By Steve Jagler Special to Published Dec 13, 2007 at 9:17 AM

Every year in early December, the good folks on the board of directors at the Council of Small Business Executives (COSBE) are kind enough to invite me and a couple other business news editors to a round-table discussion.

I glean a lot of insight from the COSBE board members throughout the year. I view them as almost a de facto reader advisory board for Small Business Times.

The board members were asked to rank the top challenges they face as employers in the Milwaukee area. From top to bottom, here is how they ranked their challenges:

1. Workforce/recruiting/education
2. Taxes/spending
3. Economic development/business climate
4. Poverty/crime
5. Political leadership
6. Health care costs
7. Transit

Here is a sampling of some of the more intriguing comments that were submitted by the COSBE board members:

"Skilled labor shortage. There are plenty of people that can complete a job application, but very few that are qualified."

"So long as the media and WEAC (Wisconsin Education Association Council) blame others for a horrifically ineffective public school system, our kids will continue to fall into the abyss. An uneducated metro area is a doomed metro area."

"Buy local mentality of area businesses is not what it should be."

"Reduce the level of crime in the inner city. This affects the way we are perceived in the greater community and in the country. It will take more than a new police chief to reduce crime. We need to get the guns off the street."

"Polarization around political parties. Less and less understanding of business concerns and the impact of bad legislation on our businesses, our economy and our reputation."

"The oligopolies (Aurora Health Care and ProHealth Care) are getting bigger and stronger, and the insured are getting fatter. Rates will continue to escalate as a result."

"Lack of a strategic transportation plan."

"Participate in efforts to raise the status of women in businesses in the region."

"If we can help develop the talents of people in the inner city, we can make an impact on the inner city situation, as well."

Those comments aside, the one issue that dominated the live discussion at the COSBE Editors Forum was taxes.

Many complained that Wisconsin is a horrible place to do business. And yet, when they went around the roundtable and talked individually about how their own companies will fare in 2008, at least five of the 21 company presidents said their firms plan to grow by acquiring other companies in 2008. Several spoke about record revenues at their firms, and many plan to hire additional people next year.

So, how can so many people be so pessimistic about the future, even though they have rosy projections for their individual companies?

It happens all the time. Concerns about a worsening economy pushed the national Vistage CEO Confidence Index to a five-year low of 76.0 in the fourth quarter 2007 survey. That marks a five-point drop from the third quarter and a 17-point drop from one year ago.
"While the majority of business leaders participating think the economy will continue to post losses in the year ahead, they remain relatively confident about their own prospects," said Richard Curtin, Ph.D., a consultant for the Vistage CEO Confidence Index and director of consumer surveys at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

My guess is that company leaders who soared through the go-go '90s and ran head-on into the dot-com crash of 2001 will forever be hesitant about forecasting the economy, even if their own prospects are encouraging.

That being said, I do share the viewpoint of COSBE board member Mary Scheibel, principal at Scheibel Halaska Inc., who believes Milwaukee business leaders spend way too much energy criticizing this region as a place to do business. Some of that kind of complaining is healthy. Too much of it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ironically, one day before the COSBE meeting, a CEO in Waukesha County told me that he was planning to expand his company, which has facilities in Seattle, Denver and the Milwaukee area. He's now deciding which plant to expand. He is leaning toward expanding the Milwaukee-area plant. Why? Because, he said, it is cheaper to do business here. Land is cheaper. Labor costs are lower.

Reminds me of the comments made by CenterPoint Properties chief executive officer Michael Mullen, who told the SBT Commercial Real Estate Conference audience a couple years ago that Milwaukee should embrace its role as a suburb of Chicago. Why? Because our labor costs are cheaper, our land is cheaper and our tax rates are lower. You wouldn't know it by listening to talk radio, but Wisconsin has many competitive advantages, Mullen said.

Let's use them.

Steve Jagler Special to

Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes in Milwaukee and is past president of the Milwaukee Press Club. BizTimes provides news and operational insight for the owners and managers of privately held companies throughout southeastern Wisconsin.

Steve has won several journalism awards as a reporter, a columnist and an editor. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

When he is not pursuing the news, Steve enjoys spending time with his wife, Kristi, and their two sons, Justin and James. Steve can be reached at