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Friday, November 21, 2014

MaryBeth Matzek: School program allows students to get real-life view of manufacturing


By MaryBeth Matzek
Green Bay teens are getting an inside look at manufacturing without even leaving their high school. Bay Link Manufacturing, which opened earlier this fall, provides students with a real-life manufacturing experience while earning both high school and college credits.

Bay Link Manufacturing contracts work with local manufacturers. It was formed through a unique partnership of Green Bay Area Public Schools, local manufacturers and Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. Students work three hours each afternoon in the manufacturing shop at Green Bay West High School making parts for local customers, such as Lindquist Machine.

“They learn not only how to make parts and what it’s like to work in manufacturing, but also what it’s like to deal with the problems that are a part of everyday life for a manufacturer, such as missing a deadline or quality issues,” says Mark Kaiser, president and CEO of Lindquist Machine in Green Bay and a big supporter of the program. “We are their customer and they need to work with us to get the job done.”

Lori Peacock, career and technical education partnerships and program coordinator for the Green Bay Area School District, says the program draws students from all Green Bay high schools and the interest level is high.

“We’re trying to be as authentic as possible with the process. All interested students had to fill out an application and go through an interview process,” she says. “We hope to eventually add another shift of workers who work three hours in the morning. We’re also looking to get business and marketing students involved in that part of the business, too. It’s a wonderful learning experience.”

The Green Bay District found support for the program not only from Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, but also the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, a group of manufacturers who work with educational institutions, workforce development boards and other organizations to promote manufacturing in northeast Wisconsin.

Bay Link Manufacturing is just one of several manufacturing companies set up by high schools. Other successes are Wolf Tech in Algoma and Cardinal Manufacturing in the Eleva-Strum School District. “We took two carloads of people there to view what they were doing. It was a fantastic learning experience,” Peacock says.

Kaiser thinks the program will spur even more districts to consider similar programs. “There’s no doubt there’s a shortage in the number of skilled workers in manufacturing and if we can give these students a head start, that’s great,” he says. “We’re not only helping the students, but also local manufacturers.”

Economic forecast

Wisconsin’s economy is slowly getting back to its pre-recession levels, according to an economic forecast from the Wisconsin Department of Revenue. The report is a mix of good news and not-so-good news.

The good: the number of jobs increased 1.1 percent between 2010 and 2013, the number of jobs in Wisconsin is expected to grow 1.3 percent between now and 2017 with the state expected to reach its pre-2008 job level by mid-2015.

The not-so-good news: While manufacturing has already recovered half of the total jobs lost during the recession, it won’t get back to its pre-recession levels at any point within the next three years.

You can review the information-heavy report yourself here. http://www.revenue.wi.gov/ra/econ/2014/fall2014_fullrpt.pdf

Filling a void

A once-vacant Sheboygan manufacturing plant is now nearly full. Four years ago, International Automotive Components closed its 300,000 square foot facility. That empty space is now nearly full. Phoenix Investors of Milwaukee, which bought the building last year, has a new lease agreement in place with Georgia Pacific to use about 95,000 square feet for a regional distribution center.

-- 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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Monday, November 17, 2014

MaryBeth Matzek: SBA lending up again in Wisconsin; state leads nation in small-loan program


By MaryBeth Matzek
Wisconsin small business owners and entrepreneurs are taking full advantage of funding opportunities through the U.S. Small Business Association. For the second year in a row, Wisconsin led the nation in the number of loans made through the organization's 7(a) Small Loan Program, which provides financial help to small businesses.

For fiscal 2014, the SBA made 384 loans of $350,000 and under for a total of $58.7 million. State lenders also made more SBA loans to start-ups from 501 in fiscal 2013 to 534 in fiscal 2014. That translates to nearly one-third of loans issued going to entrepreneurs.

Another big win in fiscal 2014 were loans less than $150,000. The SBA eliminated fees for loans under $150,000 and the amount of loans in that category grew 30 percent in 2014 with 951 loans issued.

Clearly, lenders are loosening the purse strings that were pulled so tight following the 2008 financial meltdown. Many lenders work closely with the SBA to get funds to borrowers. Financial institutions working with the SBA are able recover a part of their investment if the business owner defaults.

Shanna Graykowski, vice president for commercial banking at U.S. Bank in Green Bay, says lenders work with borrowers on what programs – such as an SBA loan or maybe a microloan through an economic development organization – is the best bet for their business.

"Borrowers are able to collaborate with our experts on what program is the best fit to meet the goals of the business owner," she says. "As a leader in SBA lending, one of our strengths is experience. We are able to manage the process and set appropriate expectations so the business owner can continue to focus on what they do best: run their business."

But Graykowsky says funding is only one piece to a business' success. She says it's important for entrepreneurs to have a business plan in place and a team of professionals, such as an attorney and an accountant, they can turn to. Non-profit organizations that support businesses such as SCORE and the Small Business Development Centers found on several University of Wisconsin campuses in Wisconsin are also key.

"Beyond simply working with business to find appropriate alternatives and additional resources, we take the time to work with the business owner to develop a road map for success," Graykowsky says. "This allows the business to see how, in time, their efforts will open new doors for financing alternatives and set targets for the future."

While financial institutions are saying "yes" more frequently to business borrowers, Nate Kok, vice president of Hometown Bank in Fond du Lac, says it's still important entrepreneurs are properly prepared when meeting with lenders and have their own financial house in order.

"It's also important that they are financially sound personally; the best indicator of how a company will handle its business affairs is how well the individual business owner has managed his or her personal credit in the past," he says.

Well approval

Since Administrative Judge Jeffrey Boldt ruled in September the Department of Natural Resources must take into account "cumulative impacts" when approving high-capacity wells, the state approved 43 of them. While some are for farming operations, also included in the mix are a high-capacity well in Portage County for snowmaking and one for a proposed golf course in Adams County. No requests were denied although one request was withdrawn, says Eric Ebersberger, water use section chief for the Wisconsin DNR.

The DNR hasn't commented on the ruling and how it may affect its process. In the meantime, business owners, farmers and municipalities seeking approval for high-capacity wells continue to move ahead.

Export increase

Mention "exports" and manufacturing products usually jump to mind. But the state of Wisconsin ranks 12th in the nation when it comes to agricultural exports. So far in 2014, state farms and agribusinesses exported $2.8 billion worth of products to 138 countries – an increase of 17 percent for the same period in 2013.

Dairy products led the way with demand up 19 percent. China's demand for Wisconsin dairy products grew a whopping 70 percent. Wisconsin ranks third nationally in dairy exports.

-- 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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Friday, November 7, 2014

MaryBeth Matzek: Gundersen turning waste into energy


By MaryBeth Matzek
You normally wouldn’t associate a health system with farms or producing energy, but that’s exactly what Gundersen Health System in La Crosse is doing.

Earlier this fall, the health system opened a $14 million biodigester in Middleton. The GL Dairy Biogas Project receives manure from more than 2,000 cows from three local dairies. The manure is used to create methane and produce electricity. Gundersen then sells the electricity to Madison Gas and Electric Co., which uses it to power about 2,500 homes and reduce fossil fuel carbon dioxide by 11,000 metric tons per year.

The biodigester, which is Gundersen’s second – it has a smaller one in Sun Prairie – is run by Envision, the health system’s sustainability initiative. “Hospitals consume a lot of energy from dirty sources like coal and since 2008 when we did an energy audit, we’ve been working to reduce our energy consumption and work on finding ways to use more renewable energy,” says Jeff Rich, executive director of Envision.

In addition to producing cleaner energy, Rich says the digesters prevent more than 3,700 pounds of phosphorus runoff to the water ways in Dane County every year.

The biodigesters are just one part of Gundersen’s energy-producing initiative: it also has a project in place that uses waste biogas created from a La Crosse County landfill and turns it into electricity and heat for some of its healthcare campuses; two wind turbine sites that produce 13 million kilowatts a year; a biomass boiler on the main Gundersen campus; and a large solar photovoltaic system.

“No one really thinks about a healthcare provider getting involved as an energy producer and being environmentally friendly,” Rich says. “But it’s something that is working for us.”

Besides producing energy, the health system has taken on different initiatives to trim its utility usage. “If we’re spending less on energy, those costs can be shared with patients,” Rich says. The new Middleton biodigester is just one of 35 on Wisconsin farms; there are another nine biodigesters in the state that run on something besides animal waste, including the nation’s first commercial-scale dry fermentation anaerobic biogas plant on the University of Wisconsin- Oshkosh. That digester runs on food waste and agricultural and yard waste.

Wisconsin leads the nation in the number of biodigesters, says Tyson Cook, director of science and research for Clean Wisconsin Inc. Wisconsin biodigesters produce 371⁄2 megawatts of electricity annually.

“They are a win-win-win. They not only produce clean energy, they help farmers deal with animal waste and they can also help farmers make money if they’re selling the power created back to the electrical grid,” he says.

Interest in biodigesters has risen in recent years, Cook says. Rosendale Dairy in Fond du Lac County, for example, has been turning some of the manure from its 8,000 cows into electricity since late last year. The dairy partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh on the $7 million project. The biodigester produces 1.4 megawatts of electricity or about enough electricity to power 1,200 homes.

The Rosendale biodigester uses two cylindrical anaerobic digestion rectors to process about 240 tons per day of separated manure solids. The site also features a public information center operated by UW-Oshkosh students and faculty and serves as a remote classroom and laboratory for UW-Oshkosh microbiology, biology, environmental studies and chemistry classes.

VA plan fuels WPS growth

WPS Health Insurance is looking to add up to 250 people at its Wausau office and another 30 at its Monona headquarters to help the insurer administer a new health care plan for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The insurer is a subcontractor for TriWest Healthcare Alliance of Phoenix for the Patient- Centered Community Care program for veterans in 28 states. WPS will issue the cards needed for the new program, process claims and provide customer service for the program for at least the next five 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.

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Monday, November 3, 2014

MaryBeth Matzek: Grant program changes look to boost business' exports


By MaryBeth Matzek
Businesses that export tend to have a healthier bottom line since they draw from a larger customer base. To encourage more businesses to look beyond U.S. borders, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation is rolling out several changes to its exporting grant programs.

The WEDC is altering its International Market Access Grant and Collaborative Market Access Grant by increasing the amount of money available to companies, says Monica Wahlberg, international grants manager for the WEDC.

The maximum award for the IMAG, which provides funding for companies to participate in trade trips, overseas meetings or to receive export education or consulting services, increased from $10,000 to $25,000 per award. For the CMAG, which helps industry associations and other organizations work directly with companies to increase exports, the amount rose from $50,000 to $150,000 with a maximum of $15,000 going to any single business.

"By increasing the amount available, we're hoping to encourage companies to think more strategically when it comes to their exporting plans," Wahlberg says.

She says the WEDC also streamlined its application process by incorporating cultural and educational expenses as part of IMAG; previously companies had to fill out a separate grant application for the WEDC's Export Education Grant program.

"We're listening to business owners and what they think the barriers are to exporting. We are then trying to come up with ways to address those barriers. Exporting isn't easy and we want to provide businesses with all the tools we can to make them successful," Wahlberg says. "We really want to help companies prioritize what's best suited for them and their needs."

Interest in the program has grown in recent years as the WEDC – the successor to the Department of Commerce – made several changes, Wahlberg says. Four years ago, there were 19 Wisconsin companies helped and so far this year more than 65 have been aided.

"We've received a lot of positive response too about the new changes so we anticipate even more growth," she says. "Studies have shown that businesses who export do better overall and it's our goal to help businesses succeed."

Interest high in Green Bay medical school

Applications have poured in for the Medical College of Wisconsin's new campus in Green Bay. A total of 1,800 students, including 67 from Wisconsin, have indicated they're interested in the Green Bay-based program, which begins next July.

The Green Bay campus – and one in central Wisconsin which will open in 2016 – will offer a three- year, immersive curriculum aimed at students with an interest in pursuing careers in primary care, psychiatry or general surgery. The main campus in Milwaukee offers a four-year curriculum featuring additional specialty options.

The Medical College of Wisconsin will select between 20 and 25 students for the program's first class.

More new businesses

More new business entities have been formed in Wisconsin in the first nine months of 2014 compared to the same period in 2013, according to statistics from the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions.

Through Sept. 30, 27,480 domestic business entities were created – up 5.2 percent from the 26,119 formed during the same period in 2013.

-- 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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