Two weeks ago Kimberly-Clark announced they would use their tax windfall from the newly passed Republican tax bill to restructure the company, closing two Wisconsin facilities and laying off 600 people. Their CEO, Thomas Falk, stated that a “challenging environment” is what’s driving the need for the restructure.
The current economic environment is “challenging” for some big corporations that aren’t changing fast enough. The reality is big companies are being dissected by smaller, more nimble ones. As Falk noted, new online stores and new brands are chipping away at the company’s performance.
Companies like Duluth Trading, Dollar Shave Club, The Honest Company and others are much smaller, sell almost exclusively online, and thus can offer consumers a better value. This innovation is what we, collectively, have been asking for and how I’ve been helping companies similar to Kimberly-Clark evolve into this new economy for the past decade.
OK. So more big companies are on the decline and many small companies are growing. Where would you invest your money? Well, collectively, WE all have that choice. As this decision is shaking out, Democrats and Republicans are squabbling over how to incentivize Kimberly-Clark to keep its plants in Wisconsin. Basically both parties are asking who can write a bigger check to reverse Kimberly-Clark’s decision. But Wisconsinites deserve more than Hail Mary deals like the Foxconn deal.
Rather than focusing on one-off deals like Kimberly-Clark and Foxconn, here’s the question we should be asking: How do we rewire and build the new economy in Wisconsin?
Let’s say that between Republicans and Democrats we’re going to spend $10 million to $60 million subsidizing Kimberly-Clark and alike. What else could we spend that money on that would guarantee the 600 employees of the company great-paying work while also embracing companies and industries that are growing?
For new job growth, let’s take the money and invest in 10 to 60 growing companies in the Fox Valley and around the state via low- or no interest loans. Those loans should be contingent on the companies absorbing the hardworking employees that Kimberly-Clark leaves behind. Let’s also ensure that those employees have the same health and retirement benefits they had at Kimberly-Clark to ensure those who helped build the Fox Valley economy are taken care of into retirement.
A partnership between the state and those emerging businesses can happen. It’s a choice we can make.
At the same time, we don’t want our existing industry leaders to wither on the vine. We want them to evolve and grow too. These existing companies are facing rapid change, and they aren’t built to be adaptable. What if we helped them maintain their Wisconsin roots, while tapping into the opportunities of the new economy. Let’s offer the same loan program growing companies get for a period of time, to invest in meaningful, industry leading innovation that allows them to grow while increasing their need for and training of hardworking Wisconsinites. We could help them continue being solid community employers.
If our government leaders don’t start making different choices we’ll find ourselves subsidizing company declines year after year, decade after decade. And that doesn’t benefit anyone.
We live in an era of rapid change and now is the time for us to look to the possibilities of tomorrow and the realities of today. We can use each of these situations where an old industry is withering to grow our existing industries and build new ones that will bolster our state for generations to come. This template could be used from Superior to Kenosha and from Green Bay to Milwaukee. If we think boldly and act differently we’ll build a Wisconsin where every generation, every one of us, can live, work and thrive!
Kurt Kober is a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor of Wisconsin and former Fortune 500 company executive. He and his wife live in his hometown, Sheboygan, with their labradoodle, Bucky. You can find him at www.kurtforwisconsin.com.
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