Executives of the Year: Growth go-getter Tonnesen leads Fiskars

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

Tonnesen, Fiskars' local CEO, has reason to cut down nets of his own, having been selected as an In Business Executive of the Year in the Large Company category. He has been chosen for this honor by a panel of judges that includes Deb Archer, president and CEO of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, retired UW–Madison Director of Athletics Pat Richter, and Mark Bakken, founder of Nordic LLC and HealthX Ventures.

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

Fiskars has the advantage of not having a lot of staff turnover, but that requires constant attention to “keeping it fun and challenging and rewarding,” something Bo Ryan managed to do in a business where the paying customers constantly ask, “What have you done for me lately?”

Tonnesen can relate to Ryan’s experience. “We talked about how being a coach and being the leader a company are very similar, to the point where you are only as good as your last couple of seasons,” Tonnesen says. “It’s about putting together a good team — a strong and consistent team. If you look at the track records of peers in my business, they don’t last very long.”

Thanks to his Fiskars team, Tonnesen has lasted pretty long and now is entering his 10th year at Fiskars, a Helsinki, Finland-based supplier of consumer products for the home and garden. Together, Tonnesen and his Madison team have yet to have a losing (unprofitable) year, and 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 completed the acquisition of watering brands Gilmour and Nelson.

The rationale for this merger-and-acquisition strategy is synergy. If you look at the categories Fiskars competes in, including home crafts and lawn and garden, those markets are more mature and that makes it difficult to capture additional market share. So the question becomes how else can Fiskars grow? Tonnesen’s answer is to strengthen the company’s lawn-and-garden portfolio.

When your market categories are maturing, “you get to the point where you’re at the law of diminishing returns,” he 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.”

“Not too many people know this but we tried to buy a piece of that business. Before Bosch bought it, I tried to buy the Nelson watering business in 2007, so it came full circle and we were able to get it. It’s going to take a couple of years to make sure that we can Fiskar-ize the products but we want to re-launch the Gilmour and Nelson brands and do what we need do to become successful in that category. For us to get into a category we have to be number one or number two from a positioning standpoint or we don’t really want to be in it.”

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New home

Paul Tonnesen

Fiskars new facility, now under construction off Parmenter Street in Middleton, is on track for an August or September opening. Designed to accommodate where Fiskars is going as a company, including a large research and development center for the company’s award-winning designers, it will not only be used to develop new product categories, it also will 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 Alvar Aalto,” Tonnesen says. “Alvar Aalto is a famous Finish designer who was actually represented in some of our eco-products, our high-end glassware products. That’s kind of the design look that we are going for.”

Fiskars existing facility is only 15 years old and has served the company well, but it’s running out of space. That’s not to suggest a new location will please everyone, especially those with longer commutes, but Tonnesen believes that getting larger will set up a stronger future.

Any time a business organization can create new space for recruiting and retention, and a better environment for employees, “that’s what it’s all about,” Tonnesen says. “Madison is a smaller city and you have to recruit hard. You have to make sure your space is competitive.”

Orange thumb philanthropy

With his support of Project Orange Thumb, an internal program that in 12 years has distributed more than $500,000 in grants for neighborhood beautification, garden builds, and locally sustainable food supplies, and his support of craft projects of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, Tonnesen builds in other ways. “Whenever you meet [Boys and Girls Club CEO] Michael Johnson or meet the kids,” he says, “you can’t help but get involved.”

For Johnson, who nominated Tonnesen for Executive of the Year, the feeling is mutual. “For Paul, being an executive means more than running a successful corporation,” Johnson notes. “It means giving back to the community and being an integral part of the growth of the city he lives in.”

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