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Rainmakers: Introducing Our 2014 Hall of Fame Inductees

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In the corporate world, rainmakers are people who prolifically bring in business and win new accounts. Under the classic definition, they do so almost by magic because it’s not always apparent how they generated all the new business development.

Given their ability to build businesses and innovate along the way, the members of IB’s 2014 Executive Hall of Fame class qualify as business rainmakers in industry sectors ranging from health care to homebuilding.
In fact, on a rainy Wednesday in June, they were real troopers, just as they’ve been throughout their sterling business careers, as they gathered for a photo shoot at picturesque Olbrich Gardens. Fortunately, the setting is beautiful, even when wet, and the combination of moisture, colorful landscaping, and basic black umbrellas made for an exceptional shoot.

Make that an exceptional shoot with exceptional people. The class of 2014 includes: Gail Ambrosius, founder and owner of Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier; Robert Dunn, president of the Hammes Co. and owner of the Edgewater Hotel; Daniel Rashke, president, CEO, and owner of Total Administrative Services Corp.; Sandi Torkildson, founder and owner of A Room of One’s Own bookstore; David Simon, president of operations for Veridian Homes; and Michael Victorson, president and CEO of M3 Insurance.

As is the case with every new Hall of Fame class, they were selected by the previous class, which consists of Ellen Brothers, retired CEO of American Girl; Corey Chambas, president and CEO of First Business Financial Services; Tim Christen, chairman and CEO of Baker Tilly Virchow Krause; Kevin Conroy, chairman and CEO of Exact Sciences; and Carol “Orange” Schroeder, co-owner of Orange Tree Imports.
Once you read the business stories of the Class of 2014, we’re certain you’ll agree that the Class of 2013 can really pick ’em.

Gail Ambrosius: How Sweet It Is

“I was a little surprised, and very honored. It was like, wow, really? Me?”

It’s hardly surprising that a chocolatier would find her nomination and selection “really sweet.” Everything Ambrosius does could be characterized that way, from the way she works with her Central American cacao growers to the way she involves employees in creating flavors for her chocolates to the way she raises money for the Goodman Community Center.

The distance between Madison and Costa Rica is more than 2,000 miles, but Ambrosius annually makes the trek for a very special reason: to say thank you to her main suppliers, the cacao growers who help make her chocolates what they are. She also wants to make sure the farms are not using chemicals or otherwise growing the product in a way that is inconsistent with her value system, but mostly it’s to say thanks and give back.

While Ambrosius has also visited growers in Ecuador, Columbia, and Peru, her favorite spot is Costa Rica because there is a group northwest of the capital city of San Jose that she not only works with, but also conducts workshops for. Those workshops teach farmers how to make chocolate with their own cacao beans — chocolate they can then sell to supplement the income they derive from selling cacao beans.

“A big part of it for me is really just thanking them for doing what they are doing,” Ambrosius said. “I grew up on a dairy farm, I know how hard farming is, and I know they are doing the bulk of the labor. For me to be making a great living here in the U.S. from their hard labor, I just feel it’s my duty to go there and thank them in person, and show my appreciation for what they do.”

Making chocolate isn’t all fun and games, but Ambrosius is accustomed to hard work. Her family’s farm was located in Seymour, Wis., and her chores included milking, feeding, and cleaning up after the cows. These and other “wonderful things” gave her the work ethic necessary to build a business whose products, thanks to the magic of e-commerce, are now sold everywhere from southern California to New York.

Hard work is one element of her success, and so is an inclusive management style. Every working day at 10 a.m., her staff gathers for a brainstorming session on virtually any aspect of chocolate-making, such as new or seasonal flavors, forthcoming events, process change, and corporate strategy. “Yes, I’m the owner, but I don’t know everything,” Ambrosius stated, “but I do know that I’ve got a great, talented, and smart staff.”

Their input also helps benefit a variety of causes, including the Goodman Community Center. Ambrosius has donated more than $10,000 to the center from the sale of Goodman Heart chocolate hearts, an assortment of sweets wrapped in gold (heart of gold) foil. “Going into business, I had no idea how many silent auctions there are in Madison,” Ambrosius said. “I would get a daily solicitation for a donation, and finally my accountant said, ‘Listen, you can’t say yes to everybody, you’ve got to limit it somehow,’ so it was a way to focus my giving.”

Robert Dunn: Regaining His Edge

“Any honor like that is something that’s certainly unexpected and greatly appreciated, particularly when it comes from a group of your peers.”

It’s a question Robert Dunn has been asked in different ways at different times: Is there any doubt in your mind that when the newly renovated Edgewater Hotel opens later this year, everything you went through to build your own vision for the property will have been worth it?

Thinking back on the ups and downs of the approval process, the answer is an emphatic yes, especially as he sees it coming together in advance of a “soft opening” in August. “I really believe that when the public is able to come see what we’ve done, people are going to respond in the most favorable way,” Dunn said. “They are going to find that this is what it should be, which is one of the true, character-defining places in Madison.”

Many in the Madison business community might identify the renovated Edgewater as Dunn’s legacy, but it extends much further than that. The Edgewater is the latest example of Hammes Co. projects that are designed to be 24/7/365 economic drivers, a concept that has proven its worth from Green Bay to New York City.

Hammes Co. was part of the renovation of Lambeau Field and the construction of MetLife Stadium in New Jersey (home of the NFL’s Giants and Jets), and it’s now involved in building the Minnesota Vikings’ new stadium. MetLife Stadium hosted the 2014 Super Bowl, and the yet-to-be named Minnesota stadium will host the 2018 Super Bowl, a real feather in Hammes’ cap.

Expect the same concept to drive the construction of a new basketball arena in Milwaukee, provided the financing can be worked out. As Dunn explained, these are more than stadiums featuring the kind of fan experience considered ideal for big events — they are mixed-use developments that drive economic activity more than the stadiums of the past. Hammes Co. has been a leader in taking civic buildings that historically were operational for hours or days in a given year and using the projects as anchors to create more infill development in and around them.

“Frankly, maybe the best example in all of sports is Lambeau Field,” Dunn says. “It’s a trend that we think is only beginning to emerge.”

In Dunn’s case, innovation is combined with community building. During the construction of the Edgewater, Hammes Co. forged partnerships with labor to provide job training to disadvantaged populations. It’s a long-standing company practice, and more recently it has benefited construction industry workers left underemployed by the recession.

“We have the good fortune of being involved in very large civic projects from community to community,” Dunn explained. “We’ve taken a lot of pride in developing these programs, and we’ve had a lot of success with them.”


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