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As the Midwest grapples with global challenges to agriculture and manufacturing — our bread and butter in Wisconsin — the Madison area may be uniquely positioned to evolve and thrive. In critical conversations about jobs moving overseas, it can be easy to overlook just how much is made right here — and what that means for Madison.
Certain brands are familiar, including traditional manufacturers such as Madison Kipp and Isthmus Engineering, health and biotech leaders Epic Systems, Promega and Exact Sciences, hometown-identity brands like Duluth Trading Co. and food innovators and brewers. Dane County makers (including University of Wisconsin–Madison researchers-turned-patent powerhouses, literal rocket scientists and passionate bicycle advocates) are pumping out the products and services that keep Madison viable and nimble.
“We are fortunate to have diversified job growth in advanced industry sectors that greatly outpaces even a loss like Oscar Mayer,” says Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce President Zach Brandon. “A perfect example of that is that Sub-Zero was hiring at the same time Oscar Mayer was laying off. We’re building a big-tent economy, and one of the tent poles is manufacturing.”
Madison may not come foremost to mind when thinking about manufacturing, but according to Buckley Brinkman, executive director of the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity, Dane County is No. 3 in manufacturing statewide behind Milwaukee and Waukesha counties. “[That] blows a lot of people’s minds,” says Brinkman, adding that there would be no high-tech economy without manufacturers to bring those products to market.
There are 527 manufacturers in Dane County contributing $1.4 billion to the economy and employing 23,620 people, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. One stand-out manufacturer is UW–Madison’s patenting arm, Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which is responsible for 1,900 active issued U.S. patents and $1 billion worth of products sold under WARF license each year. And while losses like Oscar Mayer cut away a core piece of Madison’s manufacturing identity, Dane County makers add to Madison’s brand far beyond the products and services they provide.
“In addition to our increasing reputation for industry and innovation," Brandon says, "we offer tremendous natural beauty, more food and cultural attractions than any city our size and a sense of idealism founded on civic engagement, responsibility and growing business through humanity.”
When those elements come together, Brandon says, just like in manufacturing, the whole of Madison is greater than the sum of its parts.
Rocket engines for spacecraft, life support systems for astronauts, gardening in space — all three are designed and manufactured right here in Madison. Formerly known as Orbitec before it was fully integrated into Colorado's Sierra Nevada Corp. Propulsion and Environmental Systems in 2017, SNC has contracts with NASA, USAF, the U.S. Army and other major aerospace prime contractors to develop and manufacture a range of products. Among them are greenhouses that grow food on the International Space Station, life support systems for automated and human space travel, and VORTEX rocket engines for spacecraft and space vehicles.
Prevagen, the best-selling branded memory and cognitive health supplement developed by UW–Milwaukee researchers (using a patented ingredient derived from jellyfish), has been manufactured at Quincy Bioscience in Madison since it launched in 2007.
Call of Duty is the latest game developed in the award-winning portfolio of Raven Software, founded in 1990 by Madison brothers Brian and Steve Raffel and now headquartered in Middleton.
On its surface, survey markers may not sound like the most exciting product, but Berntsen International, founded in Madison in 1972, counts famous clients from Walt Disney to Google to the U.S. Government. Now its innovative InfraMarker RFID System helps utilities find and mark assets deep underground.
The Memorial Union Terrace’s iconic sunburst chairs have been manufactured by Wisco Industries in Oregon, Wisconsin, since 1981. Wisco, which began as Wisconsin Mold & Tool Co. in 1949, manufactures an array of countertop food service equipment like the Pizza Pal Oven.
Porchlight Products employs people experiencing homelessness to produce jams, jellies, pickled products, pancakes and scones. Sourcing ingredients from local farms in a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen, Porchlight creates products that are sold at local groceries and markets with proceeds funneled back to Porchlight Inc., a Madison nonprofit providing emergency housing-related services to more than 8,000 people annually.
Madrax custom and traditional bike parking racks, manufactured in Waunakee by Graber Manufacturing, are installed around the world. The Madison Meter rack can be found all over Madison, including one by the Tornado Room.
Thomas Steele Furniture, a Graber Manufacturing brand in Waunakee, designs and builds the benches and garbage receptacles that line Capitol Square and State Street.
“We make more than products in Greater Madison. This is a place where people make a career, make a life and make a difference,” Brandon says.
Nearly 30 years before Madison turned into one of the most bicycle-friendly communities in the country, local resident Chris Fortune was determined to manufacture high-quality bike racks from scratch and ship them globally from his own backyard.
“I think we should build stuff here in the United States. There’s no reason why we can’t employ our people,” says Fortune, who, along with his wife, Sarah, bought an existing business from manufacturing powerhouse Graber Products in 1989 and christened it Saris, a combination of their names.
At the time, the company operated out of an 1850s farmhouse on Verona Road with equipment housed in an old chicken hatchery, and employed 23 people. Saris Cycling Group is now a revolutionized 75,000-square-foot factory with 223 designers, engineers, machine operators, welders and assemblers. They build bike racks for vehicles, stationary trainers, power meters and trail repair stands across four brands — all out of that same quiet spot on Verona Road (with an employee trail loop out back instead of a chicken run).
“Even people that are from here don’t know that we’re here,” says Fortune. But it’s his name that comes up when people in the local industry talk about Madison as a bike city. It’s not only because of his well-documented philanthropic efforts, including supporting World Bicycle Relief and hosting of the annual Saris Gala benefiting the Wisconsin Bicycle Federation. In 2010, Fortune took a group of 15 local business men and women, planning officials and government leaders, including Dave Cieslewicz, then-mayor and now emeritus director of the Bike Fed, to the Netherlands (where in some regions half of commuter traffic is now by bicycle).
“I can draw a pretty straight line between that trip and our platinum status five years later,” says Cieslewicz of the rare platinum-level "bike friendly" status bestowed upon Madison in 2015 by the League of American Bicyclists. It is one of only five in the country.
He cites the support of Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, the efforts of Downtown Madison Inc. under recently retired Susan Schmitz, and a thriving network of cycling businesses, infrastructure and advocacy that exists in Dane County for earning Madison its platinum designation. In addition to health and environmental benefits, the economic impact of bicycling is significant, and key to making Madison an attractive place to live and work. “There are benefits to being a good biking community for people who never get on a bicycle,” says Cieslewicz, “because it contributes to the economic development of their city.”
According to 2011 research by the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies — building on a 2005 report by the Wisconsin Bike Fed and Wisconsin Department of Transportation — bicycling adds $1.5 billion to Wisconsin’s economy each year (surpassing the $1.4 billion impact of deer hunting), provides more than 13,200 jobs and snags $535 million in tourism dollars. Here in Dane County, bicycle manufacturers such as Saris and Madrax, and retailers like Pacific Cycle (owners of the worldwide Schwinn and Mongoose brands) and Planet Bike (an accessories designer that gives a percentage of its profits back to bicycle advocacy; amounting to $2.6 million since 1996) are part of the total $556 million and 3,420 jobs provided by Wisconsin’s cycling manufacturers and retailers alone.
If you’ve parked your bicycle anywhere on the UW–Madison campus, there’s a good chance you locked it to a Madrax rack. And if you’ve bellied up to a Memorial Union Terrace table, sat on a steel bench around Capitol Square, or tossed an empty coffee cup into a garbage receptacle along State Street, you’ve encountered Thomas Steele Furniture.
These are just a handful of the thousands of products designed and built by Graber Manufacturing inside the same 105,000-square-foot Waunakee building since 2006, and in Middleton before that. Plans for Madison’s Judge Doyle Square include a $1 million bicycle center managed by nonprofit FreeWheel and its for-profit arm, Bike Rite, featuring lockers, showers, retail and repair. And, although it’s outside the county in Waterloo, the industry influence of world-renown Trek Corp. both economically and philanthropically cannot be understated. In other words, bicycling is good business — and this is a good place to do bicycling business, too.
“Having our headquarters in Madison has allowed us to take part in the cycling community in two ways: We’re both inspired by it and work to help shape it,” says Milissa Rick, senior director of marketing at Pacific Cycle, which sponsors local initiatives such as Madison Schools Community Recreation’s Learn to Ride bicycling clinics and UW Carbone Cancer Center’s The Ride.
The local industry’s emphasis on biking accessibility is a reason Madison Community Foundation designated “Mad About Bikes” as its eighth grantee in the 75th anniversary MCF Year of Giving. The $84,200 grant included $25,000 for Free Bikes 4 Kidz Madison, a nonprofit volunteer effort that rehabs and gives away thousands of donated bicycles to area kids each year. The remainder of the grant, $59,200, went to collaborating partners focused on ensuring access to Madison’s platinum-level status for everyone in the community, regardless of economic status: Wisconsin Bike Fed, Healthy Kids Collaborative at American Family Children’s Hospital, Madison’s Community Schools Leopold Elementary and Mendota Elementary, Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, Wheels for Winners, Dream Bikes, Tri 4 Schools, the Madison Area Transportation Board and the city of Madison.
“Bicycles are a really powerful technology when you think about it,” says Cieslewicz, adding that Madison's many bike retailers have also been integral to making the city the bike mecca it is. “There’s an awful lot of jobs and industry connected to cycling in Wisconsin,” he says. “I’m not sure enough people realize it.”
Maggie Ginsberg is a senior contributing writer to Madison Magazine.
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