Best of Madison Business 2011: Pushing Forward

As our region emerges from the recession and stakes a claim in the global marketplace, we’re lucky to have these 2011 Best of Madison Business Award winners leading the way

The greater Madison region is at a tipping point, a cliché that is unfortunately irreplaceable in describing the economic climate here. Our region’s major efforts to establish a position and an identity in a globally competitive marketplace are taking hold at the same time the global economy recovers in fits and starts and many of our peer regions take advantage of their assets and our challenges to pull ahead of us. And so we turn to leaders who have the vision and commitment to push forward. Leaders with experience, deep roots, the respect of their colleagues and reputations for getting things done. If it’s the Great Reset, as author Richard Florida has proclaimed, our 2011 Best of Madison Business Award winners are our Great Resetters, looking for new ways of doing business in a post-recession economy.

DOWNTOWN'S BIGGEST FAN: Susan Schmitz 

Susan Schmitz is the Energizer bunny, a bike-riding, passionate advocate for all things downtown Madison. The highly respected president of Downtown Madison, Inc., Schmitz sees clearly the importance of a healthy, vital, safe urban core to the greater Madison region and is a strong defender of city living, working and playing on the isthmus.

Schmitz’s roots are in Madison business. Her great-grandfather opened the Hub Men’s Clothing store on the Capitol Square in 1898. More than a few of us bought a suit from Schmitz herself when she owned her own store at Hilldale in the early to mid ’90s. She’s been running DMI for almost twelve years now and has steadily broadened and deepened the organization’s influence and reach. While a staunch supporter of the downtown and the city that surrounds it, Schmitz was also an early proponent of regional thinking and economic planning, and Thrive and the former Collaboration Council have benefited from her involvement. But her style and her flair are equally a measure of Schmitz—she and the Frostiball were made for each other.

A sighting of Schmitz biking to or from an appointment is now part of being a true Madisonian. Close associates can boast of
seeing the mountain of shoes in her office. In other words, downtowns at their best are unique and eclectic places full of energy and fun. Downtown leaders—at their best—are the same. But they are also effective, smart and just ever so slightly impatient to get things done. Susan Schmitz and our downtown, our region’s downtown, are birds of a feather.

 

THE ASSET BUILDER: Susan Springman

Susan Springman is one of the best development minds in Madison. A city native (like Schmitz), Springman actually ran DMI’s predecessor, the Central Madison Council, in the late ’70s, before serving in state government, and then moving into property management, owning her own real estate company, and today working with the Mullins Group. Her community service and business group involvement is extensive, befitting someone with her knowledge of this community and its economic development assets and challenges.

Her townie roots are on the east side—East High School then the UW, where she majored in journalism (and hence her uncanny ability to handle reporters). She honed her political chops as a legislative assistant in the state Senate in the mid ’70s, and later—after running the Central Madison Council—as an assistant to Mayor Joel Skornicka, part of a dream team in City Hall still remembered fondly by the business community. But Springman turned those experiences into a fourteen-year stint as vice president with the Munz Corporation and her reputation as a savvy dealmaker, manager and thinker quickly grew. From that point on the phrase “you gotta talk to Springman” became part of the growth and development lexicon in this county. She couldn’t resist another run in the public sector and headed the Division of Buildings and Police Services in DOA for three years. Now she’s with the Mullins Group. “I have no title,” she says. “No one does here.” She doesn’t need one.

 

THE COMMUNITY INNOVATOR: Phyllis Wilhelm

Titles seem insufficient in describing Phyllis Wilhelm. Best of Madison Business is only a start. Wilhelm is the winner of the Brian Howell Award for Excellence in Innovation. No surprise. Innovation is all over Madison Gas and Electric’s mission statement, including placing Wilhelm in the role of director of economic development. Or community economic development, as she would call it: “I don't like to take the word ‘community’ out of economic development,” she says.

Because of this innovative approach to being a community gas and electric utility, both MG&E and Wilhelm play major leadership roles in the economic growth and stability of the community and its businesses. Wilhelm’s knowledge of economic data, development issues and the all-important trends they portend is extraordinary. She sees where things are going. It’s hard to imagine a more valuable skill. But she
doesn’t just read data, or tea leaves. She also reads people. “Human capital is an asset more important than the industrial park property on the edge of town,” Wilhelm says. “Our past was built on educated citizens, skilled workforce, creative thinkers, entrepreneurs, etc. And our future depends on them.” So Wilhelm goes to meetings. And community discussions. And planning sessions. And neighborhood gatherings. And more meetings. She seems to be everywhere there is a conversation about building community in the truest sense of the word. And it’s that combination of vision, of seeing where things are going, and respect and compassion for people, the workers who will get us there, that seems innovative to us, and worthy of our special recognition for business innovation. 

Read about past Best of Madison Business winners here

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