Best of Madison Business 2009
Government gets all the glory. Business takes all the risks. That is an overly simplistic–but more accurate than not–assessment of the presumed marketplace for Big Ideas. There is no shortage of big thinkers, and big ideas, in our world. But some of the biggest–and some of the best–come from some of the most unlikely sources. The issues we are dealing with here–jobs, economic growth and prosperous cities, sustainable agriculture and local food, ending hunger, and improviding health care, are among the most important we have. The big ideas for meeting these challenges come from our local business leaders, each deserving of their honor as this year’s Best of Madison Business.
The Godfather of Big Ideas George Nelson
Our first honoree is firmly entrenched in the Madison Big Idea Hall of Fame. He’s family to be sure (the Evening Telegram Company, for which he is executive vice president, owns WISC-TV and Madison Magazine). But look closely at the histories of MATC, Monona Terrace, Overture Center (and the old Madison Civic Center it replaced), American Family Children’s Hospital and Ronald McDonald House, to name a few, and you will find Nelson’s fingerprints to say nothing of his time, talent, financial acumen and a fair amount of his heart.
Look closer at the most important civic institutions in our community, from the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce to the Madison Community Foundation and Wisconsin Foundation for the Arts, and you’ll find the Nelson imprint there as well. Look at the Rolodex of every local government, civic and nonprofit leader of the last thirty years and you’ll see why there haven’t been many big ideas that worked without Nelson’s involvement. If we ever manage to actually grow up and build a coordinated transit system with a commuter rail component he will be able to add that to his resume as well. George Nelson loves this city, he loves the people who live and work here, and above all he loves bringing them together around Big Ideas. Perhaps that’s why he has so many to his credit.
The Meal-Maker Bob Mohelnitzky
You could argue there’s no bigger idea than ending hunger. We do. Bob Mohelnitzky’s committed to it. In the eight years of his second career as president and CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank (after twenty-two years as executive director of the Mental Health Center of Dane County) Mohelnitzky has overseen a major expansion of Second Harvest’s warehouse, additional Direct Delivery drop sites, the start of Mobile Pantries, BackPack programs to fight childhood hunger and growth in capacity to acquire more than 6.5 million pounds of food for distribution to more than four-hundred programs in the Second Harvest participation network.
Where does business come in, you ask? Right through the front door in the form of hundreds of volunteers, many retirees from local companies who sort, portion and pack the donated food for distribution. Local businesses are also important pick-up sites, where they are becoming more savvy to the re-routing of leftover food from the landfill. And, of course, the working families who get a little relief from worrying about how to feed themselves have Second Harvest to thank. What a contribution to so many Dane County businesses.
Most importantly, Mohelnitzky’s Big Idea never loses sight of the delicate challenge of meeting one of life’s basic needs with unfailing respect for human dignity. It’s the same dignity with which he carries himself and does the work of ending hunger. Food insecurity is a societal disgrace. But Bob Mohelnitzky cares only that people are hungry and we have the food to feed them. We just have to connect the two.
The Records-Setter Judith Faulkner
Judith Faulkner’s idea to produce the most advanced hospital and patient-record software in the world was big. Her company, Epic System Corporation’s influence on the greater Madison region has been huge. With more than 3,200 employees, annual revenue in the neighborhood of $500 million and a $300 million corporate complex in Verona, the no-end-in-sight-growth of which seemingly affects an entire region’s housing and transportation future, Epic is arguably the most powerful business in Dane County. There seems to be endless speculation about how Faulkner will use that power. But the Brian Howell Award for Excellence in Innovation is not bestowed to Epic for use of power. It’s for converting the nation’s health care system from paper to electronic records in a way that affects the lives of every patient at many of the most respected health care systems in the United States. Faulkner’s business practices are already the stuff of legend. Epic is right up there with Microsoft and Google for a campus, or “Intergalactic Headquarters,” as the company refers to it, that is built to inspire creativity, foster collaboration and reward individuality. And there are a lot of individuals who want to work there. According to a recent report, Epic receives 40,000 to 50,000 applications a year. The company hires about two percent of these individuals. No one fits the term “individual” like Faulkner, whose disdain for publicity and recognition is well known. But her business idea is big: improve health care in a profound and long-term way, lowering both costs and errors that can lead to injury and death.
The Grocery Guru Tim Metcalfe
Tim Metcalfe’s commitment to community is rooted in family–especially father Tom and brother Kevin–and, yes, the evidence has roots at a card table sent up next to a small grill in the Sentry Hilldale parking lot twenty-five years ago. Brat Fest didn’t start out as a big idea, but it became one, raising more than $640,000 for dozens of local charities. But Metcalfe’s genius was recognizing the Big Idea that is the sustainability and local food movement, and transforming the Hilldale store into a successful, competitive-with-nearby-Whole Foods, full-service market with nearly two hundred local products, many of them organic.
Metcalfe knows his market and he knows his customers and he responds to both. He also believes in both. That combination is a powerful motivation for him to trust his instincts, grounded in sound business practices, with a determination that will not let him fail. In the meantime he has become a model for the growing regional economic development strategy of promoting, selling and buying locally. His participation in the Thrive Growers to Grocers program is an important endorsement of the local agriculture movement with a big-picture focus on economic vitality and quality of life.
The Metcalfe embrace of sustainability also includes using MG&E’s green energy program to power its entire 65,000-square-foot grocery store. Metcalfe has married local and accessible for a diverse clientele that’s been good for business while being good for the region.
By Neil Heinen, Editorial Director