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Monday, July 15, 2013

Tom Still: North Woods innovation on display in companies old, new, large and small


By Tom Still
ASHLAND – C.G. Bretting Manufacturing has been bending metal on the shores of Lake Superior since 1890, but its global footprint in the paper converting industry defines the company's 21st century approach to innovation.

Entrepreneurs such as Bruce Bowers, Mirka Nelson and Mark Snow all represent new companies – or, in some cases, no company at all – but they're guided by the same innovative spirit that drives the big boys.

Welcome to the new North Woods, where efforts to redefine the economy involve companies large and small, as well as a broader community that understands the need to secure the region's long-term prosperity.

For many people in Wisconsin, the North Woods have become a frozen banana republic, with eco-terrorists and paramilitary guards roaming the forests of the Gogebic Iron Range within a half hour's drive of Ashland.

For those who live there, however, those headlines are a far cry from everyday life. Although residents are divided over the mine, they're also determined that the controversy surrounding it cannot become the North Woods' defining image.

That was evident during a recent visit to Ashland, where executives at family-owned firms such as Bretting, entrepreneurs who are just starting businesses, and leaders in the political and economic development communities seem aligned in their vision for the future.

"We are all very active and passionate about making our community a better place," read a welcome letter to the Wisconsin Technology Council board of directors from nine industry, education and local government leaders.

That was evident at Bretting, which makes custom machines – folders, rewinders and more – for paper companies that produce napkins, tissue paper and similar consumer products. The company's high-tech, lean manufacturing setting has enabled it to capture significant shares of the paper converting market in North America as well as globally, with 60 large paper firms counted among its customers.

Bretting's work force of 450 or so people has virtually no turnover outside retirements, in part because the company's leadership stresses innovation, teamwork and customer service as a matter of course. "This is our home," said president and chief executive officer David Bretting. "We have faith in the community and the people who live here."

At Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College in Ashland, a different brand of innovation was on display when a small group of entrepreneurs practiced their two-minute business plan "pitches" for a panel of judges. The Entrepreneurs' Edge event, organized by the Wisconsin Innovation Network's Lake Superior chapter, was a precursor for the larger Lake Superior Business and Technology Conference. That day-long event will be held Aug. 9, also at Indianhead Tech.

Presenters at the pitch practice reflected a range of ideas, mostly driven by hands-on experience.

Bowers is a musician who has built a lighting prototype for theater, music and studio settings where control and information surfaces must be well lit without spillover to performing or audience areas.

Nelson wants to build a recreational and observation tower – with a possible high-tech twist – to attract tourists as well as adventuresome athletes who may want to try climbing, repelling or "zip lines."

Snow is a Marine Corps veteran and radio professional who wants to syndicate regular programming for veterans and current military personnel.

Other ideas pitched at the event involved a more energy-efficient window for homes, bottled water from Ashland's aquifer, environmentally friendly marketing materials, custom iron artwork and the world's thinnest wood veneers, which can be used for everything from labels to box coverings.

Not all of those ideas are destined to be the next Google, but they're examples of Main Street entrepreneurism that can add economic value.

The Lake Superior region's economy will likely always rest on some traditional pillars – timber, transportation, tourism and taconite ore – but technology is becoming a fifth "T" in the lineup. It is imbedded in manufacturing companies such as Bretting and the ideas of entrepreneurs.

Don't be misled by the images of protesters and armed guards: The economy in Wisconsin's North Woods is becoming more diverse as the community works to keep its best people and ideas close to home.

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

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