2019 Executives of the Year: Setting standards

From the pages of In Business magazine.

With the conviction that quality management is the most essential ingredient in business success, IB launched the Executive of the Year awards program six years ago. Our belief that executive excellence is worth celebrating has grown stronger with time, and so this year we honor eight business and nonprofit leaders for their exemplary business leadership, innovation, and company success.

With the exception of the lifetime achievement winner, this particular honor is based on company and community contributions during the past 12 months. The following executives were judged to be the best performers of the past year, and they will be honored at an awards reception on Tuesday, Feb. 19, at the Overture Center for the Arts:

  • Matthew Gonnering, CEO, Widen Enterprises
  • Ralph Middlecamp, CEO & Executive Director (retired), District Council of Madison Inc. Society of St. Vincent de Paul
  • Dan Rashke, CEO, Total Administrative Service Corp.
  • Tom Spitz, CEO; Dave Fink, president, Settlers bank
  • Kate Perleberg, CFO, RISE Wisconsin
  • Henry Sanders, Jr., CEO​, Madison365 and Selfless Ambition
  • Paul Hager, CEO, Information Technology Professionals

For more details about the Executive of the Year event and to purchase tickets, visit IBMadison.com/ExecutiveOfTheYear.

We also owe a debt of gratitude to our panel of judges, all of them past Executive of the Year award winners, including Beth Donley, CEO of Stemina Biomarker Discovery; Tim Lightner, owner of TWO MEN AND A TRUCK; and Joe Pleshek, president and CEO of Terso Solutions Inc. With our thanks to them for a job well done, we present the 2019 Executive of the Year winners. Special thanks to Rubins for “chair-ing” our photo shoot.

2019 Executive of the Year, Medium Company Executive of the Year

Matthew Gonnering

When you’re a provider of digital asset management (DAM) software, you gain a pretty good understanding of organizational assets. For Widen Enterprises CEO Matthew Gonnering, those assets begin with people, the employees he calls the “Wideneers,” which is why he invests so much in professional development and culture.

Widen, which now has 368,000 users in 158 countries, has been certified by WorldBlu as a “Freedom-Centered Workplace,” which is the antithesis of the traditional top-down command model. “The easiest way to explain the freedom-centered workplace is to talk about what the opposite looks like,” Gonnering explains. “The opposite of a freedom-centered workplace is a fear-based workplace. If you can imagine a very top-down, mandated environment that is culturally challenged — you just don’t like showing up for work every day.

“Information does not flow freely, it’s difficult to collaborate, and employees don’t know what’s going on, all of which creates fear within organizations.”

In contrast, Gonnering is determined to be open with information to empower project teams, and he has decentralized decision making because “that’s where all the expertise is.” This mindset is centered on the Greek term “eudaimonia,” which refers to human flourishing. The concept has been around for centuries, but Gonnering learned about it from a friend in the MBA program at UW–Madison. “He was a PhD in psychology and he was talking about the term eudaimonia from a psychologist’s perspective,” Gonnering recalls, “and I started to dig into it from a business perspective because it very much resonated with me.”

Lifetime Achievement Award

Ralph Middlecamp

Asked why poverty remains so widespread and challenging to fight, Ralph Middlecamp notes there are a broad spectrum of causes, and generational poverty has a different set of solutions than situational poverty.

“We erroneously tend to lump many types of poverty together under one heading,” explains the now retired CEO and executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s District Council of Madison. “There are different answers for different kinds of poverty.”

Finding answers has been his life’s work, whether it’s building a loyal workforce culture in which everyone understands the organization’s mission — “Many could take a job somewhere else and make more money,” Middlecamp notes — his ability to lead the innovation of new service offerings for people in need, or with his current, post-retirement gig as the Society’s national president.

One of the answers is empowering others to get involved. At the heart of Middlecamp’s rewarding work is the one-on-one meetings with people who suffer in poverty, but his ability to reach out has been absolutely critical. In his last full year as the local CEO, total donations exceeded $2.5 million, more than double the amount of donations at the start of his tenure. Most of that came in donations of food but also for clothing, furniture and bedding, housing, prescriptions, and utilities and rent.

“The community,” he notes, “is the shareholder of an organization like ours,” which is why he’s blessed that he landed in a good place — the local nonprofit industry. In Madison, “We have big-city problems, but we still feel that we can do something constructive about them.”

Large Company Executive of the Year

Dan Rashke

Thanks to Dan Rashke’s commitment to social responsibility, Total Administrative Services Corp. is recognized as one of the best philanthropic companies in Wisconsin. Thanks to his business acumen, TASC, now a $120 million company, is poised for more explosive growth.

Rashke, CEO of the Madison-based administrator of employee benefit programs, is quick to point out that management can envision programs such as TASC’s Universal Benefit Account and the Combined Federal Campaign, but his staff has to execute to woo customers.

The UBA, which was built from the ground up, enables client businesses to work outside of legislative silos when it comes to employee benefits such as health savings accounts or flexible spending accounts, thereby eliminating costly administrative burdens.

The CFC, a new online charity enrollment and donation system to accommodate federal workplace giving, already has centralized and digitized what used to be a cumbersome, paper-based system. It was the first donation system to meet rigorous security standards established by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, and before the government shutdown put things in limbo, workplace giving was trending up.

Rashke also gives a lot of thought to TASC’s internal giving, combining 40 hours of PTO for volunteering with a Dollars for Doers program that resulted in more than 5,500 hours of community volunteer time by TASC employees. He’s an advocate of even more giving, inside and outside of TASC, through enactment of the federal Everyday Philanthropist Act, a bipartisan bill that would enable pre-tax giving.



Small Company Executives of the Year

Dave Fink and Tom Spitz

Tom Spitz and Dave Fink strive to create an environment where everyone’s voice matters, and even though they are joined at the hip in managing Settlers bank, they haven’t always seen eye to eye. On those rare occasions, their shining light is organizational mission.

“It’s the core of why we’re here, what we’re doing, and how we serve our employees, our customers, and our shareholders,” Spitz explains. “We have consistently resolved any disagreement, if you will, in how those three stakeholders are served best, and it’s worked really well.”

They manage Settlers bank in a strategically opportunistic way, which led them to open a location in Appleton. Staffing it properly began with the selection of a local leader, and in a judgment call that was part good fortune and part due diligence, they hired Mike Waters, a Fox Valley banker who wanted to open his own financial institution. The Appleton location is off to a solid start and part of the reason Settlers reports yet another strong year of asset growth, to $300 million, and now employs 44 people.

“Tom and I were happy to meet with him [Waters] and help,” Fink notes, “but during our first meeting, it was apparent that Mike was the real deal and would fit in well with our existing culture.”

Part of being a good leader is recognizing that you don’t have all the answers, and Spitz and Fink have created an ideas forum where input can be submitted anonymously. “Tom and I are quick to say that Settlers bank is made up of a group of entrepreneurs that are self-starters and really smart,” Fink states. “We think this program exemplifies that.”

Chief Financial Officer of the Year

Kate Perleberg

When we think about chief financial officers, an image comes to mind of people who think with the head rather than the heart — analytical, logical, and coldly detached. If Kate Perleberg is any example, it’s probably a bad rap, given her strong people skills in contributing to the successful merger of Community Partnerships and the Center for Families into a new nonprofit entity called RISE Wisconsin.

When you’re the CFO of a nonprofit, especially one focused on early childhood education and mentall illness, the heart enters into it. “Definitely, my first inclination, when I’m presented with a situation, is to think of it from an analytical or a logical perspective,” she acknowledges, “but I really view that as just my starting point. Having worked my entire career in the service industry, I quickly learned that it’s about relationships.”

It helps that roles and expectations of financial leaders have changed. Gone are the days of CFOs being tucked away in a back office, tasked only with providing input on financial impacts. At RISE Wisconsin, Perleberg is at the table with other senior leaders and viewed as a strategic partner. “The analytical part of me — it’s assumed by peers and other organizations, but successful financial leaders also need to be thinking about the holistic picture, not only from the financial side but from programming and human aspects.”

It also helps to have an understanding about life and how things don’t always turn out as we plan. “Being surrounded by people who are caring and compassionate, some of those difficult times can be made a little bit easier,” she says, “and so, when I go about my work, I hope that’s something others can see in me.”

Startup Company Executive of the Year

Henry Sanders, Jr.

For many, building an organization involves building partnerships with other businesses, but Henry Sanders, Jr. believes in partnering with other brands. Sanders, CEO of both Madison365 and Selfless Ambition, has grown the nonprofits through synergistic partnerships.

Madison365, a media outlet for communities of color, is regional in its appeal. Sanders estimates that 15 percent of its readership is
in Chicago and five percent is in the Twin Cities, and this helps Madison attract workers. That’s not an easy task, given data that shows Wisconsin is among the worst places to live for people of color, but Madison365 tells a more complete story.

The Latino Chamber, Urban League, Ho Chunk Nation, and the Milwaukee Brewers and Bucks are established partners, and 2019 will bring connections with the Madison Chamber, the launch of FoxValley365, and a new women’s brand called ANYA. “If we can give people a real view of what’s going on in our communities, especially communities of color, it will change perceptions,” Sanders states.

Selfless Ambition, which connects churches with communities, collaborates with Madison schools to install and manage food pantries for needy families. Making sure economically disadvantaged children are well nourished and ready to learn is one of many reasons that Sanders’ leadership appealed to EOY judges. “Anytime you get recognized for what you’re doing, it’s always an honor,” Sanders notes, “but it’s more of an honor when you’re recognized by peers who are doing the same work, who are trying to build businesses or organizations, and who understand the hard work and passion that goes into it.”

Chief Executive Officer of the Year

Paul Hager

In a business community establishing itself as an information technology player, Paul Hager is leading the way. Hager’s Information Technology Professionals has been on a consistent growth path — 2018 was the company’s fourth consecutive year on Inc. magazine’s 5000 list — because its mission is to help business clients complete their technology transformations.

With a three-year growth rate of 101 percent, the company is on track for a coveted fifth straight year on prestigious list, something only 6 percent of companies achieve. In two years, ITP staff has doubled in size, and the company has become a modern technology partner, not a mere value-added reseller.

“That’s a derogatory term now,” Hager states. “I would never want to be called a VAR because that’s just a technology company that helps people acquire tech stuff. That’s not the business we’re in.”

Hager’s hands-on approach on everything from the onboarding process to diversifying his management team has elevated ITP. His eye for what’s next in the technology space — keep an eye on “containers” and orchestration services that automatically help businesses leverage the cloud on scale — has ensured ITP’s continued growth in all markets.

As the leader of a growing technology firm, Hager gets the lion’s share of the credit, but he knows the CEO of the Year is really a team honor. “It’s like when you ask NFL quarterbacks about an award and they say it’s really a team recognition,” he notes. “Any leader of an organization would say we don’t win unless all the folks on my team are successful.”

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