20 Mar Commerce secretary Mary Burke on innovation, expansion and BIO
WTN recently checked in with Wisconsin secretary of commerce Mary Burke on some of the projects she’s working on, including the upcoming Wisconsin Innovates conference in Milwaukee, encouraging companies such as Abbott Laboratories to expand in Wisconsin, and BIO 2006 in Chicago.
WTN: Innovation is a word that comes up a lot in Wisconsin these days. How will this conference add to the discussion?
Burke: I come from the private sector and spent most of my career at Trek Bicycles. What I learned there was, the bicycle industry is one that’s very tough. 99 percent of the bicycles sold in the U.S. are imports. And many companies from Schwinn to Raleigh have gone bankrupt. Trek has really succeeded and grown, and the reason is innovation.
What we’re going to be doing is taking the best practices of some of Wisconsin’s most successful companies and sharing those with all businesses in the state so that they can do the same thing.
WTN: What’s the one thing you would most like to be an outcome of the conference?
Burke: More successful businesses. Growth in sales, greater efficiencies. But I think to do that, it’s always looking outside the box on how you can do better. That’s the message Tom Peters talks about, whether it’s his book In Search of Excellence, or his book Re-Imagine, that’s all about looking at business differently. Things are changing so rapidly these days that businesses have to change, and that’s the only way they will be successful.
What’s your best indicator of how much innovation is taking place in Wisconsin?
Burke: I’d say a couple of things. One, the job growth that we’ve been having, because I think to be successful in business these days, you have to innovate, and if we’re adding jobs it’s because Wisconsin companies are doing well.
The second thing that’s really indicative of our innovation is our export numbers. Wisconsin’s export numbers were up 17 percent in 2005 versus a national average of just over 10 percent. And so when you’re growing at nearly double the national average, and exports are products that are competing on a global basis, you know people are innovating.
Those companies are competing against products form China, from south america, from india, from europe, from other places in the U.S., so I think it’s a real indication that we have turned the corner.
WTN: Wisconsin Innovates is billed as a place where attendees can learn from some of the best companies in Wisconsin. In today’s economy, isn’t it important to learn from the best all over the world?
Burke: It is, and I think that you should always be looking everywhere for ideas. Why we’re focusing on Wisconsin is, these are people in some ways you know, people who are accessible, and these companies are competing on a global basis, when you talk about a Johnson Controls, a Harley-Davidson, a Trek Bicycle, a Miller Brewery. Those are global companies. They take the ideas they get around the world and certainly are using them in their businesses. It’s easier getting executives from Wisconsin companies to come and share their secrets.
WTN: Abbot Labs’ expansion into the Kenosha area has drawn a lot of attention. What other resources or companies is the state trying to bring into Wisconsin from the outside?
Burke: Abbott has been doing business in the state of Wisconsin. One of its divisions, Hospira, has operations in Kenosha. So this was not just a new experience for them. We generally focus on companies that are already doing business in Wisconsin and helping them expand in the state. Luckily, we have so many good things going on in this state that we’ve never been busier here at Commerce. Abbott is just one – there’s three other thousand-job expansions that we’re working on at this point.
If you want to travel around the country and sort of get into a competitive game with other states on companies that haven’t normally done business here, it’s a very expensive game and to tell you the truth I think our resources are best spent on supporting the companies we have here.
[Burke could not say what the next three firms are, but they already do business in Wisconsin. One is in technology, one in business services and one manufacturing.]
WTN: Not long after this conference we’ll be coming up on BIO in Chicago. Tell me about the matchmaking service that Commerce will be running for Wisconsin companies.
Burke: We’re taking a different approach to BIO to make sure we have an expanded presence and so people know about all the good things that are happening here in Wisconsin. Rather than focusing on just one area, we’re really featuring presentations and videos and information from a wide range of companies, and that’s really how we think we can best bring that matchmaking about.