Business leaders cautiously optimistic about Wisconsin's economic future
Special event features comments from Walker, industry leaders

By Stephanie Beecher, Special to the Freeman

December 12, 2015

 Gov. Scott Walker speaks at the Waukesha County Business Alliance Key Industries event held Friday at the Country Springs Hotel.
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WAUKESHA - Business professionals packed a banquet room inside the Country Springs Hotel early Friday morning, where Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and other key industry leaders shared their pulse on the Badger State’s economy.

The event, titled “Key Industries for Wisconsin in 2016 and Beyond” and hosted by the Waukesha County Business Alliance, included a panel of Greater Milwaukee executives in five industries: retail & entertainment, commercial development, information technology, international trade and manufacturing.

 Timothy Hanley, global leader, Consumer & Industrial Products, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd.
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 Jaclynn Walsh, president and COO, Irgens.
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The panelists included Gregory Marcus, president and CEO at The Marcus Corporation; Timothy Hanley, global leader, consumer & industrial products, at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd.; Jaclynn Walsh, president and CEO at Irgens; Jim Zaiser, president at Hydro-Thermal Corporation; and Brad Zepecki, managing partner at SafeNet Consulting. Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership Director of Global Development Roxanne Baumann moderated the talk.

Results of bank’s economic survey

Before the panel offered its take on the local economy, First Business Bank unveiled the results of its 2015 economic survey. The findings showed nearly 70 percent of businesses in the Milwaukee region expected better performance in 2016, and roughly 75 percent “meeting or exceeding overall performance expectations,” in the current year.

The findings also showed:

 A record-tying 72 percent of businesses in the Milwaukee region reporting sales revenue increases in 2015;

 An all-time low of businesses reporting a decrease in sales at 11 percent;

 A near-historic high at 79 percent of companies projecting sales revenue increases in 2016;

 The lowest ever reported decrease in company profits in the history of the survey at 20 percent.

“The outlook for 2016 is very optimistic,” with hiring and wages expected to be strong, the report stated.

 Jim Zaiser, president, Hydro-Thermal Corporation.
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 Brad Zepecki, managing partner, SafeNet Consulting.
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Panel weighs in

While most of the panel was optimistic as well, executives expressed worry over global market influxes that could pull a shade over the bright economy.

“I can confirm that the United States is a pretty great place to be, and manufacturing is a pretty good industry to be in,” said Hanley. “As I have a chance to travel around the rest of the world and speak to leaders, growth is not so easy. And growth isn’t always easy for you, either.”

Though corporations with international components are cautious about “global headwinds,” including unpredictable markets and the strong U.S. dollar, Hanley attributed the stagnancy to companies’ investments in smart technology.

“It’s giving you the ability to give your customers information they never had before that helps drive more demand for your product,” Hanley said. “If you can attract jobs and these kinds of technologies, they are an incredible job multiplier.”

“I think the message here is that Wisconsin manufacturers — as good as the outlook looks right now— we can’t be complacent,” Baumann added. “We are convening in a global market, whether we like it or not.”

In entertainment, the same barometers measuring manufacturing don’t apply. While much of downtown business is stable, the theater business continues to depend on the popularity of film releases, Marcus said.

“We’re starting to see cracks,” he added, saying that downtown development could help swing the pendulum. “Nothing horrible, but it’s just starting to slow down.”

Still, Marcus isn’t too shaken.

“It’s like my grandfather said: ‘There’s a kitchen in every home but people still go out to eat,’” he said.

Walsh said the tightening of the commercial real estate environment is a big win for investors and developers has increased demand — but also increased rental rates for building tenants.

“We really are very bullish on the Greater Milwaukee market,” she added.

To keep those expectations high, the region’s leaders must continue to invest in research and development and innovate their products and services, panelists said.

“The health of manufacturing reflects the health of Wisconsin. Nearly twothirds of the money for R& D is generated through manufacturing,” Zaiser said. “We’re bringing money flow into our state.”

“Anything is better than in 2008, when I started on as president,” he added.

Above all, companies need to be able to attract young talent, the panelists said.

“Attracting and retaining talent is huge,” said Zupecki, adding that the state is losing out to cities such as Chicago and Minneapolis. He echoed Marcus’ sentiment about investing into downtown Milwaukee to retain workers. “We have a huge technical challenge in our area.”

To meet those challenges head on, Walker said Wisconsinites need to begin reaching future employees at a younger age, bolstering technical college programs and valuing the role that skilled workers play in the state.

“We just gotta have all hands on deck,” Walker said. “Now, the focus is not just on churning out jobs, but as much as making sure people have the skills that they need to fill those jobs.”