• WisBusiness

Friday, December 19, 2014

MaryBeth Matzek: Survey marker manufacturer takes measured approach to exporting

By MaryBeth Matzek
When it comes to exporting, many companies put together a deliberate plan and then execute it. For Bernsten International Inc., a Madison-based manufacturer of survey and wayfaring markers, it's been the other way around. The company got into exporting by accident more than 30 years ago when it received a custom order from Saudi Arabia. Since then, Bernsten developed a process to print markers in a variety of languages and exported to 90 countries.

But President Rhonda Rushing wanted a more deliberate plan for the company's exporting endeavors, deciding to focus in on a few key markets where Bernsten could achieve additional market penetration. She turned to the ExporTech program, which is supported by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and offered by the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership. The company focused on Canada as its top strategic market.

"We believe there is a great potential to expand upon what we have already done there. There are fewer barriers to exporting to Canada than most areas in the world," Rushing says. "Geographically, culturally, and language wise, this is a good fit for us."

Bernsten International isn't alone when it comes to setting its sights on Canada. For many companies in Wisconsin – and actually across the United States – Canada is a great first foreign market to jump into.

Canada's close proximity to Wisconsin makes it an ideal product destination, says Katy Sinnott, WEDC's international vice president.

"Geographically, it's a good fit – we're pretty much on the same time zone and they also have a highly developed legal system that supports business' IP rights," she says. "They also speak English – even in Quebec where French is dominant, most people know English. All those are positives."

But companies need to make sure the product they're looking to sell is unique since the Canadian market is well developed, Sinnott says. "You need to be strategic before you enter into that market," she says. "You need to make sure what you're selling is high quality and offers a solution or something new."

Sinnott says the WEDC is hosting an upcoming trade trip to Canada to help businesses interested in exporting north of the border. In addition to the trip, the agency supports ExporTech, a program focused on C level professionals that discusses strategy, plans and how to execute them, as well offering grants to that provide financial assistance to companies looking to increase their exports.

"Businesses that get involved in exporting not only see increased revenues, they also tend to become more efficient in their production since they learn about more production ideas," Sinnott says. "Companies also get more creative since they're exposed to more ideas."

Rushing is excited about Bernsten's new opportunities in Canada and putting together a more cohesive exporting plan, but admits it's a bit scary.

"There are many challenges to exporting for a small manufacturer like us including the fear of unknown" of how much time, staff resources, risk or complexity that may be involved, she says.

Despite the challenge, Bernsten's is ready for it, Rushing says.

Economic organization changes in Oshkosh

For many years, Oshkosh had multiple economic development organizations that didn't always seem to be on the same page with each other or the City of Oshkosh. In recent months, that has changed dramatically with the launch of the Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corp. or GO-EDC.

GO-EDC is a public/private organization will take over as the city's industrial development corporation from CHAMCO, which served the community for 55 years. Starting Jan. 1, GO-EDC will serve industrial clients, provide staff support to the Industrial Park Development Committee and support staff to the Aviation Development Committee, which is developing the Oshkosh Aviation Business Park.

GO-EDC will also administer a new $2.4 million Revolving Loan Fund for the City of Oshkosh. That fund is being created with the cash balances from three TIF districts that are being closed.

While GO-EDC searches for a permanent chief executive officer, Oshkosh businessman and the group's board chairman, Bill Wyman, was named interim CEO. Brenda Hicks-Sorensen, a former WEDC official and president of Economic and Community Development Solutions, was named interim chief operating officer.

Soaring insurance costs

This is something you don't want to lead the state in. Northeastern Wisconsin saw its health insurance costs climb faster than anywhere else in the state during the past 14 years, according to the annual Wisconsin Health Insurance Cost Rankings Report.

Monthly premiums for large group plans grew 366 percent since 2000 – which outpaces other metro areas in the state. Back in 2000, the region had the lowest-cost premiums for large group insurance pools but the current number is high above the state average. The average monthly premium in a large-group program statewide is $763. In Green Bay, the average premium is $791.

The Appleton-Oshkosh market came in second, with an increase of 247 percent since 2000. Statewide, the report says large-group health insurance rates increased 211 percent in the past 14 years.

-- Matzek, a freelance writer and editor, is the owner of 1Bizzy Writer. She has worked in the past as a news editor at Insight Publications and as business editor at the Appleton Post-Crescent.


Friday, December 12, 2014

MaryBeth Matzek: Herricks honored for environmental ag efforts

By MaryBeth Matzek
As all farmers know, topsoil is crucial to their success. Without healthy topsoil, crops struggle and without healthy crops, farms struggle, too. That's something Jack Herricks discovered 30 years ago. The Cashton farmer knew he needed to do something to keep the soil on his family farm healthy not just for now, but for years to come.

"It's hilly here and hard to keep that topsoil in place," says Herricks of the topography in his corner of Monroe County in southwestern Wisconsin. "I knew that if I wanted to keep doing this long-term, we needed to make a switch and I took to no-till. I now take every chance I get to talk to farmers about no-till. I tell them it saves on soil, toil, and oil."

Herricks' dedication to no-till farming along with his other environmental efforts earned him and his wife, Pat, the 2014 Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award. The award is given in honor of the renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold and recognizes voluntary conservation achievements.

"Jack is really an advocate and pioneer for no-till farming, but that's just one way he is a real champion for the environment," says Dave Neu, national director of the Leopold Conservation Award Program for the Sandy County Foundation, which hands out the annual award along with the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation. "He has a long-term conservation ethic that can't be beat."

Herricks says he was humbled to receive the honor for his 1,010-acre farm. All crops grown on the farm go to feed his 600 dairy cows. "Conservation is part of our heritage, just as farming is," says Herricks, adding that the family farm started in 1912.

Beyond Herricks' advocacy for no-till farming, the farm's participation in watershed projects and manure management also set them apart, says Casey Langan, director of public relations with the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation.

The Herricks' farm has been an active participant in the Jersey Valley Watershed Project and even served as a research site for the Wisconsin Discovery Farms project. That work gave credibility to his efforts to keep nutrients on the soil, Herricks says. He spreads manure about every 10 days.

"It's amazing what was done regarding water quality in and around the farm," Neu says. "Brush Creek was in such bad shape, but now it's a Class 3 trout stream."

All nominees for the annual award are scored in six categories by a panel of independent judges. Three finalists are named each year. This year's other two finalists were David and Leslie Meuer of Meuer Farm LLC, a beef and cattle farm in Chilton, and Milk Source LLC of Kaukauna.

Energy company gets boost

Energy Bank Inc., a Manitowoc company working on improving the performance of the LED light engine, has received a state loan and tax credits to help the business Energy Bank received a $250,000 loan from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and hopes to create more than 60 jobs in the next three years as the company grows. It was also certified for $1.25 million in Qualified New Business Venture tax credits, which makes investors in the company eligible for a 25 percent state tax credit on amount invested in the business.

Energy Bank CEO Neal R. Verfuerth says the WEDC loan will augment the company's ongoing investment in optimized thermal dynamics, precision optics and application engineering. The funds will help provide the company with additional working capital for research and development.

"We recently launched a specialty outdoor fixture designed for auto dealers that we named the 'Model T.' Demonstrable performance results indicate a 70 percent reduction in energy consumption and dramatic increase in illumination," says Verfuerth, who previously ran Orion Energy Systems Inc. in Manitowoc. "The assistance programs from the state are crucial as we move into the commercialization phase of the Model T."

-- Matzek, a freelance writer and editor, is the owner of 1Bizzy Writer. She has worked in the past as a news editor at Insight Publications and as business editor at the Appleton Post-Crescent.

Friday, December 5, 2014

MaryBeth Matzek: Neenah developer finds focus revitalizing vacant manufacturing sites

By MaryBeth Matzek
Randy Stadtmueller has a knack for taking former industrial sites and giving them new life.

The Neenah-based developer already has taken several vacant manufacturing buildings and found new uses and life for them. For example, he led the conversion of Kimberly Clark Corp.'s vacant Atlas Mill along the Fox River in Appleton into a home for a museum celebrating the region's rich paper history as well as space for a restaurant and office tenants. Further north along the river, his company, Stadtmueller & Associates, worked with the city on clearing the former Riverside Paper mill site and created Eagle Flats, a mixed-use development featuring affordable and senior housing apartments.

"When it comes to these types of projects – turning vacant sites into something new – we know how to get it done," he says. "We understand what needs to be done and how to go about securing the funds through TIF districts, housing grants or historic preservation grants. Some people shy away thinking it's just too much, but it's really not. It just takes time and patience since these projects can take years to come together, but it's worth it."

The company is now working on two other projects along the Fox River – one in Kaukauna and one in Kimberly – that also happen to be former paper mill sites. In Kaukauna, Stadtmueller worked with the city on a plan to move and expand its library into the historic Eagle Mill, which once housed the city's first paper mill. In addition, he worked with Expera Specialty Solutions – the owner of the neighboring paper mill -- to move its headquarters into the renovated building.

In Kimberly, Stadtmueller is taking the former New Page and converting that into a mixed-use development called The Cedars. The 98-acre site will feature a variety of housing options, commercial buildings and offer public access to the Fox River.

"These projects add value to the community and takes advantage of that renewed interest in new urbanism and walkability," he says. "People want to be able to walk places and also take in nature around them, which is one reason we're looking to connect The Cedars to nearby Sunset Park in Kimberly."

Stadtmueller recognizes it can take years for the projects to come together. "Patience is key with all of these projects, but the reward – taking what was an unused site and turning it into something that adds value to the community – is worth it," he said.

The company's projects usually spur other nearby developments, says Renee Torzala, the company's director of communications and marketing.

"Our projects are just the start. Our hope is that these projects help generate other nearby development," she says. "In Kaukauna, there's hope that a hotel and a senior housing complex will now be built nearby since we've revitalized the area while we've already seen some other developments going in around what we've done in Appleton."

Getting the projects done require lots of teamwork. Stadtmueller and Torzala develop close relationships with local officials and then work with them to secure funding – including state and federal grants – to help get the projects done.

"Listening to the community and what they want is also important," Stadtmueller says. "We always hold listening sessions and ask people what their ideas are. That's a key way to get community support behind a project."

That's what they're doing now in New Holstein. The small Calumet County city is looking at plans for what to do with a 40-acre manufacturing site vacated by Tecumseh. Stadtmueller and Torzala have held several community meetings and come away with several ideas that continue to be refined.

"This isn't top-down development, it's bottom-up," Torzala says. "We really listen to what people are interested in and build off their ideas on how best to use an important piece of property in their community."

Optimistic manufacturers

The NEW Manufacturing Alliance, which covers 18 counties in northeast Wisconsin, released its fifth annual Manufacturing Vitality Index on Wednesday and companies are definitely bullish about the future with 86 percent predicting higher sales in 2015.

Ann Franz, director of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, says 53 percent of the manufacturers surveyed plan on hiring more workers in 2015. Manufacturers provide about 23 percent of all jobs in Northeast Wisconsin, making the industry a major player in the region's economy.

Besides adding new workers, 30 percent plan on plant expansions and 66 percent plan on buying new equipment during the next 12 months.

Click here to read the whole report

-- Matzek, a freelance writer and editor, is the owner of 1Bizzy Writer. She has worked in the past as a news editor at Insight Publications and as business editor at the Appleton Post-Crescent.


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