in the economy," Mast says. "They just keep paring back and paring back. Now you're paying for seats and bags and it's just bare bones, point-to-point travel.

"Travel agents are the last bastion of service left in the industry," he adds. When last-minute flight changes threaten to derail a client's business itinerary, "We deal with it, we're responsible and we take good care of them. Anytime that we have a schedule change, we're right on top of that" and with agent access to the industry's largest database of available flights, travelers have the best chance of getting back on their way.

-- Sereno, former business editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, is a senior manager at Wood Communications Group in Madison. E-mail jenny.sereno@wcgpr.com or call (608) 770-8084.


Thursday, July 2, 2009

From west of the Mississippi, a tinge of envy over Wisconsin's business climate

By Tom Still
For most of the last decade, Wisconsin has been told it should be more like Minnesota. In many ways, that's true. Minnesota has more college graduates, more business start-ups, more venture capital and, not surprisingly, higher per capita income than its neighbor to the east.

Of late, however, the drum beats from across the border have sounded a different note: Minnesota can learn a thing or two from Wisconsin.

The passage of Wisconsin's $62 billion state budget has drawn mixed reviews at home, but onlookers from Minnesota and beyond have taken note that policymakers here haven't abandoned their commitment to fostering a more diverse economy. Recent press accounts in the Twin Cities have noted that a few technology companies are moving to Wisconsin – even if only a few miles over the border – because Wisconsin's investment tax credits have helped those companies attract "angel" or venture capital.

Other press reports have noted a loss of jobs in Minnesota's medical device and equipment sector, which has driven that state's high-tech economy for decades. Some Minnesota techies say that's evidence the state has banked too much on one industry, and they point to Wisconsin as a state that is encouraging start-up companies that make medical devices, pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, software, power electronics and much more.

A Twin Cities health-tech consultant frustrated by the Minnesota Legislature's refusal to pass investor tax credits such as those in place in Wisconsin since 2005 telephoned Wednesday to lament his own state's gridlock – and to congratulate Badger state politicos for not crawling under their desks.

"When I talk to legislators here, I point to the Wisconsin example," the consultant said. "The list of economic development ideas that made it in this latest budget was impressive."

That's a perspective to keep in mind now that Gov. Jim Doyle has signed the state's two-year budget into law. While there are reasons to question parts of the budget, such as capital gains tax exclusions that were cut in half, other provisions signal the state is open for business.

The budget and a related stimulus bill passed earlier this year builds on recent efforts to enhance Wisconsin's tech-based economy through targeted tax credits, investments in core research projects and other incentives for companies and entrepreneurs. Major provisions signed into law include:

* An exemption to the sales and use tax for machinery and other tangible personal property used for qualified manufacturing or biotechnology research in the state, effective Jan. 1, 2012. A similar exemption is already available for some software purchases.

* Research and development tax credits for businesses that increase R&D by more than 125 percent of the company's three-year R&D average. The credit would be an income and franchise tax credit worth $1 for each $1 of investment above 125 percent. This provision would take effect Jan. 1, 2011.

* Investor tax credits that have dramatically increased angel investing will be expanded, also in 2011. The pool of available credits will be tripled and individuals may claim a 100 percent capital gains tax exclusion, up to $10 million, if they invest in a company qualified for the credit program.

* Other tax credit programs provide incentives for creating or retaining jobs in advanced manufacturing, in renewable energy, for "next generation" agriculture and within so-called enterprise zones.

* Investments in research projects that promise to create high-end jobs while improving human welfare included $8.2 million for the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, $2 million for the Wisconsin Genomics Initiative and $240 million over six years for UW-Milwaukee's research and engineering expansion.

Wisconsin's new budget has more than its share of flaws, which is not surprising given the state of the economy and how the recession has cut into tax revenues. But viewed from outside Wisconsin, where the economic conditions aren't necessarily better, parts of the budget will read like a state that is continuing to invest in its future. -- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.


Book review: "Blue Collar & Proud of It"

By Terri Schlichenmeyer
by Joe Lamacchia, with Bridget Samburg c.2009, HCI $15.95 / $21.95 Canada 402 pages, includes school list
All of your teenager's friends are going to college.

Harvard, Howard, a couple to the state U., small private colleges. They're going to become doctors and teachers, programmers and biologists.

But your child has decided that college isn't the right choice. She always loved welding. He wants to work construction.

And is that so bad? No, says author Joe Lamacchia. In his new book "Blue Collar & Proud of It" (with Bridget Samburg), he explains why we need blue collar workers, and he shows how to take advantage of the rosy future for blue collar jobs.

Six years ago, tired of seeing so many unhappy kids pushed into college, Joe Lamacchia started his website, BlueCollarAndProudOfIt.com. He knows how it is for some kids; his family expected him to go to college, but he knew he wouldn't have been happy and probably wouldn't have graduated.

Much of what we need for our modern life was built with the sweat of blue collar workers. Fabricators, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, mechanics, steelworkers, and welders are all essential in our world.

"Why don't we take these tradespeople more seriously?" Lamacchia asks.

In the not-so-distant future, he says, there will be a serious shortage of trained individuals to do these jobs. Canada alone may be faced with an estimated 1 million unfilled blue collar positions within a generation. Lamacchia blames this lack on the belief that college is the only door to a good, high-paying job.

So what can be done? First, we should understand that college is not a good fit for everybody. Parents shouldn't ask what college is best for their son or daughter, but what job fits best and will make them happy. High school guidance counselors should be reminded of this, too.

If you're looking for a job that doesn't involve sitting behind a desk, know your options. Ask to shadow someone in an industry you think you might like. Check out tech schools and apprentice programs. Join a union and get free training. Stop feeling like you should push yourself to get a PhD. And keep in mind that you're never "too old" to start, and that women are very welcome in these trades.

In an economy where joblessness hovers between "too high" and "oh, no", it's nice to read about industries in desperate need of hard workers who want to make a decent living (sometimes more than a doctor, when you factor in school loans).

And if you want proof of good income, there's Joe Lamacchia, author and owner of a million-dollar landscaping business. In "Blue Collar & Proud of It", he offers support for the undecided, sound reasoning for parents, and a huge list of schools and programs for anyone who's considering a blue-collar job or employment in the new "green collar" sector.

If your new grad is not college-bound and you're not sure what's next, or if you're ready for a change-of-pace yourself, this is a great book to read. "Blue Collar & Proud of It" may put your household back in the black.

-- Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Cap and trade means lights out for small businesses

By Dan Danner
Get ready to pay a whole lot more to keep the lights on.

Congress currently is working to pass a huge energy bill. The centerpiece is a system to force energy utilities to purchase government credits to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. This would in effect be an energy tax on the American people as the utilities pass the increased costs along to consumers and small business owners.

The plan is called "cap and trade" and it refers to a new trading market that Congress wants to create. The government will set limits on the amount of greenhouse gases businesses are allowed to emit (the "cap"), and then businesses will purchase credits to offset their emissions.

Businesses that reduce their emissions below the cap will be free to sell their credits to other businesses (the "trade"), a system with the potential to make trading mortgage derivatives look like a good idea.

However, in the initial phases, more than 80 percent of the credits will be given away by the government, rather than auctioned off as originally planned. The credits will go to big businesses hand-picked to garner enough support to pass the bill out of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Even President Obama admits current cap and trade proposals will cause energy rates to rise. "Under my plan of a cap and trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket," he told The San Francisco Chronicle last year. At the same time, the House Committee on Ways and Means estimated we would lose anywhere from 1.8 million to 5.3 million jobs.

That's because big businesses will pass the cost on to small businesses and consumers in the form of higher prices. An analysis by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology of a less-restrictive bill in the last Congress estimated electricity rates would go up at least 40 percent.

And that would be devastating to small businesses. Consider the stories we've already heard:

* A trucking company owner in Ohio spends more than $4 million a year on his energy bills. If his costs increase 40 percent, he'll be spending $5.6 million a year just on electricity and fuel. In order to absorb the new energy costs, he said he would have to raise his prices, as well as cut hours and employees.

* A marketing and exhibit company annually spends about $120,000 on energy costs, seeing no decrease despite investing in a $40,000 "smart technology" heating-ventilating-air conditioning system. This company wants to open a second location in Illinois, but the owner says with expected cost increases, including healthcare, property insurance and legal counsel, it may be impossible to expand.

* The Pennsylvania owner of four athletic clubs spends about $600,000 a year to power the heating-ventilating-air conditioning systems and lighting the facilities. If that cost goes up 40 percent to $840,000, he says his only choice will be to close his business.

Everyone wants cleaner air and a better environment. But we all need to do our part to help. Putting the burden on those who can least afford it is not the way to go.

-- Danner is president and CEO of the National Federation of Independent Business in Washington, D.C.


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