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WTN Exclusive Interview: Cory L. Nettles, Secretary of Commerce

Nettles will focus on bring high paying jobs to Wisconsin

Cory L. Nettles is not shy about his passion for creative innovative solutions to help stimulate Wisconsin’s economy, which faces record budget deficits and a reliance on mature industries. His challenge as the new Secretary of Commerce, is to stimulate Wisconsin’s economy and grow the diversity of its business portfolio.

Wisconsin Technology Network Founder and Editorial Director, Mike Klein had the opportunity to sit down with Cory Nettles to discuss his perspectives, goals and plans on how technology can have a significant role in building, evolving and growing the state's economy.

A look around the Secretary’s office shows that Nettles is all business. His office is orderly and appears well run. There is an atmosphere that is welcoming. But make no mistake about it, this Secretary is all business. He appears to have fun, while talking succinctly about his plans to execute new strategies and tactics to grow the Wisconsin’s economy. Nettles relies on the latest technology devices to keep him informed, up to date and prepared for the day-to-day challenges he faces.

Cory L. Nettles, a 32-year-old Milwaukee native, is the youngest member of Doyle's cabinet. He graduated from Lawrence University in Appleton and the University of Wisconsin Law School. From 1996 to present, Nettles was an attorney at the law firm Quarles & Brady, where he has represented corporations in product liability and commercial litigation. He also has represented small businesses, non-profit groups and community churches.
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Governor Doyle appointed Cory Nettles Secretary of the Department of Commerce in January 2003. He is referred to internally as “the Governor’s point man” on economic development issues and will act as a catalyst for economic growth through his leadership of the approximately 400 Department of Commerce employees.

Governor Doyle and Secretary Nettles are both committed to a “New Day Economy”, a theme consistent with Doyle’s winning election campaign, in which the principals of fiscal management, reducing the deficit and moving beyond what the Governor refers to as “Irresponsible Budgeting.”

Gov. Doyle said he chose Nettles because “Cory is a bright, young rising star who will bring energy and enthusiasm to the important job of growing Wisconsin 's economy and making sure there are good, well-paying jobs available to all citizens of Wisconsin . I know that Cory has the ability and the confidence to actively and aggressively sell Wisconsin as a great state to live, do business and raise a family," said Doyle. "He understands that retaining our best and brightest college students and attracting young professionals and business to our state are essential components to improving Wisconsin 's business and economic development climate,” he added.

Secretary Nettles has pledged that he will focus on bringing high-paying jobs to Wisconsin . To do that, he wants to expand Wisconsin's technology and biotechnology industries, increase training in those fields and work closely with the University of Wisconsin System.

Here are his specific thoughts on technology and economic development as told to Mike Klein of the Wisconsin Technology Network. (WTN)

WTN: Governor Doyle campaigned on the theme, “A New Day.” In light of the State’s budget crisis, with accompanying departmental budget cuts that have been announced, what are your goals for technology-based economic development and how do you accomplish them to improve the state’s economic stature?

Nettles: We have to do a much better job of marketing ourselves with the right technology–based products message and then by telling our story both within and outside the state. Wisconsin has a very good intellectual property products and biotechnology story to sell domestically and internationally. The medical devices and instrumentation industry is doing very well. They have fast growing sales and their exports have been rising off the charts.

The first steps in getting to a “New Day Economy” are to manage in a fiscally responsible way and continue to reduce the deficit. Large deficits hamstring our ability to do effective economic development.

The second thing we need to do is to manage our resources and do a better job of being leaner, smarter and more efficient. We cannot assume that bigger governmental budgets and bureaucracy necessarily translate to economic development. The Department of Commerce has to do a great job of managing and marketing, even with fewer resources.

The next thing is that we need to look hard, with a fresh eye, as to what our strengths and weaknesses are. And do a better job of developing those strengths, as well as release the power that we have in those particular sectors of the economy, that can distinguish ourselves on a national level.

WTN: What are your strategies to balance Wisconsin’s current economic activity with the need to grow and expand in new technology market segments?

Nettles: Wisconsin has some very mature sectors of its economy that have been wonderfully successful and still play a very primary role in our current economy. But, our past success in those areas cannot limit our thinking about other developing opportunities. The Governor is thinking about those sectors of the economy that are less traditional and where we, Wisconsin, have distinguished ourselves. The opportunities that we have in technology will be a real important part of our economic development plans.

WTN: Will the administration focus more on technology-based economic development and less on Wisconsin’s traditional manufacturing economy?

Nettles: Do we focus on technology or do we focus on manufacturing? The answer is YES. The Governor wants to have a very broad and diverse economic development strategy. We don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket, whether it’s biotech, IT, (information technology) transportation, manufacturing or agriculture. We want to look at businesses and start ups that have the ability to distinguish themselves competitively, locally, nationally, and internationally, irrespective of markets, and to support them as best we can. We will not load up on one segment, at the detriment of others. We are not going to bet the farm on one or two particular segments, and hope they pop.

WTN: Will the investments in technology-based businesses help the rest of the state?

Nettles: What is happening is that the people who are in the marketplace everyday appreciate the practical application of technology in every sector of our economy. There are proven benefits of increased efficiencies that are a result of IT applications. We need to start appreciating and talking about the symbiotic relationship between business and technology and make this message more broad and obvious. We need to focus on the integration, coordination and application of technology. Additionally, we should take our technology, developed in Wisconsin, and make sure that through proper technology transfer, we are applying that technology in manufacturing applications and business so that every sector of our economy can benefit from technological improvements.

WTN: Do you plan to offer tax incentives to attract business to Wisconsin and to stimulate start up companies in the state?

Nettles: I think tax and economic incentives are secondary. What we primarily have to offer are really good opportunities for businesses that are looking to expand and grow in Wisconsin. We have to sell all the benefits that the state has to offer including, quality of life as well as the talented, well trained, hard working people in Wisconsin. Incentives only matter at the margins, as it relates to traditional businesses. We try to have a broad arsenal of honest incentives, which we can provide as deal sweeteners such as tax credits and access to low cost capital. The people we need to be working and partnering with, whether they are Wisconsin businesses, venture capitalists, or out of state industries are smart enough to take a hard look at what we do.

WTN: Recently, the Governor traveled to Eau Claire to award Silicon Logic Engineering (SLE) with a $54,000 “Technology Zone” tax credit and a $400,000 low interest loan. Why was this company chosen and what was the process? (SLE is to use the incentives to develop a specific semiconductor intellectual property standard that will target high-speed communication computer chips. Funding this project is one is part of Wisconsin’s new strategy toward promoting technology development and global competitiveness.)

Nettles: Silicon Logic Engineering was the first company we chose to benefit under the “Technology Zone” tax credit program. This was a no-brainer project. This is a company that both on paper and in practice is doing everything right. They really have distinguished themselves, in terms of their principals, who are a spin off from Cray Computing, and are well-documented success. They were a dream first project. SLE has seasoned expert managers, strong intellectual property, and a sound business plan with strong equity ratios. SLE’s project will create 10 new jobs, retain 38 jobs, and leverage $400,000 in additional investment for technology research and development.

WTN: How has your professional training as an attorney prepared you for your new job, as Secretary of Commerce?

Nettles: My legal training has really helped me with so much that I do, day in, and day out. My training has helped me to be more creative and to appreciate that there is more than one way to help businesses. My job is often creative problem solving. My objective as a lawyer was to help business with whatever legal issues that were presented. I always talk about how the legal issues provide a backbone of underlying business objectives. This is a “New Day” in Wisconsin and we need to ask ourselves, “What can we do creatively, to bring more resources to the table?

WTN: How will the Governor’s approach to economic development differ from the previous administrations?

Nettles: The Governor is very hands-on, completely engaged and very committed. He spends a large part of his day thinking about how to manage through our current budget crisis and on the other hand he thinks about how to alleviate that crisis by growing the economy. The Governor, the administration and the Department of Commerce will be an active player. We will be more aggressive, more engaged and creative than the previous administration. The Governor really gets it! He understands the role and benefits that technology can bring to our state.

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Judy Frankel, a feelance writer and regular contributor to the Wisconsin Technology Network contributed to this story.

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