The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce is working hard to convince Miller Brewing Co. and Molson Coors Brewing Co. executives to locate their combined headquarters in Colorado, rather than Milwaukee.
Denver's effort received a huge a boost from a rather strange place Thursday: from Milwaukee's business community.
Five of the Milwaukee area's most prominent chief executive officers were featured in a panel discussion on "Global Wooing" Thursday by the Public Policy Forum. The five CEOs took turns ripping Milwaukee as a terrible place to do business.
The CEOs jointly described Milwaukee as a region with a broken public education system, runaway health care costs and an anti-capitalistic mindset. They said Milwaukee's taxes are too high, and the region doesn't know how to market itself, suffers from a lack of leadership, has wasteful government spending and doesn't provide enough tax incentives to attract and keep businesses and create jobs.
And when they were done criticizing the region as a terrible place to do business, they piled on and did it again. And again.
Paul Purcell, CEO of Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc., criticized Milwaukee Public Schools and called for more charter schools and choice schools. "We need to fix MPS," he said.
Purcell also denounced Wisconsin's "bureaucracy and tax structure."
John Shiely, CEO of Briggs & Stratton Inc., was asked if he would consider building a new manufacturing plant here.
"We probably wouldn't, to tell you the truth," Shiely said.
Shiely criticized the collective mindset of Milwaukee, saying the region is more likely to have a great-grandson of "one of Milwaukee's socialist mayors" denounce the gap in salaries between CEOs and front-line workers than it is to encourage the creation of wealth.
"That shouldn't be ... You just don't hear the 'two Americas' rhetoric (down South)," Shiely said.
Rick Armbrust, CEO of Oilgear Co., said he is warmly welcomed and embraced by Chinese government officials when he visits that country.
"Come to Milwaukee ... And you don't find that," Armbrust said.
Likewise, Tim Sullivan, CEO of Bucyrus International Inc., said he was courted by local governmental officials when he visited Idaho and Texas to consider plant expansions there. By contrast, in Milwaukee, "It was like bouncing off the walls trying to get someone to talk to ... We don't do anything other states do. We have to emulate these other states to try to attract and keep companies."
Jeff Joerres, CEO of Manpower Inc., said, "We're not breaking rules to say, 'Come here.'"
Purcell said his company has difficulty persuading top young talent to come to Milwaukee, where employers increasingly are facing the additional challenge of finding employment for the spouses of job candidates.
"In Chicago, they have 15 opportunities, and in Milwaukee, they have one," Purcell said.
Purcell said Milwaukee should stop trying to compete with Chicago and should instead collaborate more with the Windy City and Madison.
Purcell drew applause from the crowd of more than 200 business and civic leaders when he said southeastern Wisconsin needs high-speed rail to be more competitive.
Joerres said the region needs to do a more effective job of promoting its image to the "25-year-olds" in other markets.
"In many ways, we're not known for much ... What if you put in light rail?" Joerres said. "I think as a city, we've got to get out in front."
Joerres read aloud a national news story about a company that moved its headquarters to North Carolina.
Shiely, who said Milwaukee has a bad "tone," told a story about the cheaper labor his company finds for its plant in Kentucky.
When asked about the need for taxes to support quality-of-life initiatives, such as public parks, Sullivan said local governments were inefficient and duplicative.
"We are squandering millions of (dollars) of federal money," Sullivan said.
Meanwhile, the folks at the Milwaukee 7, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and the Spirit of Milwaukee are doing all they can to try convince companies such as Miller/Molson Coors to put their headquarters in Milwaukee.
Good luck with that, now.
Dean Amhaus, president of Spirit of Milwaukee, attended the Public Policy Luncheon and listened to the CEOs' comments.
"Do we have things we need to address and grow and change? Absolutely. That's why Milwaukee 7 was created, to address that. One of the first things was to get us all on the same page, so when someone did call us, they didn't have 35 phone numbers to call. Milwaukee 7 has only been around two years. Places like North Carolina have been doing this for decades. The other thing is places like North Carolina use a huge amount of government dollars to do that. Ours is mostly privately driven," Amhaus told SBT after the forum.
"We are our own worst enemy. We have to move past the glass is half empty to the glass is half full, and I think we've made significant progress. We will continue to keep championing the positives. Time in and time out, we have people come to the Milwaukee region, and they are amazed to see what we have got going on here, and they are quick to sing our praises."
The forum also was attended by Jeff Sherman, president of OnMilwaukee.com, which is one of the strongest voices of advocacy for the region. After the event, Sherman called for a more positive dialog among its corporate leaders.
"We heard many valid 'criticisms' today, but we are tired of hearing CEOs complain about the 'bad tone' in Milwaukee," Sherman said. "Let's tell the positive Milwaukee stories and dive in to address the negatives."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.