Rainmakers: Introducing Our 2014 Hall of Fame Inductees

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.”

(Continued)

 

Daniel Rashke: Remote TASC-master

“I found it kind of neat that some of the efforts that our organization has put forth have been validated in this manner. I’m blessed by the fact I’ve got a strong leadership team that helps prop me up.”


Propped up or not, Daniel Rashke marvels at how a valued employee in Madison can decide to get married, move to Tennessee with his spouse, and continue to work for Rashke’s Madison-based company, Total Administrative Services Corp.

Rashke might be considered the anti-Mayer, as in the total opposite of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who has put the clamps on telecommuting. Rashke not only embraces remote workforce methodology, systems, and culture, he’s hugging it pretty tight for a variety of key business reasons.

“Traditionally, I would maybe lose that person [who moves out of state], but I was able to retain him, so there was definitely a value to the organization in its ability to retain a quality person and not have to invest in training a new one,” he stated.

TASC provides third-party administrative services — particularly health care administration and financial transactions — to employers. It now employs people in 140 metropolitan areas, so remote capabilities help with business continuity. “The idea of a snowstorm knocking you out is kind of silly, especially in today’s day and age,” Rashke says.

Telecommuting not only gives a local company a national presence, enabling it to recruit employees from anywhere, it also eliminates a pain point associated with acquisitions. “We might buy a company in North Carolina, and I don’t have to go in there and say, ‘You have two choices — you leave the company or you move to Madison,’” Rashke noted. “We don’t need to do that. They might be working out of their home office, but it’s another way I can take a quality trained individual and bring them into my organization.”

When they join TASC, they will have ample opportunity for growth and skill-building. TASC employees record their existing skills and skill goals in their HR profiles, which are used to identify them for different project opportunities or new positions. It makes for well-rounded, aspirational employees.

So do the many opportunities the company provides to give back. While TASC is heavily involved with United Way on a corporate level — Rashke serves as Dane County United Way Campaign vice chair, and he will be the chairman in 2015 — its employees are encouraged to volunteer their time through two initiatives. Under one initiative, employees get one paid day off per quarter to volunteer, and as part of the Dollars for Do-ers program, employees log their off-work volunteer hours and TASC donates $5 per hour to that charity.

Explained Rashke: “If we can get our people, our wonderful employees who do so much good for us, to also do good for others, that’s got greater sustainability into the future than relying on some corporation to just write a check.”

David Simon: Sustaining Success

“I thought, wow! It’s quite an honor to be recognized, especially with some of the individuals already recognized.”

David Simon, president of operations for Veridian Homes, formerly Don Simon Homes, has navigated his company through a few devastating recessions. Even after a synergistic merger with Midland Homes, which created Veridian, he had to learn a few recessionary lessons.

Simon joined the industry in 1981 during a recession that featured interest rates as high as 18%. In those challenging times, at least he knew the enemy — affordability. In the most recent recession, which Simon characterized as a housing depression and “a downturn unlike others,” there were multiple barriers: affordability, credit issues, price declines, and the collapse of housing markets globally.

The first lesson was to stay true to organizational mission and values, even amid the temptation of a “whatever-it-takes” survival instinct. “Even when going through difficult times, you want to still manage your brand and motivate your team, and help them help you find your way through new challenges,” Simon noted.

In what is a capital-intensive business of buying land, improving land, and building new homes, lesson two is to conservatively manage your balance sheet. Lower leverage and a better match between assets and liabilities would have been ideal because “in good times, money is rather available, and in challenging times, it becomes more difficult to find and more difficult to offload some of your assets to lower your liability.”

Despite past rocky roads, Simon has remained an avid homebuilder in more ways than one. Veridian has won what is considered the triple crown in homebuilding: America’s Best Builder from Builder magazine, the National Housing Quality Gold Award, and National Builder of the Year from Professional Builder magazine. Perhaps the toughest test is yet another awards program, the Avid Ratings, where Veridian has been rated a top 10 homebuilder nationally. Avid Ratings are based on customer surveys at two points — upon moving in and then 12 months after moving in — and hundreds of national builders are surveyed.

The most telling reason for Simon’s Hall of Fame selection is his leadership in building sustainable homes. As he explained, that’s not necessarily about “sexy” components like solar panels, it’s more about fit, finish, and installation to prevent heat loss. The company’s focus, no matter how it is building homes, “is managing our trades and our suppliers to make sure they are properly installed, inspected, and working as expected,” he says. “We’ve been able to drive significant energy savings value through the reduction of infiltration. A lot of your heat loss is through infiltration of heat out of the home, or infiltration of cold into the home.”

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Sandi Torkildson: A Feminist Book of Business

“I’m delighted. If your peers select you, that hopefully means I’ve been doing something right all these years because I’ve always been involved in business matters.”

Sandi Torkildson did not want to choose between the two. When asked what she’s more gratified by, surviving almost 40 years in the fickle retail industry or the fact that gays and lesbians, whose caused she has championed, are less marginalized in today’s society, the co-owner of A Room of One’s Own bookstore chose the latter, and she noted there still is more work to do.

“We’re still working on it because my whole philosophy of being a bookseller is that it’s about promoting social change,” she stated. “Keeping Madison as an intelligently informed community is important for that.”

Torkildson has done that first as the operator of a feminist bookstore and now as the co-owner of a general bookstore with 10% of its sales online. The independent bookstores that survived the opening of large chains, the rise of the Internet, and the introduction of e-readers are pretty strong, but “there were some really tough years beyond losing a certain amount of business to the Internet, big chains, and the downturns in the economy,” Torkildson said. “Some of the stores didn’t make it, but the ones that did are doing very well.”

The store’s survival is attributable to Torkildson’s original niche, a very loyal customer base, and the adaptability that comes with having a one-store location. “If you’re a chain store, you could have 20 stores in a state, and suddenly if there is a downturn in business, you can’t get out of those leases that quickly,” she explained. “The economic downturn was really hard on us, but we were able to adjust our level of staffing, watch our inventory better, and do things more efficiently — a lot easier [than chains].”

Torkildson might have included her own advocacy on behalf of small businesses because in the opinion of Carol Schroeder, her strongest Hall of Fame advocate, rallying against proposals that could hurt business owners has helped shape a stronger business community.

It might have been easier to launch a feminist bookstore in the 1970s, at the height of the women’s movement, but young consumers provide much of today’s sustenance. “Despite what people say, a big part of our customer base is people under 30,” she stated. “A lot of people think they don’t read in book form, but that’s just not true.”

Younger authors like Jennifer Baumgarten have emerged to take the torch from the Margaret Atwoods of the literary world, and today’s literature is about both holding onto hard-won gains and making additional progress. Torkildson thinks the issues around women, work, and raising a family haven’t changed much since she was younger.

“It’s still a challenge because you don’t get paid for family leave in our country,” she opined. “I don’t know the complete answer to it, but I do think we could have more of a universal approach where it’s not just the burden of the company, like unemployment insurance. Everyone would pay into it so the people who need it get to use it.”

Michael Victorson: Filling Big Shoes

“For me to be a recipient of an honor like this …  I don’t know what the right word is. It’s very gratifying. At the same time, you feel like you’re simply fulfilling a commitment.”

Mike Victorson admitted he was “humbly confused” to be inducted into the Executive Hall of Fame, especially when Loren Mortenson, his mentor at M3 Insurance, was part of the inaugural class in 2004.

“When somebody like Loren builds a business and then makes the decision to perpetuate it internally and give people an opportunity to stand on his shoulders and take it to another level, I’ve likened it to being asked to coach a really successful sports franchise, or being handed the keys to a nice automobile,” Victorson said. “Are you going to take care of it and make it better, or is it something that you’re just going to take for granted and coast?”

In the judgment of our 2013 Hall of Fame class, Victorson hasn’t been coasting, but rather building on Mortenson’s legacy. When final numbers showed M3 outperformed original estimates in 2013, employees received an additional bonus check based on those figures. They had already received their bonus checks in November, but the company cut additional checks to reward workers for exceeding expectations.

“Simply put, when we are in leadership positions, we’re called to do the right thing,” Victorson stated. “When you consider the performance of a business like ours, it’s not something that can be achieved by one person, or a small group of people. It truly is the collective, and so if we outperformed last year, the right thing to do would be to let people know it and be transparent and to share.”

Part of picking up where Mortenson left off is being an early insurance industry adopter of electronic technology such as document imaging and, more recently, mobile technologies for agents. The moves were made as part of a growth strategy, as M3 wanted to become more of a statewide broker.

“Locally, we became one of Apple’s biggest corporate customers because we basically set a business strategy that we are going to become a mobile and connected production force,” Victorson stated. “I think we have over 125 iPads in circulation that everyone from our agents to our risk management team to other people in service positions can leverage in the field and make the customer experience come alive.”

As part of its corporate strategy, M3 challenges its employees to be active in serving others, and roughly 150 organizations benefit from internal programs. Employees are given “Vacation Time Off” to serve in the community, and workers are encouraged to get involved on a variety of community-based committees. M3’s founders viewed philanthropy as part of how the company does business, and M3’s outside board simply considers philanthropy to be a good business strategy. “It’s literally as natural as trying to solicit someone to buy insurance or renew their insurance,” Victorson explained. “It’s just as natural for us to give generously in our community, or to give our employees opportunities to do that.”

(Continued)

 

Hall of Fame 2004-2014 Inductees

We’ve been honoring top executives with our Hall of Fame since 2004. Here is the list of inductees over the years, along with their job titles at the time of induction and their current position if they have moved on to a different company.

2004

Jan Eddy
former president
Wingra Technologies

Jay Loewi
president
QTI Group

Jean Manchester Biddick
former president
Neesvig’s Meat Purveyors

Jane Coleman
former executive director
Madison Community Foundation

Holly Cremer
CEO
The Wisconsin Cheeseman

Don Helfrecht
chairman emeritus
Madison Gas & Electric

Ralph Kauten
chairman and CEO
Quintessence Biosciences

Bob Koch
retired chairman and CEO
American Family Insurance

Bill Linton
chairman and CEO
Promega Corp.

Tom Metcalfe
founder
Metcalfe Markets

Loren Mortenson
CEO
Mortenson Investment Group

Terry Shockley
former president
Shockley Communications Corp.

Jerry Smith
CEO
First Business Financial Services

2005

Leslie Ann Howard
president
United Way of Dane County

Dr. Bill Rock
former medical director
Hospice, Inc.

Carol Toussaint
Carol Toussaint Business Consulting

Ken Urso
president
The Urso Group

Gary Wolter
president and CEO
Madison Gas & Electric

2006

Don and Marilyn Anderson
philanthropists

Londa Dewey
former president, private client group, US Bank (now president of the QTI Group)

Curt Hastings
chair
JH Findorff

Terri Potter
president
Meriter Health Services

John Zimbrick
founder
Zimbrick, Inc.

2007

Jac Garner
president
Webcrafters

Susan Phillips
president/CEO
HospiceCare

Tom Ragatz
retired partner
Foley & Lardner

Doug Reuhl
president
American TV

Rick Searer
president
Kraft Foods North America

2008

Jim Bradley
president
Home Savings Bank

Joan Burke
president
First Business Trust & Investments

Clayton Frink
publisher
The Capital Times

Bill Harvey
chairman
Alliant Energy Co.

David Stark
president
Stark Company Realtors

2009

Mark Bugher
director
University Research Park

Marsha Lindsay
president and CEO
Lindsay Stone & Briggs

Richard Lynch
president
J.H. Findorff & Son, Inc.

Jim Riordan
president and CEO
WPS Health Insurance

Tom Zimbrick
CEO
Zimbrick, Inc.

2010

David Anderson
president and CEO
American Family Insurance

Bill Bathke
executive VP and COO
WPS Insurance

Tom Still
president
Wisconsin Technology Network

David Walsh
partner
Foley & Lardner

Kathleen Woit
president
Madison Community Foundation

2011

Laurie Benson
CEO
LSB Unlimited

James Imhoff
chairman and CEO
First Weber Group

David Kruger
president
Fiore Companies

John Larson
chairman and CEO
National Guardian Life Insurance Group

Jay Smith
chairman and CEO
Teel Plastics

2012

James Bakke
president and CEO
Sub-Zero and Wolf Appliance

Frank Byrne
president and CEO
St. Mary’s Hospital

James Garner
CEO
Sergenian’s Floor Coverings

George Nelson
executive vice president
Morgan Murphy Media

Toni Sykes,
general partner, Calumet Venture Fund, founder and former CEO, The Guild

2013

Ellen Brothers
retired president
American Girl

Corey Chambas
CEO
First Business Financial Services

Tim Christen
CEO
Baker Tilly Virchow Krause

Kevin Conroy
president and CEO
Exact Sciences Corp.

Carol “Orange” Schroeder
co-owner
Orange Tree Imports

2014

Gail Ambrosius
founder
Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier

Bob Dunn
president
Hammes Company Sports Development

Daniel Rashke
CEO
Total Administrative Services Corp. (TASC)

David Simon
co-owner and president-operations
Veridian Homes

Sandi Torkildson
owner
A Room of One’s Own Bookstore

Mike Victorson
president and CEO
M3 Insurance

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