Executive Prowess: Our 2015 Executives of the Year exemplify great leadership

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Our second annual Executive of the Year presentation includes Greater Madison executives who have made an impact over the past decade, the past several decades, and are likely to shape the Madison business environment in future decades. It features business leaders who are shaping everything from agribusiness to technology, and our Executive of the Year is making a national impact in the fight against cancer.

Kevin Conroy

Executive of the Year and Large Company Executive of the Year

Kevin Conroy can hardly be described as a riverboat gambler, but five years ago he did roll the dice out of necessity. The decision to participate in a Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services parallel review of Exact Sciences’ colorectal cancer screening technology was a risk for the once-struggling company — one that had the potential to save it years of regulatory review or bring the entire product-development effort to a grinding halt.

Without both FDA approval and Medicare coverage, “we didn’t have much of a business,” Conroy admitted. “Half of the patients who need to be screened are of Medicare age, so without simultaneously getting FDA approval and Medicare coverage, it would have been very, very difficult to finance this long-term project.”

The project took five years, but the payoff came in 2014, when the parallel review determined that Cologuard, the company’s noninvasive test, delivered the most accurate results in detecting colon cancer and precancerous polyps. In March of last year, the clinical trial results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine, and later that month, the FDA Advisory Committee unanimously voted to recommend approval of Cologuard.

Then in August, Cologuard received FDA approval, becoming the first product ever approved under the parallel review program. More big news came in October, when Medicare announced its coverage decision with a preliminary price of $502, making the test readily available to millions of Americans covered under Medicare, the federal government’s health care program for seniors.
Conroy is the first to admit that some good fortune was involved. He credited Medicare with innovatively and creatively working with the FDA to create the parallel review program. Without it, Exact

Sciences would have had to take the conventional approach, which would have required a clinical trial for the FDA’s approval and then another trial to get a Medicare coverage decision, which could have added one to three more years to the process and tens of millions of dollars in cost.

That was unworkable, even for a company that raised $400 million in financing, during a period of investor reluctance, to develop its technology. In the past year, Exact Sciences’ workforce has grown to 400, and it expects to double that number in 2015. The company is also looking for a larger Dane County facility, or a local site on which it can build anew, to accommodate the additional health care sales professionals, laboratory technicians, and customer call center professionals it expects to hire.

Conroy is also quick to credit his existing staff, especially Chief Operating Officer Maneesh Arora, Chief Science Officer Graham Lidgard, and Dr. David Ahlquist, a collaborator from the Mayo Clinic.

So the fight against cancer marches on, led in part by a local business executive who has lost family members (aunts and uncles) to various forms of the disease. “Like most people, cancer has touched my family,” Conroy says, “and yes, it is personal.”



Dan Hartung

Medium Company Executive of the Year

Dan Hartung has been instrumental in running a profitable agribusiness, and he didn’t even grow up on a farm. Hartung Brothers Inc. was founded in 1975,
and Hartung has been there since the beginning. So has profitability.

Hartung Brothers, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, has been profitable in each year of its existence, especially 2013, when commodity prices rose and other stars aligned for a record-breaking year. The company has entered into a number of strategic partnerships over the years, but for Hartung, the key to perennial profitability has been addition by subtraction.

“The first thing you must have is great people who love their work, and let them excel,” he noted. “The second thing is to really manage your costs. There is a farming term called ‘culling the herd,’ and we’ve simply eliminated the segments of business that were chronic losers.”

Even though it has lived by the 80-20 Rule, Hartung Brothers still has operations in seven states and the province of Ontario, Canada. It has several business lines, including its seed business and raw products group (cucumbers, peas, green beans, and carrots), and it’s a wholesale producer, processor, and distributor of what Hartung calls “other people’s genetics.”

Hartung has negotiated several contracts with some of the largest companies in agribusiness, developing lines of business that serve the likes of Syngenta, a global giant based in Switzerland, and Pinnacle Foods, which owns Birds Eye, Duncan Hines, Vlasic, and several other brands.

None of the company’s achievements of the past 40 years would have been possible without the example set by Galen and Lorna Hartung, Dan’s parents. Dan worked for his father, who managed a farm-supply cooperative and taught him about managing finances, and he honed his sales skills under the tutelage of his mother, who sold for Amway.
“Between the two of them, they guided us pretty well.”



Bryan Chan

Small Company Executive of the Year

Bryan Chan is determined to be an active developer of Madison’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. The founder of SupraNet Communications didn’t need an RFP to bid for the privilege; he has proactively supplied the necessary IT brick and mortar.

Whether it’s bridging the local digital divide by deploying fiber-optic cable at several branch libraries, co-founding networking events like the High Tech Happy Hour or the annual Forward Technology Festival, bringing the art of PechaKucha presentations to Madison, providing complimentary wireless Internet service to travelers at Dane County Regional Airport, or simply serving as an example of diversity in a technology sector that needs to diversify its workforce in order to grow, Chan has pointed the way to enrichment.

In Chan’s view, the real opportunity for people of color and for women is being part of the ecosystem Madison is trying to build. “I don’t think we can necessarily wait for employers’ affirmative action policies to change the world,” he stated. “This is something we have to do at a grass-roots level and create more opportunities for business startups. I think I’m a pretty good example of that.”

By creating his own opportunity, Chan founded a company that provides Internet services to businesses across South Central Wisconsin. For the past 21 years, he’s led with a “no fear” attitude when it comes to establishing a culture of constant improvement. What he doesn’t fear is making mistakes, because not only are mistakes inevitable, they can also result in better processes, products, and services.

One problem-solving idea actually caused the shutdown of SupraNet’s network, which extends from Chicago to Minneapolis, and while that was a painful day in the life of the business, it also led to a refinement that’s still used today. “Our business is all about uptime, and that’s extremely important to us, but it’s very difficult to do as systems get increasingly diverse and complex,” he noted. “So within the context of our culture of constant improvement, the first thing we have to do is not live in fear of our mistakes and view them as an opportunity to grow.

“We live in a very failure-averse culture and society, but that can be a dangerous thing, especially in the tech industry.”



Anna Stern

Young Executive of the Year

For bringing youthful energy, making connections to build the next-generation workforce, and ramping up her firm’s business-development efforts, Anna Stern is our (under-40) Young Executive of the Year.

Armed with a law degree from UW-Madison, she has worked to establish internships for law students and job-shadowing events for local youth to get them interested in the construction industry. She’s willing to try anything to convince people — young, old, or middle-aged — that the construction industry has its share of rewarding jobs.

“I’m hoping that person by person, we can start to change the perception of our industry,” said Stern, a vice president at Tri-North Builders. “To be quite honest, it helps that I’m a female who is coming around and talking to people, because that’s not necessarily what you see in our industry all that often.”

While not a member of the old boys’ club, Stern did grow up in the construction industry. Her father, Tom Thayer, is one of Tri-North’s founders, but she didn’t join the firm because of family connections — she’s determined to make an impact. Following a stint at the Michael Best & Friedrich law firm, she joined Tri-North in 2010. It wasn’t exactly the halcyon days of the construction industry, but she viewed the career change as more of an opportunity than a risk.

“It was a time when we needed to start thinking differently than we had in the past, and part of that was, ‘Okay, does it make sense to continue to have our legal work go out-of-house?” she explained. “For a company that works in all 50 states, does it make more sense to have someone here who can handle the legal work until it reaches a certain point?”

Stern is not just a risk manager on the legal front; she’s also credited with forming a team that has developed new customer relationships and strengthened old ones, and with increasing Tri-North’s visibility in strategic markets. One of those markets is the home base of Madison, where the firm is the general contractor on high-profile projects like the Galaxie, which is local developer Otto Gebhardt’s encore to the Constellation. The irony is that while Madisonians are generally knowledgeable about their most prominent companies, Tri-North has a higher profile elsewhere.

“We are a national company, we work in all 50 states, and we do all of these cool projects, but here we’re one of Madison’s little secrets,” Stern says. “Since we started work on the Galaxie, we’ve had people say to us, ‘We thought you just did little interior projects,’ so it’s helped us become more visible in our own community.”



Dr. Frank Byrne

Lifetime Achievement Award

Dr. Frank Byrne has always been humbled by awards, in part because he’s been a Madisonian for all of 10 years. Prior to his recent retirement as president of St. Mary’s Hospital, he packed a lot into that decade, including electronic medical record (and patient safety) enhancement, tireless community service, the championing of health care reform, and a major hospital expansion that promotes healing and established St. Mary’s as the anchor of Park Street revitalization.

From St. Mary’s top 50 ranking as a cardiovascular health hospital to its recognition as a Guardian of Excellence for patient satisfaction, the hospital has fared spectacularly well in quality rankings during Byrne’s tenure. Byrne has also been quick to act when the industry has issued a clarion call. St. Mary’s $1.3 million nursing education endowment is a response to an Institute of Medicine report that recommended providers strive for a workforce of 80% bachelor-prepared nurses by 2020 and develop more master’s-prepared nurses for leadership roles.

“What this nursing endowment does is help us stay on top of our tuition reimbursement to award additional scholarships to help nurses get from associate to bachelor’s degrees and go from bachelor’s to master’s degrees,” he explained.

Challenges remain, but Byrne is proud to have nudged health care reform along. While there’s still more work to do, he believes the industry is moving in the right direction. “It’s clear that health care is getting better when you look at the quality metrics,” he stated. “It’s also clear that we have mitigated the cost increases and the cost-increase trend. It’s also clear that payment models are changing so that there is more incentive to provide high-quality care under a value model of providing care.”

With its partnerships with organizations like the Urban League and the Boys & Girls Clubs, and its decision to build a Ronald McDonald Family Room within its own walls (the first and only Wisconsin hospital to do so), it’s also clear that under Byrne, St. Mary’s fulfilled its mission of community service. “There are many determinants of health that have nothing to do with the provision of health care services,” he noted.

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