Best of Madison Business 2016: Change Agents

Meet four business leaders who continue a...
Best of Madison Business 2016: Change Agents

We are experiencing a historic shift in leadership and demands for change in how we meet our racial disparities. And both highlight the importance of advocates for change, people who are not just comfortable with change, but who embrace it. Our cover this month tells one story. Our fourth edition of Spectrum magazine tells another. And our 2016 Madison Magazine Best of Madison Business honorees are being recognized for many contributions to our community, and for one characteristic they share: They are change agents.

American Family Insurance chairman, president and CEO Jack Salzwedel, Madison College president Dr. Jack E. Daniels III, CUNA Mutual Foundation executive director Steve Goldberg and Summit Credit Union president and CEO Kim Sponem have led from positions of making change happen. They have anticipated the need for change, recognized the impact of change and created an environment for change for the betterment of the greater Madison region. And in this case, change is indeed good.

American Family Insurance has always been a major player in Madison’s business portfolio. And its executives have shown up regularly in all kinds of who’s who lists and business leader halls of fame. Excellence runs so deep we actually honored an executive VP before we got around to honoring the boss. But it’s a tribute to Jack Salzwedel‘s leadership that he whole-heartedly endorsed Peter Gunder’s recognition in 2014. And now it’s truly Salzwedel’s turn.

The impact he has had on Am Fam, and the impact Am Fam continues to have on the Madison business landscape are both profound and extraordinary. A legacy insurance firm is a twenty-first-century visionary, both exhibiting and investing in innovation, creativity, equity, diversity and excellence. It’s unbelievable how many people, when asked to name a Madison leader who is changing this community for the better, name Salzwedel first. This honor, this year, has StartingBlock written all over it. But it is also about what Salzwedel has done to make American Family Insurance a company that makes Madison proud–by making it once again exciting and necessary to dream. No Madison company has embraced change more strategically and honestly as American Family.

The changes at Madison College, formerly Madison Area Technical College, formerly your father’s community college, started before Jack Daniels III was appointed its eighth president. But in his first two and a half years he has taken those changes and run with them. And he’s added a few of his own.

The changing role of the twenty-first-century community college is no small matter. One could argue that part of the community college mission today is to provide the education, skills and training required by the pace of change in the world in which we live. But we are struck by how many Madison business leaders consider Daniels a necessary, full partner in creating their, and our, community’s future. He has embraced the challenges thrown his way by unpredictable budgets, economic recoveries and the attendant needs of a changing community–the very community Madison College serves. And he has focused more than ever on what the service will look like in the immediate and long-term future, and that too is influencing how changing Madison sees itself. His warmth, style and personality belie his short tenure here. He is widely respected, appreciated and liked, a description not always found in a true change agent.

But that description also fits Steve Goldberg. Well, that and a few others. Mention Goldberg in a room of civic leaders and look for the sly smile, the recognition that while many have benefited greatly from Goldberg’s masterful leadership of the CUNA Mutual Foundation, a fair number of them have also been regaled, entertained and likely zinged by him as well.

Goldberg cares. He likes people. He loves Madison. And if CUNA Mutual was ultimately the institution that created some of the most significant changes in how businesses operate in civic Madison, it had the good sense to make Goldberg the face of that change.

CUNA Mutual rethought its considerable corporate and employee contributions to Dane County’s nonprofits and suggested some changes that, while controversial at the time, and perhaps still are for some, changed the blueprint for philanthropy. Benchmarks, data, efficiencies–results were rewarded. Goldberg was good at it and CUNA Mutual’s influence grew as a result.

The dollars were CUNA Mutual Foundation’s. But the winners had Goldberg’s fingerprints on them. When you consider the winners include United Way of Dane County, Urban League of Greater Madison, Centro Hispano, the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County, the Foundation for Madison Public Schools, the underappreciated KinderReady program and others, it’s clear those fingers knew what they were doing.

Credit unions hold a special appreciation for change in the world’s finance sector. Their very makeup connects them deeply to the people and communities that own them and requires an appreciation for a response to change that must be nimble, flexible and effective. Kim Sponem‘s ability to not just effect that change, but lead it, has marked her tenure as president and CEO of Summit Credit Union.

There are many examples of Sponem’s change agency, but one breathtaking example is the STAR credit union at the Boys & Girls Club. There, in the midst of the game tables, the computer labs, the kitchen and the music rooms, is a mini credit union office, with a window and a teller and a roster of members in their teens and younger, learning firsthand about saving money and making that money grow. Just imagine what the presence of that small office means to those kids.

But beyond that, Sponem’s committed support for financial wellness for women, for communities of color, for folks we now recognize as subject to disparate financial inequities is nothing less than inspirational.

It is also innovative, in exactly the way the late Madison Magazine editor Brian Howell used to encourage and celebrate as indicative of the very best of Madison business. And thus, we honor Sponem with this year’s Brian Howell Excellence in Innovation Award.

Neil Heinen will emcee the Best of Madison Business Awards luncheon on January 29 at the Edgewater.