Best of Madison Business 2020: Difference makes a difference

This year celebrates 20 years of recognition in the area
Cedric Ellis standing in CUNA Mutual
Cedric Ellis (Photo by Sharon Vanorny)

Madison Magazine’s Best of Madison Business celebrates 20 years of recognizing extraordinary business leaders and their contributions to greater Madison’s economic vitality and nationally recognized livability.

From food and beverage enterprises (our first winners included Monty Schiro and Peder Moren from the groundbreaking Food Fight Restaurant Group) to cutting-edge new economy innovators to Madison business legends, we have celebrated the best, their accomplishments and their influence. All have had stories — a way of doing business — that collectively make up Madison’s one-of-a-kind intersection of lifestyle and business.

It’s clear from the list of 80 individuals who have won Best of Madison Business awards since 2000 that great businesses have great leadership. But it’s also clear that the best have great leadership teams. How those teams are organized, the ways they function and the degree to which they are diversified make a difference.

Quality, sustainability and success are profoundly affected by a diversity of ideas, experiences, life paths and more. According to the labor market analytics firm Emsi, Madison has America’s most diverse economy. It’s one of our greatest strengths. This year’s Best of Madison Business honorees exemplify the values of diversity in the corporate chain of command at some of the city’s most important and successful businesses.

Dream Big: Telisa Yancy, American Family Insurance

Telisa Yancy standing in her office

Telisa Yancy (Photo by Sharon Vanorny)

Telisa Yancy is, among other things, a dreamer. As the COO of American Family Insurance, Yancy created a marketing concept to position American Family as the inspirer, protector and restorer of dreams. That includes the Insure Carefully, Dream Fearlessly campaign and the DreamBank community space. But behind the dream is Yancy’s journey from growing up in Chicago to earning a master’s degree in business administration from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She has held executive positions at companies including Ford Motor Co. and Burger King Corp., and she has earned recognition from Ebony Magazine, appearing on its Power 100 list, and Black Enterprise Magazine in 2019 as one of the most powerful women in corporate America. American Family Insurance Chairman and CEO Jack Salzwedel describes Yancy as “smart, strong and poised” and someone “who thrives on finding a solution to any challenge.”

Top Care: Frederic “Ric” Ransom, UW Hospitals – Madison Region

Ric Ransom standing on the roof of UW Hospital with a Med Flight helicopter

Frederic “Ric” Ransom (Photo by Sharon Vanorny)

Like Yancy, Frederic “Ric” Ransom brings a heady mix of professional experiences to his leadership positions as vice president and president of UW Hospitals – Madison Region. Though just a little more than a year into the job, Ransom has already made his mark as the provider of overall direction for foundational health care institutions in Madison at American Family Children’s Hospital, UW Health at the American Center and University Hospital. He also provides primary oversight for the joint operating agreement with UnityPoint Health – Meriter. Ransom’s previous leadership experiences include serving as COO of Greenville Memorial Hospital, the flagship hospital of Prisma Health-Upstate, part of the largest not-for-profit health system in South Carolina, as well as working on teams in Memphis, Atlanta, Boston and Dallas. In other words, he’s an expert in managing complex systems, a terrific asset for an institution like UW Hospitals and a health sector like greater Madison’s.

Shared Success: Ana Hooker, Exact Sciences

Anna Hooker standing against a wall

Ana Hooker (Photo by Sharon Vanorny)

It’s illustrative that at the ribbon-cutting for Exact Sciences’ new Discovery Campus last June, board chair and CEO Kevin Conroy asked Ana Hooker to emcee the event. Over the course of six years, Hooker has risen to the position of senior vice president of operations at Exact Sciences. But her leadership skills extend beyond Exact Sciences to the greater Madison community at large. Hooker’s value as a key member of the Exact Sciences leadership team is enhanced by her embrace of the rest of the team as essential to her success. Her diverse skill set is the result of 25 years of experience in the clinical laboratory space, including managing a genetics, oncology and anatomic pathology division of about 260 employees. She is a member of the United Way of Dane County’s Women’s Leadership Council and on the boards of Overture Center for the Arts and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County.

Evoke Change: Cedric Ellis, CUNA Mutual Group

Cedric Ellis standing in CUNA Mutual

Cedric Ellis (Photo by Sharon Vanorny)

When Cedric Ellis was told who his fellow Best of Madison Business honorees were, the first thing he said was, “I’m on the Big Brothers Big Sisters Board with Ana.” Diversity in leadership clearly includes influence beyond the boardroom. That’s right in the wheelhouse of Ellis, the executive vice president and chief enterprise services officer for CUNA Mutual Group. Ellis’ management portfolio at CUNA Mutual has grown to include the CUNA Mutual Group Foundation, the hugely influential philanthropic arm of CUNA Mutual that he leads along with vice president Angela Russell. Over a span of 15 years with the company, Ellis’ oversight functions have included human resources, information technology, diversity, equity and inclusion, project management, continuous improvement and corporate brand and marketing. This is a leader who understands difference, as in different responsibilities. CUNA Mutual Group President and CEO Bob Trunzo says Ellis, “leads with integrity and humility while challenging the status quo. He’s an advocate for change, modernizing the way work gets done.”

Shine Bright: Greg Piefer, SHINE Medical Technologies

close up of Greg Piefer

Greg Piefer (Photo by Sharon Vanorny)

There’s modernizing how work gets done and then there’s modernizing the work itself. Both are examples of innovation. What Greg Piefer has done for the “modern” delivery of health care amounts to transformational innovation. Piefer put his Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin–Madison to work by founding advanced physics technology manufacturer Phoenix in 2005. But over the next five years, Piefer saw game-changing potential in producing several medical isotopes, one of which, molybdenum-99, is used in more than 20 million imaging tests in the U.S. and more than 40 million worldwide every year. SHINE Medical Technologies was born. In 2019 SHINE landed a $50 million funding round from a global investment management firm and began construction of a plant in Janesville projected to cost more than $100 million. The plant is in Janesville for a lot of important reasons, but SHINE’s and Piefer’s roots are still deeply planted in a Madison ecosystem that includes UW–Madison, Morgridge Institute for Research, Wisconsin Investment Partners and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. The technology’s potential in improving the human condition is breathtaking. The missions of both Phoenix and SHINE revolve around improving the world, not just changing it. “I don’t want to live a life where I’m not trying to do that,” Piefer says. “To me that’s important. Part of the joy of living is contributing in that way.” He adds, “I have plans to build one of the largest companies in the world. I know that sounds bold and crazy, and maybe it is, but the reality is, that’s what we’re here for.”

Piefer is the winner of the 2020 Best of Madison Business Brian Howell Excellence in Innovation Award.

Celebrate this year’s awardees at the Best of Madison Business event on Feb. 6.

Neil Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine and WISC-TV.