With talent and vision, tech companies can grow in Wisconsin’s mid-size cities
Zach Halmstad doesn’t come across as the classic company executive. He’s 30-something, inclined to dress “software casual,” and doesn’t seem compelled to prove he’s the smartest person in the room.
The unassuming Halmstad is nonetheless the co-founder of a company — JAMF Software — that is helping to transform his hometown of Eau Claire, Wis., through information technology, jobs, and a commitment to community.
He’s also evidence that tech-based companies can arise in many Wisconsin cities, not just the metropolitan centers of Milwaukee and Madison.
JAMF Software provides information-management tools for major enterprises — companies, schools, and governments — that use Apple products such as Macs, iPads, and iPhones. Its lead product, the Casper Suite, has grown from managing 2,500 computers to more than 3 million devices spread across 4,000 customers.
The company has about 150 employees in Eau Claire, another 100 in Minneapolis, and a dozen or so in each of five offices: Cupertino, Calif., New York City, Amsterdam, Sydney, and Hong Kong.
Not a bad global reach for an Eau Claire kid whose parents were teachers and who freely admits he graduated from UW-Eau Claire with a music degree on “the eight-year plan” while he and others launched the company.
From 2002 until 2007, JAMF Software was basically a hand-to-mouth startup in which no one was paid with anything more tangible than late-night pizza and lots of coffee. In fact, Halmstad had another full-time job until 2004 while completing his degree and working on JAMF “in any free minute that I had.”
Speaking recently to the board of directors for the Wisconsin Technology Council in Eau Claire, Halmstad described a company that has grown sharply since 2010 by focusing on customer service and employee retention through pay and benefit packages that attract and grow talent.
At first, most people doubted Halmstad could find and keep a software workforce in Eau Claire. One skeptic told Halmstad that he and three other early employees would be the only ones they would find to work for them in this university town of nearly 70,000 people.
When the company got to its first 20 employees and then eventually 50 in Eau Claire, people said — once again — that Halmstad must have found every possible hire.
“Now we’re at a spot at 150 people [in the Eau Claire office], where we’re not hearing that anymore,” Halmstad joked.
With existing downtown offices and plans to build a $12 million space, also downtown, Halmstad said he’s having little trouble finding strong employees because they enjoy the setting as well as the work.
It’s why JAMF Software has supported the Confluence Project, a public-private center at the merger of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers. The project would include a commercial and retail complex as well as UW-Eau Claire student housing.
“We’re finding people here who are very talented and very motivated,” Halmstad said, noting that nearly 120 of JAMF’s employees came out of UW-Eau Claire, with more from UW-Stout in nearby Menomonie and Chippewa Valley Technical College in Eau Claire.
“Part of (JAMF’s support for the Confluence Project) is recruiting for us,” Halmstad said. “We can pay people a great salary at JAMF, but it’s not the only thing that attracts people. People want to move to a city that they want to actually live in.”
JAMF Software isn’t alone among emerging software and information technology companies that have found a home in Wisconsin. Epic Systems, with its 7,000-plus employees in Verona, is the national leader in electronic health records. Other examples include Cray, Inc. in Chippewa Falls; Renaissance Learning in Wisconsin Rapids; Skyward in Stevens Point; Plexus and Aver Informatics in the Fox Valley; Connecture, PKWARE, and Zywave in Milwaukee; and Singlewire and a host of emerging companies — especially in health information and gaming — in the Madison area.
Wisconsin has also landed offices from major companies such as Google, Microsoft, CDW, Zendesk, and Dell, as well as a distribution center for Amazon. Investors from outside the state are paying increased attention as well.
The Wisconsin economy of 2014 is far more diversified than the Wisconsin economy of 2002, when Halmstad and JAMF were living on pizza and coffee. The state may never become the next Silicon Valley, but it’s not languishing in its Rustbelt image, either.
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