Bringing ‘a collective voice’ together for a century
Waukesha County Business Alliance reaches 100-year milestone

BY DAVE FIDLIN - Special to The Freeman

Feb. 17, 2018


The Waukesha Area Chamber of Commerce sign and members in 1990.
Photo courtesy of the Waukesha County Historical Society

WAUKESHA — When it began operations in Waukesha, Woodrow Wilson was president, silent movies were all the rage and a postage stamp cost three cents.

Needless to say, much has changed since the establishment of the Waukesha Chamber of Commerce — forerunner of what today is known as the Waukesha County Business Alliance — a century ago, in 1918.

Today, the alliance’s 1,200-person membership includes an array of business leaders in a range of sectors. Representatives include such internationally recognized corporations as GE Healthcare and Quad/Graphics. On the other end of the spectrum are upstart businesses just getting their footing.

What has not changed, however, according to leaders within the organization, is an unwavering desire to promote the importance the business community plays in Waukesha and surrounding communities.

“When you look at what some of the issues were back (in 1918), you realize they’re the same now,” said Suzanne Kelley, president and CEO of the WCBA, which has operated under its current moniker since 2010 when the Waukesha County Chamber of Commerce merged with the Waukesha County Action Network.

Old archival information from the Waukesha County Historical Society demonstrates what was on leaders’ minds in the organization’s first few decades.

“The business interests, which include all taxpayers, citizens, businessmen of all classifications, as well as manufacturers, need an association of commerce,” then-President J. Frederick Palmer wrote in a 1936 document.

Palmer that same year also stated, “Waukesha and Waukesha County have much to offer.”


People gather for the 1947 annual meeting.
Photo courtesy of the Waukesha County Historical Society

Kelley, looking at the state of the organization today, offered similar sentiments about the power in a “strength in numbers” approach.

“By bringing businesses together, the alliance creates a collective voice,” she said.

Even in its earliest days, as literature from those formative years points out, economic development and a broad range of workforce issues were guiding forces within the organization’s mission statement.

“Things have evolved, and they’ve changed, but those main areas of focus really have remained the same,” Kelley said in a recent interview with The Freeman.

In some instances, issues of concern also have come full circle. The importance the manufacturing sector plays in the region, for instance, has been a frequent topic of conversation in recent years as reports of a labor shortage in specialized areas have emerged.

Looking ahead

Looking to the future, as technology continues to transform all facets of life, Kelley said the association’s overall mission statement likely will remain the same for years to come.

The business alliance’s growth and evolution in the past century closely mirrors its surroundings. Waukesha’s resident population has swelled. So, too, has the county’s. Commercial and industrial corridors have followed suit.

While the WCBA in its earliest years was laser-focused on the city of Waukesha itself, Kelley said the organization over the years broadened its focus to the full county.

More recently, its influence has spilled over into neighboring areas, as evidenced by members based in Milwaukee and Washington counties.

Regardless of locale or industry, Kelley points to one correlation between each of the members.

“Our member businesses are very engaged,” Kelley said. “They care about the important issues and want to work together. They want to help create the best environment for doing business.”

Notable WCBA events and milestones through the years:

1924 — The association supported a proposal to expand what today is known as ProHealth Waukesha Memorial Hospital

1928 — Members were active in helping establish an airport in the county

1938 — The chamber launched a campaign hoping to stimulate business and increase sales to counter the Great Depression

1954 — Organization officials sponsored a program to train local high school students for sales jobs during the holiday season

1969 — Members met with city officials to help select a new site for what today is known as Waukesha County Technical College

1983 — The association held its first monthly legislative breakfast in an effort to bring together business leaders and state lawmakers

— The Waukesha Area Business Center, a business incubator, opened through a WCBA partnership

2010 — The WCBA, in its most current iteration, came to be after a merger with the Waukesha County Action Network

2016 — The alliance supported Waukesha’s gaining approval to use water from Lake Michigan as the municipal source

Source: Waukesha County Business Alliance