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Who Is Mary Burke?

And is she Wisconsin’s next governor?

Oct. 8, 2013
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With just a year to go before the 2014 gubernatorial election, one Democrat, Mary Burke, a Dane County businesswoman and former head of the Department of Commerce, has just publicly declared that she will be the one who will take on Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Burke is almost the polar opposite of Walker. While the governor never finished college, Burke graduated from Georgetown and earned a Master of Business Administration degree from Harvard. Walker spent just a brief time in the private sector before running for office; Burke set up her own business with a partner after getting her MBA and later became a top executive at Trek Bicycle, the Waterloo-based company her father co-founded. While at Trek, she oversaw the sales and distribution of its bicycles in Europe, where she launched seven new sales offices. In just three years she increased Trek’s European sales from $3 million annually to $50 million a year. And while Walker’s Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) is riddled with problems—including not collecting on the loans it made to businesses and spurring very weak job growth—the Department of Commerce under Burke helped to support entrepreneurs and small businesses and when she left her position the state had 84,000 more jobs than it does currently and a 4.8% unemployment rate.

Burke, now a member of the Madison school board and a philanthropist most closely linked to the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, officially declared on Monday that she is running for governor.

When she visited the Shepherd’s offices last week she hadn’t yet thrown her hat in the ring but it was clear that she would be a very credible challenger to Walker who can draw on her success in the private, public and nonprofit sectors and her deep interest in education and improving Wisconsin’s business climate. As a top business leader who worked abroad, she understands that without great education for our young people, Wisconsin will never achieve the economic growth we need in our global economy.

Why is she running?

“I love this state and I really do believe that the people of Wisconsin deserve better,” Burke told us. “We deserve a better economy that’s creating more good paying jobs. We deserve a brighter future for our kids, where we have a great education system that’s affordable. I believe that we need better leadership, leadership that brings us together, that puts problem-solving ahead of politics.” 


An Early Business Career

Burke has kept a low profile in the media so the only fact that many people know about her is that she is the millionaire daughter of Richard Burke, the co-founder of Trek Bicycle.

But the real picture of her family is more nuanced and modest. She is a fourth-generation Wisconsinite whose great-grandparents were farmers and whose grandfather was a mail carrier. Her parents met at Marquette University; her mother was the first in her family to go to college. Mary spent her early childhood in Wauwatosa while her father worked for—and later, with a partner, bought—an appliance distributing company in Milwaukee’s Fifth Ward. The Burke family moved to rural Hartland but kept close ties to Milwaukee.

Yes, her father was a successful entrepreneur. But that success was built on hard work and some savvy decision-making, she said. He was a risk taker, a true entrepreneur.  

Burke said that she always wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and go into business, but that he never encouraged her to work at Trek.

In fact, while fielding job offers on the East Coast after earning her MBA, Burke thought that moving back to Wisconsin and working for the family business sounded like a good option. But when she asked her father if there was a position open for her, he said no.

“There was no entitlement program in our family,” Burke said. “You had to earn your stripes.”

She worked as a business consultant in New York instead. Within a year, her father called with an offer and she became vice president of finance for the holding company that owned three companies, including Trek, which at that time was on shaky financial footing.

“When I graduated from business school Trek had been having a lot of problems,” Burke said. “It was a great startup and it grew really fast but it got to the point where it was losing quite a bit of money.”

Burke moved to Milwaukee in the mid-1980s to work at that holding company but admits that she had a difficult time making friends.

“I didn’t know a whole lot of people,” Burke said. “It was hard to build a social network. When I think about the great young professionals groups here in town now, if those things had existed when I was in my 20s, I probably never would have left.”

While living in Milwaukee, she decided to launch an information-sharing business in New York with a friend and commuted back and forth on weekends. Despite a healthy launch, the business floundered for a time. She transferred the business to her partner and he is still running it today after it was repositioned and rebranded in the market.

Burke said she learned valuable lessons from the experience.

“I learned that you have to have a good business plan,” Burke said. “You have to have people with experience in that field. If you don’t have that experience yourself you have to make sure that people who have that experience are able to help guide you. You can’t assume all of the best in your business projections. You have to almost assume the worst in terms of funding it and how long it will take to get started. And that maybe [you should] also focus. Maybe we tried to do too much.”

Over the course of the next three years, she oversaw Trek’s European sales and the opening of new operations there.

“I took that experience of starting up a business in New York and launched seven companies in Europe selling Wisconsin products,” she said.


Giving Back

After launching those European offices, Burke took time off, a sabbatical that Republicans have offered up as evidence that she’s a rich kid who doesn’t need to work to earn a living. The reality, Burke said, is much less scandalous. During her time away from Trek, she took a snowboarding vacation and then helped to set up a bicycle industry organization to advocate for bicycling.

“I’ve worked hard almost my entire life,” Burke said. “I’ve had a very long career. I was focused from a very early age. Other people enter college and don’t know what they’re going to do. I sort of felt I knew what I was going to do. After starting up both my own business and starting up and launching seven companies in Europe I was ready for a break. So that’s what I did.”

Two years later she was back at Trek, this time in charge of forecasting and strategic planning, where she implemented business practices and strategies to help the company grow profitably.

“That [position] was really looking at how we could manage the company better, how we could grow it,” Burke said. “I think it was an important time for Trek, getting into new markets and developing better business practices.”

After working in that position for nine years, she got very involved in her volunteer work and decided to leave Trek and devote all of her time to her philanthropic efforts, which have a special focus on education.

She’s on the board of directors of the Burke Family Foundation, which has awarded grants to the Urban Ecology Center, the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra, First Stage and other organizations that focus on underserved kids’ education and closing the achievement gap.

While working at Trek, she also became a volunteer tutor at the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, then served as chair of its board of directors and led a $6.2 million fundraising effort for a new facility. She developed AVID/TOPS, a college-prep program for students who wouldn’t have been helped otherwise. The program is close to her heart. Its first class of 85 just graduated and 90% are enrolled in post-secondary education.

Burke said she often thinks of one student, Daniel, who wanted to stay in the program so badly after his family moved that he took multiple buses across town to get to school and his job and stay involved in sports and the AVID/TOPS program.

“It was his dream to go to college and he knew how much this program was helping him,” Burke said. “He entered Edgewood College this fall, realizing his dream. There are a lot of kids out there like Daniel who have a dream and we need to make sure that we are supporting them in that dream so that they do learn how to set that vision for themselves and take responsibility for making that happen.”


‘We Can Always Do More’

The public sector called as well. Burke became the secretary of the Department of Commerce in 2005 during the Doyle administration and led that agency for two and a half years. She said she utilized the lessons she learned at Trek and in the nonprofit world to help spur job growth throughout Wisconsin. When she left Commerce, the state had 84,000 more jobs than it does now and an enviable 4.8% unemployment rate.

“We really focused on entrepreneurship programs, helping entrepreneurs get started, helping small businesses and other businesses grow,” Burke said.

She said a paper mill in Park Falls was closing, but her efforts to bring together local leaders and figure out how to solve the problems plaguing the mill allowed it to re-open within a few months. It’s still open today.

“That’s the type of approach we need to take today as we jump in there and we figure out how to solve the issues,” Burke said of her collaborative approach.

Walker, of course, scrapped the Department of Commerce and replaced it with the public-private WEDC, which is facing heavy criticism for its lackluster performance and substandard business and accounting practices. Burke told the Shepherd that her former agency didn’t need to be eliminated and noted that many of its programs still exist.

“You have to look at the underlying programs and what they’re doing, not necessarily the form,” Burke said. “I think that the form is much less important than the work that’s being done. I believed it then, and I still believe it now, that we can always do more. We have to be more aggressive about how we can grow the economy and also make sure that we have the foundation and the infrastructure to support that.”


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