Beer was Only the Beginning

The Leinenkugel name carries new meaning in Wisconsin's Department of Commerce

Dick Leinenkugel took an un-conventional route to Gov. Doyle’s cabinet as Doyle’s fourth commerce secretary.

“I’d been twenty-one years in our family’s company in the beer business,” he says. “I looked at the job and said, ‘What a possibility to give back to the state that has so richly blessed my family and my family’s business.’”

So Leinenkugel sent word he was interested. It turns out the governor was also interested in him.

Week one on the job last September, Leinenkugel got a “pretty clear picture” of the pending economic downturn. Gov. Doyle asked every state agency for a ten percent budget cut, then another two-and-a-half percent on top of that.

“We’re looking to cut expenses anywhere we can,” says Leinenkugel, “so that was the first challenge.”

The second was a big increase in business requests for help retaining jobs, most prominently General Motors in Janesville. But Leinenkugel says he wouldn’t have taken the job if he didn’t believe there were opportunities—even now—to grow the economy.

As he’s traveled the state Leinenkugel says he’s found that business owners are concerned, especially if they’re tied to a consumer, discretionary item. But he says the people of Wisconsin retain their optimism.

“We’re pull-ourselves-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of people. We don’t wait for government to tell us what to do in Wisconsin.”

So don’t look to the federal stimulus dollars for that optimism, Leinenkugel says. Rather, look to the Wisconsin Energy Independence fund, a $150 million, ten-year program to help Wisconsin companies get into clean and renewable energy fields. More than $7 million in grants and loans were awarded last September.

“Call them the green jobs of the future,” Leinenkugel says. “We have several companies in Wisconsin positioned to take advantage of that right now.”

Look as well, he says, to the entrepreneurial spirit of highly skilled, motivated workers who have been downsized out of jobs and are now looking to create businesses. The state is supporting that interest through the Wisconsin Entrepre-neurial Network run by the UW Extension.

“We’re seeing increases in the services [the network] provides in terms of small business startups, education, access to resources and grants to help develop the business plan,” says Leinenkugel. “It’s really an exciting time.”

Even in these times?

“Even in these times!” he insists. “This economy is going to turn around and they will be the ones positioned well for the future.”

Leinenkugel says the family beer business had that same entrepreneurial spirit, even throughout the twenty-plus years it was owned by Miller-Coors Brewing.

“My brothers and I always acted like we were small-business owners,” he says. “Coming from that background, I really respect what we’re doing in the Department of Commerce.”

Leinenkugel credits his Marine Corps experience as the source of leadership principles for running an organization and forming and motivating teams at the Commerce Department, where departments run the gamut from economic development to safety and buildings.

Meanwhile, the sales and marketing experiences of the family’s beer business “trained me well in empathy, understanding business and speaking the language,” he says. It’s something Leinenkugel hopes will pay dividends in selling Wisconsin.

Neil Heinen is the editorial director of Madison Magazine.

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