By Rick Olivo, Ashland Daily Press
ASHLAND — The Wisconsin Technology Council is in the business of helping state government ensure that Wisconsin business remains on the cutting edge of an increasingly competitive world marketplace.
The council is the science and technology adviser to the governor and legislature, and was created in 2001 as an independent, non-profit and non-partisan board with members from technology companies, venture capital firms, and all levels of education, research institutions, government and law.
The council came to Ashland Tuesday, holding their board of directors meeting at Northland College’s Alvord Theater. During their meeting, a group of area businesses took center stage in detailing how they have come together to forge a Chequamegon Bay area manufacturing alliance that could mean more jobs for area residents and better value for their customers.
The North Star Manufacturing Alliance is a coordinated effort on the part of four area businesses, including Ashland Industries Inc. in Ashland, Washburn Iron Works in Washburn, Eagle Forge in Ashland, and World Class Precision Products in Bayfield. Between the four, the products and services they produce include metal fabrication, steel and aluminum forging, precision machining, mold, die and pattern making, production welding, paint and powder coating, prototype development, layout and design, and assembly, packaging and shipping.
According to the group’s spokesman, Bob Peltonen of World Class Precision Products, the alliance is an effort to combine the manufacturing strengths of all four companies to provide added value to clients by being able to offer them with a single point of service for an array of manufacturing tasks and products.
“Our main objective is that united we can manufacture any project, no matter how large they are,” said Peltonen. “Together we work as one unit, from raw materials to a finished product, with one purchase order.”
Under the alliance, materials move from one facility to another with no cost to the customer.
“We can save a lot of the original equipment manufacturers and our current customers a lot of total dollars on their projects,” Peltonen said. “You will never find a group in the Midwest that has the capabilities that we do, with machining, with casting, with forging, with fabrication operations.”
Peltonen predicted that the alliance would form the nucleus for economic expansion in the region.
“As this alliance grows, we are going to need supporting companies to follow along. We are probably going to need to build a painting facility, a plating facility, a heat-treating facility ﾗ all the support facilities that go along with manufacturing,” he said.
Peltonen said the organization got its start in January.
“I looked around and saw all of our companies are idle. They are going down in employment, they are lacking work, they are like the rest of the country. I thought we should look at being proactive. Instead of looking at individual components, let’s combine our companies,” Peltonen said.
Peltonen said the owners of the companies in the alliance meet every week, meeting in working lunches to put together projects and goals.
“It’s amazing how this group gets together as one unit,” he said. “We are like one board of directors working for a common goal. As stewards of our communities and stewards of our employees, we are going to take on major projects and do an excellent job.”
Peltonen said one possibility is involvement in a billion-dollar contract recently landed by the Oshkosh Corporation to supply the military with all-terrain vehicles. Oshkosh has said they will be looking for manufacturers to assist with the production of over 2,000 of the vehicles.
“We are also working with major original equipment manufacturers, looking at building subassemblies for them. Our main objective is to get components that all of our companies can contribute value to and support completed projects,” he said.
“It’s probably the biggest opportunity for any of our communities. Our work force could double or triple with one or two projects, and that is our objective and goal. As a group, we want to help our communities, our counties and the state. We want to show people that we are capable and as good as anybody in the world.”
That will be a tall task, at least in the short term, given the results of a survey released Tuesday by the Technology Council that said most technology industry executives hold a dim view of current state economic conditions.
However, that same survey, conducted in partnership with WisBusiness.com, a Madison-based business news service, and The Loomis Group, a Madison-based corporate and marketing communications firm, also indicated that 45 percent of those responding to the survey said the state’s economy would improve next year and nearly three-quarters of their executives rated the overall prospects for their own companies as good or excellent.
In the same poll, 18.7 percent of the respondents said the economy would get worse next year, while 36.4 percent said it would stay about the same.
Despite the sluggish economy, holding a Technology Council session in Ashland is an illustration that there is a strong technology base in the Ashland area, says Tom Still, the council’s president.
“The kinds of elements that are in place to build more knowledge-based jobs and more of a technology-based economy are here,” he said. “We feel it is a good place to have a presence and demonstrate that you don’t have to be Madison or Milwaukee to build a tech-based economy.”
Still said the bay area held a large number of energetic people with the will to get things done.
“One of the things that is true in any recession is that recessions are a time when the economy shakes out and a lot of things that are not working and are not efficient tend to fall away,” he said. “Technology is in some ways supplanting things that were part of the traditional economy, or improving things that are part of the traditional economy,” Still said, noting that technology was making profound changes in tourism, agriculture, forestry, papermaking and light industry.
“All of which is a part of the economy in northwestern Wisconsin. I think they can leverage and improve those sectors while the economy is on its way back,” he said.
Still said the recently created “Angel Network” of high net-worth investors interested in investing in startup companies was part of the larger statewide network of such investors and could play an important role in helping startup companies in the new economy.
“This is the first network north of Highway 8,” he said. “We are very proud that has come to be.”
Also to be discussed at the session was an update on the Lake Superior Technology Conference set for August 5-6 at the Ashland Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College campus, as well as a feasibility study involving the region’s assets and challenges.
Technology Council Chairman Mark Bugher, who also is also the director of the University of Wisconsin Research Park, said the council’s visit was also an opportunity for the board to get to know the northwest part of the state.
“Many of them are not familiar with the assets of the north, of the kinds of things we have to offer up here,” he said. “Part of our goal is to get them around the state and have them make contact with places like Ashland, Washburn and Bayfield, not only to see the quality of the region, but the quality of the work force and the opportunities that may exist here for moving a business.”
Bugher said the council’s efforts were aimed at trying to encourage “brain-gain instead of brain-drain” from the area.
“We have that in the north, where kids graduate from high school and they never come back. We have to create jobs that encourage them to come back once they’ve gotten their higher education and raise their families in the north,” he said. “In many ways, what we like to stress is if you are interested in a quality of life that is going to sustain life, you should consider doing it in the north.”