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Marks: New head of Competitive Wisconsin says education key to continued growth

By Brian E. Clark

In her 15 years as a member of Competitive Wisconsin Inc., Sue Marks has seen more than a few economic ups and downs on the local, national and international scenes.

Now that the state is in another recession, Marks – who became president of the broad-based group in December – said she hopes this “dip” is shallow and that the state recovers quickly. She also stressed that the state should not cut back its investment in education, which she sees as key to long-term growth.

Marks succeeded Tom O'Neill, a senior vice president at Marshall & Ilsley Corp.

Marks said Competitive Wisconsin’s mission is to promote public policy that creates a competitive economic climate favorable to high-paying jobs and higher per-capita income for Wisconsin residents.

“That’s pretty simple and easy to say, but hard to do,” said Marks, a Badger State native and CEO of Pinstripe, a Brookfield human resources agency. She said she would like to see the typical Badger State salary rise by $4,000 and equal Minnesota’s, which is $37,322.
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“That would generate $23 billion for our state and generate about $1.4 billion in new tax revenue,” she said. “And we wouldn’t have to raise any taxes to do that.”

Marks, who also headed a company called Pro Staff and HRfirst, said she wished she had a “magic bullet” to solve the state’s economic woes. She has also been involved with angel investing and sat on the boards of a number of small businesses.

“There isn’t just any one thing to do,” she said. “It’s about 100 things that we need to do. The most important thing is to align everyone moving in the right direction.”

In recent years, she said Competitive Wisconsin has done a lot of research on the state’s residents, where young people go when they leave the state and what they do when they want to come back.

“We’ve taken a look at what other cities and states have done to be successful over the long term to improve their economic development profile and put that together in what we call our Competitive Mandate,” she said.

That policy statement stresses investment in education and ongoing employee development to keep up with accelerating workplace changes.

“We need to continually reinvest in our (people) resources in Wisconsin because businesses will start, expand and move here if we have the best human resources,” she said.

“Correspondingly, right now Wisconsin trails badly in per-capita income and we also trail in the percentage of workers who are in higher income jobs. If we can over time fix those two things, think about the quality of life we could have while developing a much more stable and higher tax base for the state of Wisconsin.”

The state also needs policies that will retain and help expand existing businesses, accelerate start-ups and promote entrepreneurship, added Marks, who said her group has been deeply involved in efforts to restart the GM plant in Janesville.

“But most of the jobs are developed by small business and maintained by small business, so we have to have a very ‘big tent’ view of what encouraging, expanding and propping up existing businesses means as well as accelerating start-ups and targeting entrepreneurship,” she said.

Finally, as the state faces a roughly $5 billion budget deficit, she said her organization believes policy makers should be careful to take a “clean slate” approach and look at investment budgeting.

“The last thing we would want to see are the wrong taxes or education -- which is clearly a long-term investment -- being cut,” said Marks.

She said she thinks Wisconsin’s entrepreneurial climate has improved “vastly” in recent years, but argued that “we are still just scratching the surface of what needs to happen.

“I like to use the analogy of a flywheel,” she said. “It takes a whole lot of effort to get a flywheel going, but once you get it moving, it has a life of its own. But I’m afraid that this recession is going to put a halt to that positive momentum that we have now on that entrepreneurial flywheel that we have going.

“We need to do everything we can to encourage a business climate that encourages growing businesses and entrepreneurship, as well as fosters retention of medium- and large-sized companies here,” she said.

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