Baer shares perspective on strengths, direction of industry

Freeman Staff

Feb. 27, 2016

Mary Baer
Freeman file photo


WAUKESHA - In recent years, a person couldn’t attend an event promoting manufacturing in Waukesha County or discussing the issues facing the industry without seeing Mary Baer.

After retiring from a career at Cooper Power, Baer took a part-time job at the Waukesha County Business Alliance and eventually became its full-time vice president of community engagement as the organization grew. She decided to retire at the end of November due to some family health issues.

Discussing her views on manufacturing, Baer said she wanted to emphasize two things about manufacturing: “making stuff is cool” and “manufacturing is safer today than it has ever been.”

“Whether you make a finished product like an Eaton transformer, a computer embedded in exercise equipment like EmbedTek, a high tolerance fixture for another manufacturer like Stanek Tool or specialty candy like Allo! Chocolat, you can take pride in being part of creating something tangible. It is a rewarding feeling,” she said via email.

She also said manufacturing is no longer dark, dirty and dangerous. Baer said there is a misconception about manufacturing among many people, and in fact, it is clean, safe and high tech.

THE FREEMAN: What do you think the status of manufacturing in Waukesha County and southeastern Wisconsin is as we start 2016?

BAER: The answer to this question depends on what market(s) you participate in. If you are heavily dependent on mining or oil and gas, you have most likely been negatively impacted by the downturn in these markets. However, the remaining markets seem strong and growing — especially if you are willing to look to overseas markets, new domestic markets that support product diversification, and R&D.

FREEMAN: Where do you think manufacturing is headed this year?

BAER: I think the last quarter of 2015 was difficult, but 2016 is already showing tremendous potential for manufacturing in this region. The economic development survey that was recently published showed that over 70 percent of Waukesha County manufacturers anticipate capital expansion in the next couple of years AND the need for more employees. Both are positive signs of the future of manufacturing in 2016 and beyond.

FREEMAN: What do you think needs to be done to guarantee a successful manufacturing environment for the area?

BAER: I think that the county-led collaborative effort to create an economic development organization that focuses on growing existing business is key. A manufacturer who wants to expand or diversify would be helped by a one-stop organization that could help them through the process. This is a great county for a manufacturer already. This new proposed organization will make it even better — from permitting to workforce to access to financial resources. The future is bright for existing AND new Waukesha County manufacturers.

FREEMAN: What are some of the biggest lessons you learned while working in manufacturing and at the Business Alliance? What words of wisdom would you have to pass along?

BAER: With almost 30 years in manufacturing and over six years at the Waukesha County Business Alliance I have learned that the most important element for a successful business is their people. If organizations invest in, listen to and learn from all levels in their organization (and they have a good product) they will be successful.

As far as words of wisdom, I would recommend that every business provide the best customer service in their markets and build positive, collaborative relations with their customers, suppliers and employees. Also, get involved in the communities where you work and live — you will be paid back over and over by investing time, talent and/or treasure in local nonprofits and community organizations.

FREEMAN: What are some of your favorite stories from your years at the Business Alliance?

BAER: My favorite stories from the Business Alliance focus on our efforts with manufacturing and education. When Suzanne Kelley became president of the organization, she spoke to me about the lack of manufacturers in the organization. We visited six new manufacturing CEOs in the county and found out they did not even know each other. We invited them and several other CEOs to a meeting at the WCBA and the Waukesha County Manufacturing Alliance was born! Here is what has evolved with direction from the group:

 Schools2Skills where almost 2,000 students, parents and educators have toured three manufacturing facilities and (Waukesha County Technical College) to see and learn about careers in manufacturing and the skilled trades.

 New Faces of Manufacturing just completed its 7th annual celebration of all things manufacturing.

 This past year a Manufacturing Human Resource group started which allowed for best practices sharing and focus on ways to attract talent, manage health care costs and implement retention strategies.

 Education involvement connecting manufacturers to local school districts. Examples in include the Waukesha MADE Action Committee (a career fair was held in 2015 and over 700 students learned about potential careers in manufacturing, automotive, design and engineering); and Kettle Moraine’s STEM Advisory Committee, which helps promote STEM careers and education from kindergarten through high school in the district.

 Presentations to civic groups, school boards, parent groups, and educators that “Manufacturing is Alive & Well in Wisconsin.” This is a collaborative effort between the Manufacturing Alliance and WCBA’s Education Advocacy Committee.

Major focus on the need for the next generation of talent in two key areas — engineering and skilled trades. I wish we could get every parent of local students to tour a manufacturing facility to see the tremendous potential that exists for their children in manufacturing. This involvement included committee work with WCTC, MMAC (Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce), M7 and involvement with local school districts career fairs.

The success of the Manufacturing Alliance is my favorite “story” from my work with the great team at WCBA and the incredible manufacturers in this region.

FREEMAN: Are there any mistakes you saw made by a company that you feel should be shared to help another company?

BAER: That is a difficult question to answer and I won’t name any companies. I would only reiterate that employees are the key to a company’s success. Mistakes will be made and can be recovered from if you have employee respect and involvement.