Elite executives

Our 2016 honorees have taken their organizations sky high.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

When IB developed the annual Executive of the Year program, we wanted to recognize organizational excellence, and members of our 2016 class have demonstrated this in impressive fashion. In this third annual Executive of the Year presentation, we honor local business leaders who have made their mark in construction, consumer products, the life sciences, technology transfer, and the moving industry.

Special kudos go to our panel of judges, two of whom are members our 2015 Executive Hall of Fame class — Mark Bakken, founder of Nordic LLC and HealthX Ventures, and Pat Richter, retired UW athletic director — and one, Deb Archer, president and CEO of the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau, who is one of five inaugural Women of Industry selections.

This year, judges were asked to examine all of the nomination forms to determine the winner for the top award, the annual Executive of the Year. In addition to selecting the overall winner, they chose five category winners — small, medium, and large business, young executive, and lifetime achievement — and they picked our Chief Financial Officer of the Year.

With gratitude for the fine work of our judges, we present the 2016 Executive of the Year winners.

2016 Exec of the Year

Elizabeth Donley

Autism avenger

When Elizabeth Donley left the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation to establish her own biotechnology firm, she made the transition from stem cell research advocate to stem cell science practitioner.

Donley, CEO of Stemina Biomarker Discovery, leads a company that has developed a test, known as devTOX, for screening drug candidates and chemical compounds for their potential to cause birth defects if exposed during pregnancy. The test uses human stem cells to identify compounds that disrupt human development.

Stemina is providing devTOX to pharmaceutical, chemical, and cosmetics companies, as well as government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army. The EPA is Stemina’s strongest market because of its $10 million contract with the agency to screen pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and environmental toxins for their potential to cause birth defects.

Yet at first glance, Donley’s most important accomplishment as a business executive is her ability to remain in Wisconsin when coastal investors keep trying to lure her away with the promise of much-needed venture capital, but that’s only a partial answer. “One of the primary things that I would say is the ability to continue to grow the company in the face of difficult economic times and in the face of not being the center of the universe for funding for this kind of endeavor,” she says. “We’ve been very creative in being able to continue to grow our company from a variety of different funding sources, including angel investors and federal grants.”

Stemina also has developed a test that promises to revolutionize the way autism is diagnosed and treated. The company’s primary focus is metabolomics, which is the study of metabolism, with the goal of more precisely identifying diagnostic biomarkers that allow medical practitioners to not only to diagnose autism sooner and more precisely, but also to “inform more personalized treatments,” Donley says.

In examining nearly 500 patient blood samples from two different institutions, the Mind Institute at the University of California–Davis and the Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute, Stemina has learned that autism is a spectrum disorder that should be examined from the standpoint of metabolism, not just the cognitive and behavioral perspectives. Stemina also has begun a clinical study, the Children’s Autism Metabolome Project, or CAMP, to validate its test for diagnosis and individualized treatment.

Some day, the parents of autistic kids won’t have to try everything from modified diets to behavioral therapy. “We say this test will revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment of autism because for the first time we are able to see biochemical differences across the spectrum that show that one child with autism is not the same as others,” Donley explained.

As a scientist, Donley has an interest in presenting information about Stemina’s product breakthroughs to the global scientific community, but her international travels also aid commercialization. “What we do is so extraordinarily technical, and the purchasers of these tests are physicians and PhD-level scientists, so it’s critically important to present at scientific meetings and publish in peer-reviewed journals.”

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Large Company Exec of the Year

Paul Tonnesen

Growth go-getter

Paul Tonnesen, president – Americas for Fiskars, can cite many uses for the orange-handled scissors designed and sold at Fiskars, but none more unique than having former Wisconsin basketball coach Bo Ryan use them to cut down nets.

Tonnesen has enjoyed a couple of discussions with Ryan over the years, and they usually center on the similarities between coaching and executive leadership. Whether it’s new product development, merging offices, facility modernization, or SKU rationalization, Tonnesen never misses an opportunity to drive growth — a process he likens to maintaining a successful athletic program.

“It’s about putting together a good team, a strong and consistent team,” Tonnesen says. “If you look at the track records of peers in my business, they don’t last very long.”

Thanks to his team, Tonnesen is entering his 10th year at Fiskars, a Helsinki, Finland-based supplier of consumer products for the home and garden. Together, they have yet to have a bad (unprofitable) year. To keep driving growth, Fiskars is not only building a new and expanded local facility, one with more space for research and development and its award-winning designers, it has also completed the acquisition of watering brands Gilmour and Nelson.

They were pursued to strengthen Fiskars lawn care and garden portfolio. When your market categories are maturing, “you get to the point where you’re at the law of diminishing returns,” Tonnesen says. “You continue to grow every year but it’s about how you get that extra share point. You have to start looking at how else you grow, and we’ll grow through adjacent categories.”

The new facility, now under construction in Middleton, will accommodate new categories and help with employee recruitment. Since Fiskars is a design company that sells consumer products, management wanted the new building to reflect that. “You’re going to see that it’s a bit of Frank Lloyd Wright meets [Finnish designer] Alvar Aalto,” Tonnesen says.

Tonnesen builds in other ways with his support of Project Orange Thumb, an internal program that has distributed more than $500,000 in grants for beautification and locally sustainable food supplies and for the craft projects of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County.

“Whenever you meet [Boys and Girls Club CEO] Michael Johnson or meet the kids,” he says, “you can’t help but get involved.”

Medium Company Exec of the Year

Tim Lightner

Inclusive idealist

Tim Lightner is an open book and thanks to a fateful decision he made a while back, so is TWO MEN AND A TRUCK, the residential and business relocation services franchise he brought to Madison in 1993 as the local franchise owner.

To give employees more skin in the game, Lightner launched a three-year open-book management initiative that so far has contributed to higher revenues and profitability while maintaining a higher customer referral rate than the corporate system average.

To say Lightner was managing by the book might sound odd, but after a colleague recommended he read The Great Game of Business by Jack Stack, Lightner knew he needed to follow the author’s advice. Stack, the president and CEO of SRC Holdings Corp., chronicled how he helped an at-risk manufacturing company thrive by building a team atmosphere that improved employee morale, helped workers understand the financial aspects of the business, and shared the rewards (profits) with employees.

While reading the book, Lightner felt Stack provided a blueprint for his company. It resonated with him because, as the company grew, he saw that certain costs were getting out of control and morale wasn’t what it could be. He followed Stack’s advice to help workers advance in their careers and to build equity stakes for them. He also aggressively replaced aging trucks that were driving up maintenance costs.

The book resonated so much that Lightner purchased 10 copies and had his entire management staff read it. What they learned from it has gradually been embedded in the company culture and operations. Now every manager has a better understanding of the financial steps taken to gain efficiencies in areas of large expense — labor, fleet maintenance, and safety. The ramped up safety culture was pursued not only to better communicate best worker safety practices but also to reduce insurance claims.

The open-book management initiative has been followed up by the development of a five-year strategic program and other plans, but Lightner is the first to acknowledge that some luck is also involved, especially with lower gasoline prices. Without periodic change, however, luck doesn’t matter because after 23 years in operation, Lightner has come to believe that complacency is the biggest destroyer of businesses.

“As a company grows, it becomes more demanding on leadership and management to motivate employees,” he explains. “There is a distance that develops between management and frontline staff. In our case, the frontline staff makes or breaks us.”

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Small Business Exec of the Year

Eric Schmidt

Building block

In many ways 2015 was, if you’ll pardon the pun, a groundbreaking year for CG Schmidt’s Madison-area employees. To Eric Schmidt, general manager- western region for CG Schmidt Inc., the quality of the recent year goes beyond record-breaking sales numbers.

The most significant accomplishment pertains to the firm’s transparency and open-book accounting practices, which helped it earn the Business Ethics Award from the Wisconsin Society of Financial Services Professionals. That’s no small feat in an industry where not every company builds trust with clients because they are often skeptical of their builder’s billing practices.

As a result, the Milwaukee-based CG Schmidt is the only construction company to ever receive this award. “As a company, that was a significant accomplishment,” Schmidt notes. “It’s a challenge to distance yourself from the questionable practices of others.”

CG Schmidt provides construction management, general contracting, and design-build services. The firm employs 29 people in its Madison office and works on industrial, health care, senior living, and community projects. Under Schmidt, the grandson of company founder Charles Schmidt, CGS has won and worked on 28 projects out of its Madison office in the last year and more than 50 since Schmidt arrived here in 2010.

That’s when CGS made the corporate decision to relocate an owner to Madison and focus its resources on growing the Madison office. The office has quickly expanded despite the lingering effects of a recession that devastated the construction industry, pumping up its annual revenue from $10.4 million in 2012 to $28 million in 2013. In 2015, the Madison office exceeded its sales goal by 307%, contributing mightily to a 36% rise in overall company sales.

Schmidt credits recent hires that weren’t easy to find. “Finding qualified individuals and making sure they fit culturally with the company, that they embody the values the company is known for, was a challenge,” he acknowledges. “I was astounded how difficult it was to find the people who embody those values.”

Schmidt is a founding sponsor of the Clean Lakes Alliance, and he’s pleased with progress in reducing phosphorous in the lakes. “We have work we can still do to educate the public,” he says. “People look at the lakes more for recreation, but with the city’s interaction with the lakes and the way they define the character of the city, you start to realize how valuable they really are.”

Young Exec of the Year

Jeannie Cullen Schultz

Shooting star

The early success of the division she leads, especially with certain health care trends working against her, and her role as the face of JP Cullen in the Madison market, has helped Jeannie Cullen Schultz, healthcare construction director, become an accomplished executive at the tender age of 31.

Then again, she’s accustomed to accomplishment, having earned 10 combined letters in basketball, softball, and tennis at Janesville Craig High School, being inducted into the Janesville Sports Hall of Fame, and playing in two Division I NCAA basketball tournaments as a standout shooting guard at Dartmouth, where she racked up 1,481 career points, fifth best in the Ivy League college’s history.

Her competitive drive has taken her to the family business, JP Cullen, a construction management firm with offices in Janesville and Madison. Cullen Schultz has been with the firm for three years, including the past 18 months as director of health care construction. Over the past year, her main focus has been on cultivating new relationships with health care clients, primarily in Dane County.

Prior to Cullen Schultz becoming director of health care construction, much of the company’s health care work was concentrated in Milwaukee, but her team is now currently working for six different health care clients throughout Dane and Rock counties, and over the two years has completed more than 100 projects ranging in size from $10,000 to $13 million.

In addition to growing a new division, Cullen Schultz has more fully developed the firm’s contractor services program and led the charge on opening a new office on the Capitol Square in downtown Madison. A lot of effort has gone into it, but some nice perks are part of the deal, too. “I love coming to work downtown every day,” she says. “I’m sitting in our conference room and looking out at the Capitol building. It’s a pretty cool space to be in.”

Cullen Schultz sees parallels between leading a business team and her athletic experiences. Similar teamwork is required in the construction process with its interviews, bids, and proposals, and the many different players involved — from architects to project managers. “There are a lot more [similarities] than I would have thought a few years ago between the construction industry and competitive athletics and just what it takes to be successful,” she says. “You have to be willing and ready to compete every day with the external competition. Madison, Dane County, and Wisconsin have great construction-management firms.”

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Lifetime Achievement Award

Carl Gulbrandsen

Tech transfer titan

Carl Gulbrandsen, retiring managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, can point to a long list of accomplishments, including stem cell patents that withstood inevitable legal challenges and the successful patent-infringement lawsuit against Apple Computers, in which WARF was awarded $234 million in damages by a federal jury.

To Gulbrandsen, who officially retires on June 30, his proudest accomplishment is building a staff of people that has made WARF a leading technology transfer organization and an innovator in investment management. “WARF has an A-plus senior staff of professionals, most of whom were hired during my tenure,” he notes. “It’s been a real privilege to work with them.”

WARF’s role is to steward the cycle of research, discovery, commercialization, and investment for UW–Madison. When student, staff, or faculty researchers identify a technological discovery, they bring it to WARF to consider a patent opportunity and the foundation facilitates that process on the researcher’s behalf. Once patented, WARF assists with licensing the discovery, which provides royalties back to the researcher and to WARF, and the foundation completes the cycle of innovation by providing annual grants to UW–Madison to advance continued research.

Therefore, there are three things particularly important to WARF: its tax-exempt status, patents and patent law, and investments. Peter Tong, president of the WARF board of trustees, says Gulbrandsen’s accomplishments have been transformational on the investment front. During his tenure, not only has WARF paved the way for innovative discoveries, its endowment has more than doubled from $1.21 billion to $2.68 billion. The annualized return of the portfolio was 6.64% per year for the 15-year period ending in June 2015, and since 2000 this investment performance has enabled WARF to gift $895 million to UW–Madison.

Even though technology transfer has already contributed a great deal to the local economy, the university is trying to further increase the rate of technology transfer with its Discovery-to-Product initiative. “D2P” is a recognition that in the past 15 years it’s been more difficult to license technology directly out of the laboratory to large companies, especially after the Great Recession.

Gulbrandsen, a patent attorney by training, says the situation forced UW–Madison to become more proactive in further developing its technologies and the startup companies that bring them to market. “We got into it,” he notes, “due to the attitude of large companies to shed risk.”

CFO of the Year

Steve Cable

Financial force

Our Chief Financial Officer of the Year is actually an interim chief operating officer who was appointed COO in a pinch because of his work as a CFO.

Not that Total Administrative Services Corp.’s Steve Cable minds being stretched thin, but nothing would appear to be too thin for a man who’s been instrumental in the growth of TASC since 2010, especially his work in building the company’s acquisition competency.

Without that skillset, there would be no growth through acquisition. In Cable’s six years with TASC, the third-party administrator of both small and large business employee benefits programs acquired and integrated 13 companies, added more than $40 million to its overall corporate revenue, and enjoyed a six-year streak in which its annual growth rate exceeded 20%. The company now has 808 employees and reports $89.2 million in annual revenue.

Cable came to TASC with a reputation for laser-sharp strategic focus on helping organizations grow. “I’ve been fortunate in my career to work on a lot of different acquisitions,” he notes. “I’ve worked at Fiskars and Springs Window Fashions, so those experiences helped me to help TASC’s growth through acquisition.”

At TASC, upgrading acquisition competency entailed gauging the company’s desire for more rapid growth, which led to a targeted growth rate, building competency around due diligence required for larger acquisitions, and establishing a credit facility with the help of business partners like BMO Harris. Cable was directly responsible for growing TASC’s $20 to $30 million line of credit for acquisitions to $100 million, including a $30 million mezzanine, and also helped the company’s operational group build competencies for acquisition absorption.

Being a stand-alone entity, TASC was able to bring new acquisitions onto its technology platforms, and it addressed cultural considerations in part by not letting go of new employees. “We don’t go in and just lay off a group of people,” Cable states. “We try to retain them because they are already trained up in our industry.

“One thing that really helps us in terms of getting that cultural alignment is that we, at our executive level and throughout every level of our company, are comprised of a lot of people who came to us through acquisitions. Our culture has probably evolved a little bit too, but we were able to very quickly give people from an acquisition a real chance to have an impact at TASC.”

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