Wisconsin Business Alliance hopes to be fresh voice for ‘unheard’ business owners

Lori Compas has never been one to shy away from a heavyweight bout. The Fort Atkinson small business owner, who is best known for her unsuccessful state Senate recall bid against Republican power broker Scott Fitzgerald earlier this year, exudes the sort of can-do confidence that fairly screams “next time.”

So it might seem natural that her next project would be one part quixotic and two parts nose-to-the-grindstone, grassroots-building pragmatic.

That project would be the Wisconsin Business Alliance, a membership organization that hopes to improve the state’s business climate and protect its residents’ quality of life. At the same time, it aims to fill a niche that, according to Compas, is not being satisfied by larger, more established groups like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business, nonpartisan groups that are often seen as toeing a more conservative line.

“What we’ve been told by smaller members who’ve joined us is that they’ve been waiting for this, ‘no one’s really been listening to us.’” – Lori Compas

As a former recall candidate, Compas is probably seen as a hero among Democrats and as a divisive force among Republicans, but in her new role as executive director of the WBA, she’s stressing the nonpartisan nature of the organization, and is also careful to note that the WMC is not the group’s adversary.

“I definitely want to stress that we are not setting ourselves up in opposition to the WMC,” said Compas. “I think they do their thing, they represent a very narrow sector of Wisconsin’s economy, and they do that quite well. But we saw a need for a nonpartisan business voice. Right now, I think we see a very one-sided version of what’s happening in the business world and what businesspeople think about policies.

“Frankly, if a Republican policy comes down from the Legislature, the WMC, the National Federation of Independent Business, Wisconsin Independent Business, those established business groups applaud those Republican policies. I mean, generally, they seem to act almost as a public relations arm of the Republican Party. And if a Democratic proposal comes down, they usually automatically assail it.”

(A call to the WMC seeking comment for this story was not returned.)

Compas said she sees her organization, which launched at the end of September, in part as a liaison between the business community and lawmakers – a conduit for presenting unbiased facts to each side. Given her history as a player in one of the most politically charged eras in Wisconsin’s history, some business owners are likely to take such assertions with a grain of salt, but Compas and the WBA have their own pro-business platform – one that, she says, is firmly grounded in sound economic policy.

“An example, I guess, where the WMC has advocated for something that’s not really in the best interest of our economy as a whole is their pushing for policies that drive wages down,” said Compas. “That might be good for some manufacturers, but our state is not entirely manufacturing, and a lot of our members are retailers or professional service providers, and those types of businesses rely on consumer spending.

“So if you own a retail shop in town and every teacher in your school district just took a giant pay cut, and the police officers are taking a pay cut, and the firefighters are taking a pay cut, when you add all that up, that really harms businesses. So we are taking a broad view, and we’re not just saying, ‘how can we make widgets cheaper?’ We are looking at the state’s economy as a whole and saying if a policy comes down, we’re weighing it and asking, ‘is this really the best thing for the state’s economy as a whole over the long term?’”

Healthier businesses

While Compas’ allusion to Scott Walker’s budget repair bill, which lowered public employees’ compensation, is far from veiled, the most divisive national issue of the last two years is also on the group’s radar.

“Our members are really interested in the Affordable Care Act and how it’s going to affect them,” said Compas. “Health care reform is desperately needed, particularly for small businesses. I’ve talked to countless people over the past year, small business owners, who are just desperate, who can’t get insurance because of pre-existing conditions. One spouse has to work at a full-time job to support the other spouse who’s following their entrepreneurial spirit in trying to establish their own business, and really the business needs two full-time people, but the spouse has to hold down a job just to pay for the insurance. There are lots of cases like that.”

 

While the organization seems to appeal to small businesses, Compas stresses that the WBA is a place for all Wisconsin entrepreneurs.

“We definitely are interested in larger businesses, and I would certainly not say no if Epic wanted to join,” said Compas. “But while I think we’re very tuned in to small businesses, that’s not [our whole focus]. What we’ve been told by smaller members who’ve joined us is that they’ve been waiting for this, ‘no one’s really been listening to us.’ And while we’re really tuned in to them, and while we definitely represent them, we’re not closing the door to other members who want to join.”

According to Compas, the organization, which is based in Fort Atkinson, a town of about 12,000, is also attuned to the needs of rural businesses.

“I really see the small towns and the rural areas in our state as areas that need attention,” said Compas. “I think that a lot of business owners, including farm-based business owners, feel like they really haven’t been represented and that they need a voice, and so I’m looking forward to that.”

Young and growing

Since its launch, the organization has been busy recruiting, and now has more than 60 members.

“It’s a labor-intensive process, and we’re very small right now; it’s just a couple of us making these membership calls,” said Compas. “So it’s definitely exceeding expectations. It’s definitely more than we’ve been able to keep up with.”

The organization is currently in the process of creating local chapters, and hopes to establish five such chapters in its first year. It also plans to hold more launch events like the three it held in Milwaukee, Janesville, and Madison at the end of September, and it’s focusing on outreach and creating awareness of the organization among the state’s business community.

“There are a variety of ways we can do that,” said Compas. “If there happens to be some sort of economic development meeting or a conference that’s happening, we could kind of attach ourselves to that. Or we might just hold a conference, and there are lots of possibilities right now. We’re just trying to catch up on our membership and get some volunteers and some staff in place so that we can start planning events for the next year.”

One event that’s already scheduled is the WBA’s first social gathering, a happy hour that will take place at 4:30 p.m. Dec. 7 at the Argus in Madison.

“We’ll have some charter members and some of the volunteers and some of the staff will be there, so it’s just a good chance for people who may want to learn more about our organization to come talk to us, and also for charter members to meet other charter members, so I’m pretty excited about that.”

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