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Burke takes charge at Commerce

“I hold in high regard people who have started and stayed in business.”

Mary Burke

To hear Mary Burke tell it, the position of Department of Commerce secretary just “fell in her lap.”

“To be here today, it is exciting,” said Burke, who Gov. Jim Doyle appointed Jan. 24. “I’m not even a Democrat; I’m an Independent.”

But it wasn’t just happenstance: Burke knows firsthand about business large and small, about success and failure.

First the success: Burke worked for more than a decade at Trek Bicycle Corp., co-founded by her father, Richard, in 1976.

As director of European operations, she grew the business from the ground up in seven countries, learning the value of exporting.

“How can a Wisconsin manufacturer compete effectively in a global marketplace? That’s what Trek is good at. There are things that can be shared.”

And from 1995 until 2004, she was Trek’s director of forecasting and strategic planning in Waterloo. Again, there are lessons to be shared.

“Trek sort of pioneered this emphasis on forecasting and assessing the risk of each model,” said Burke, who grew up in Hartland and has a bachelor’s in business administration from Georgetown University and an MBA from Harvard. “That’s something I think I can bring to the party.”

Lessons learned

But even before that, Burke tried her entrepreneurial hand with Manhattan Intelligence, an information and recommendation service for New York residents and visitors. Although it’s still going, she calls the venture a failure.

“It still does operate,” she said. “It wasn’t because of me that it still operates today. I learned many lessons of what not to do.”

She also learned about sacrifices business owners make to stay afloat. While there, Burke said she “stayed in the office to save on rent.”

“I hold in high regard people who have started and stayed in business,” she said.

And she’s eager to help them do just that.

“My business philosophy is that, whether you’re a small business or a startup or have been around since the 1800s, you need to constantly innovate,” she said.

“Companies that don’t understand the changing marketplace … are not going to be around.”

She said she’s encouraged by Doyle’s pro-business attitude and investment in worker training and job creation.

“All those things — what about that plan couldn’t you like?” she said, noting that the state leads the Midwest in job creation and the nation in the growth of manufacturing jobs. “If you can create enough good-paying, family supporting jobs, a whole lot of problems get cured.”

Burke said, too, that the governor’s focus on attracting and retaining the biotech industry is on target, considering the “strong research base in Wisconsin.”

“Wisconsin actually ranks as one of the highest states in patents issued,” she said.

However, the state lacks in venture capital.

“You can have the greatest idea in the world and it doesn’t mean you’ll have a successful company.

“The combination of great ideas and good management and access to capital … is all you need to have a vibrant, new economy in those industries.”

Future considerations

Having said that, Burke acknowledged that there’s work to be done and that she’ll follow the lead of Doyle and her predecessor, Cory Nettles, in advancing minority-owned and emerging businesses.

And Burke said she’ll continue to devote time to a pet cause of hers: the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County.

President of its board, she actually retired from Trek to raise funds for a new building for the club on Alliance Drive in Madison.

The goal was $6.2 million — $3 million for the building and the remainder for operating expenses for fives years — and there’s only $350,000 left to go. Ground will be broken on the new club the first week of May.

“I hold in high regard people who have started and stayed in business.”

Mary Burke

Burke said she was drawn to the club after serving as a mentor to two boys, a 7- and a 9-year-old.

“It was easy to get pretty attached to them,” she said.

As she met with them, helping them with homework at her house and then driving them home, she recognized how having a club could benefit them.

“If they didn’t have that place to go … I know where they would be,” she said.

Burke said keeping them engaged in positive ways is “how you change kids’ lives,” and she was brought up to value giving back.

“If we can help others have the same opportunities, we should,” she said.

Burke said she will continue to serve on the club’s board.

“I’m not married, I don’t have any kids, so I have the personal time to give to it,” said Burke, admitting that Commerce is likely to keep her schedule full. “I’m afraid that between this job, golf and cycling, something’s going to give.”

Candace Doyle can be reached at 414-276-0273, Ext. 125 or by email.

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