Joe Loehnis, The First Tee of South Central Wisconsin

IB’s Professional of the Week is the premier way to meet Dane County’s professionals. This week features Joe Loehnis, executive director, The First Tee of South Central Wisconsin.

What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your job and why?

One challenge as executive director of a small(ish) nonprofit has been the need to wear multiple hats and be competent in many areas of the business — fundraising, operations, HR, marketing, strategic planning, finances/accounting, communications, etc. — to accomplish our mission. While this has been a challenge, it has also provided an opportunity to learn many skills very quickly over a short time, while also growing the business.

One of many rewards from leading a youth nonprofit in Madison has been to follow and track participants who have come up through the program and see how they have benefited from participation. I have watched several of our kids go from a shy middle schooler lacking confidence to learning from our life-skills education and applying those skills to finding success in the classroom, going to national leadership academies, and applying for and receiving college scholarships. Those moments of watching our young people flourish in the program is what it’s all about.

Who do you look up to or admire in business and why?

My dad. He grew up under difficult circumstances, never went to college, and one of his first jobs in his 20s was folding diapers on an assembly line in a small manufacturing firm. He eventually became president of the company, which had about 300 employees, after 20 years. While I am impressed in his ability to achieve such a high level within a company without any formal training or degree, growing up I was always more impressed with how his colleagues talked about him. They had the utmost respect for him, and always had glowing things to say about his leadership ability and capability at running the company. He was fair, empathic, and a really hard worker. He expected a lot of himself, and others who worked with him. One of his mottos that has stuck with me is, “Give of your time, talent, and treasure in abundance, and it will always come back to you in the end.”

What has been the high point of your career so far?

One high point for me was when the recruiter called me up on the phone and said that The First Tee was going to offer me the job as executive director. At the time, I was new to Madison, had no nonprofit or fundraising experience, and was working at Wisconsin Early Childhood Association off of Willy Street at a temp job doing data entry. When I got off the phone with the recruiter, I called my dad to tell him and he yelled, “Another Loehnis lands on his feet!” It was a cool moment.

Thinking back on your career, what advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

I just completed my cello performance degree and decided to put aside my cello and chase my dream of playing on the PGA Tour. I had no road map or coach to guide me, so I never created a plan or approach to vetting out my dream. Progress was slow, and after 7 years, I decided to pursue other interests. While I don’t regret my attempt and experiences during the process, I would tell my 21-year-old self to map out a five-year plan, which would include key milestones to hit along the way to gauge whether I was on track to achieve my goal. I believe I would have made much quicker progress, and who knows, might be playing professional golf somewhere.



What would you say are the best things about living and working in Dane County?

Dane County provides a bigger city feel with the connectivity and community closeness of a smaller city. This has allowed me to be exposed to a wide array of cultural experiences and opportunities that I might not have been able to find in a smaller community, but I don’t need to live in a city like Chicago to experience.

Do you have any secret talents or abilities that people would be surprised to discover?

I am a professional cellist, and once considered a career as an orchestral musician. I have had the good fortune of soloing with three orchestras in the U.S., and played with the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra from the time I was a junior in high school through college. I love to teach, and currently have three students who I teach on Sunday afternoons.

What are your guilty pleasures?

Once a year, I will have a classic bagged lunch, consisting of a PB&J, Doritos with Dean’s French Onion Dip, and Double Stuf Oreos. I like to dismantle the Oreos and combing two frosting sides into one Quadruple Stuf Oreo. In late fall of 2012, I was in Chicago’s O’Hare airport about to hop on a plane to Burma, and before she left the airport, my wife (then girlfriend) said goodbye and gave me a bagged lunch with this magical combination of food.

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