Compared to a lot of hard-line conservatives these days, lifelong Republican Mark Bugher almost sounds like a Democrat.
The former Tommy Thompson administration insider even thinks government can actually do some good.
Bugher, 64, announced last week he would retire as director of the University Research Park in October, ending a career in public service that spans nearly 35 years.
Married with two adult sons and two granddaughters, Bugher plans to continue serving on several corporate boards, including Madison Gas & Electric and First Business Financial Services. He also hopes to stay involved with start-up businesses and entrepreneurs in Wisconsin.
Growing up in a family of Republican Party activists in Eau Claire, Bugher attended his first party convention at age 13 and recalls being impressed by then-Gov. Warren Knowles. He spent his 20s in the family real estate business, worked on the 1980 campaign of 3rd District Congressman Steve Gunderson and landed a job running Gunderson's district office in Black River Falls while also serving on the Eau Claire County Board.
When Tommy Thompson was elected governor in 1986, defeating incumbent Democrat Tony Earl, Bugher was asked to join the administration, eventually taking over the helm of the Department of Revenue. He served in that position longer than anyone has in state history.
In 1996, Bugher replaced longtime Thompson adviser James Klauser as secretary of the Department of Administration and stayed in that position until leaving for a job directing the University Research Park in 1999.
Launched in 1984 and now straddling both sides of Whitney Way on Madison’s west side, the research park had 72 companies and 2,100 total employees when Bugher took over. Today, the business park counts 126 companies and 3,600 jobs, with hearing device and call center provider Ultratec the largest with nearly 400 employees. The research park is also home to Cellular Dynamics International, the stem cell company founded by UW researcher James Thomson, which recently announced plans for an initial public stock offering, the first in Madison in six years.
The research park is operated as a tax-exempt nonprofit, although it does pay about $4 million annually in property taxes to the city of Madison. About 65 percent of its tenants are related to the UW in some capacity either through employees, licensing agreements with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) or as a spinoff from research. Of the 37 buildings in the park, ownership is split roughly 50/50 between private entities and the research park.
Work is under way for University Research Park Phase 2 at Junction and Mineral Point roads on the far west side. That park will boast 370 acres, twice as large as the current park, and feature some commercial development including restaurants, coffee shops and residential “live-work” units.
The Capital Times: Why did you decide to retire now?
Mark Bugher: I have mixed feeling about it but this seemed like the right break point. The current park is doing very well and the second one is fully approved with all the zoning in place. Then we have a new chancellor (former U.S. Deputy Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank) starting this summer so this seemed like it allowed for an orderly transition.
What about the hiring of Blank? I know some people were calling for the UW to hire a chancellor with some business credibility. Is that what happened?
I don’t think so. Blank is a faculty member first so it would be a mistake to call her a business person. She has dealt with a lot of business people in her career and told me one of her first jobs at Michigan was raising money for the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. Most of those people were business people and many were Republicans. Then as acting Commerce secretary her main audience was business people. But I think the Regents picked her because she just did a super job in the interviews. I think her experience at Commerce was helpful only because she was running a big organization with over 40,000 employees. It could have been HHS or any other major department and she still would have been picked.
So this wasn’t a move to appease Tom Hefty and John Torinus, two prominent business people who have been very outspoken about the UW needing to embrace the private sector?
No, (laughing) I don’t think so.
What about the criticism that the UW isn’t doing enough in terms of technology transfer or converting research into companies?
I think we have done a lot when you consider the culture and history of the university. WARF is world class. The research park is world class. Certainly we would like to do more and I think we understand the criticism. But maybe the expectations of the university exceed the ability to deliver the outcomes some would like. The university is a different enterprise. It’s not a business and will never operate like a business. It’s a gem for the state, brings in billions of research resources and we do the best we can with that kind of leverage. The track record is good and it could be better and we will do better. I know interim Chancellor David Ward has been very sensitive to this and created a program called Discover to Product or “D2P,” which is an aggressive effort to amp up the effort. If people are patient things will improve but people are not patient and frankly the university does not move at a rapid pace on this stuff. But they are coming along.
During the recent Wisconsin Entrepreneurs Conference here, one of the panelists said that every professor at Stanford was looking to start a company but UW professors are more concerned with that next government grant. Is that fair?
Not at all. We have a lot of faculty on campus who would like to start companies but I am not sure the message you want to be sending to your faculty is that you should focus on starting a company and not focus on your research and your teaching. If you have exceptional technology and a great idea, sure, let’s do it. But that shouldn’t come at the expense of what the university is there to do, which is to educate our kids to be better citizens. I’m not sure that is a trade-off we want.
And with the Legislature’s $25 million venture capital bill looking to ban state investment in biotech companies or any research involving fetal tissue, what kind of message is that sending to the UW and the business community or the rest of the country?
The exclusion of biotech from the venture bill is very disappointing, especially considering this is one of the most vibrant industries in our marketplace. But it’s certainly not fatal. And in all honesty, $25 million is not that much money. I don’t want to pooh-pooh it because it is a start but for companies like CDI I don’t think it’s going to be enough to cause them to move.
Let’s shift gears and talk about how much politics have changed in Wisconsin over your career. I remember when you and (Gov. Tommy Thompson) would come over to the Argus bar downtown and have beers with the reporters and legislators who were there from either party. No way can I see that happening today.
One thing we need to re-instill is that we are public servants first and foremost. Let’s worry about making government work first and worry about careers second. I think there is some concern about the priority of our current leaders and we need to remind ourselves that our priority is making sure government works for people.
You mean Gov. Scott Walker trying to hone his national credibility with conservatives at the expense of what might be best for the state?
I don’t want to be specific in terms of Walker but in order to make government work better both sides have to work together and not be so concerned about who is running things or who is in control of the East Wing. Maybe one could argue this is a good time — and here is where the university could maybe take the lead — for a wide discussion about the role of state government. We can’t keep lurching back and forth like we have been.
So what about Walker? Has he been good or bad for the state as governor?
I think he has been good for the state and I know people probably expect me to say that. But I am not going to criticize any elected officials. I think it’s a tough job whether it’s county board or local school board or state Legislature. You are constantly in a fish bowl and giving up a lot of your personal time. Maybe it’s a career thing for some people. But I think Walker has done some good things and I think Jim Doyle did some good things for the state.
What about the divisiveness?
Walker tackled some things that needed to be tackled. But I think we want our politicians to stand for something. Well, Walker stood for something and a lot of people didn’t like it and so it’s a little hard to be critical. Maybe you can say he didn’t tell us everything he was going to do to balance the budget but I think he took some really tough stands and people like that about him.
I met Scott in 1993 when he first came to the Legislature and I did a fundraiser for him. Personally I don’t know how he sustained himself through those months of protest at the Capitol. You must have a very thick skin and calm demeanor to deal with all that. But he was elected by the state of Wisconsin and maybe we don’t always like the people we elect but we live in a democracy that has made our country the greatest in the world.
I have to ask you about Tammy Baldwin beating your man Thompson?
Shocking. Prior to that, my biggest disappointment politically was Clinton beating George Bush in 1992. But a lot of people just took the race for granted, thinking a Dane County liberal couldn’t get elected statewide. I still run into people who can’t believe it.
Did she just outwork him?
She had a good message, she stayed active and was on the airwaves post-primary and kind of set the tone right away. It was a very well-run campaign.
Lastly, and this is a big question, but what is it going to take to get the Wisconsin economy going in the right direction, because the numbers are just terrible?
Yes, the numbers are terrible. But the secret to the Wisconsin economy is still Milwaukee. If you compare Wisconsin and Minnesota, the biggest difference is that Minneapolis-St. Paul is very successful and humming along but the city of Milwaukee is not doing very well. My advice to elected officials is to do all you can to help the Milwaukee economy, the school district, the infrastructure there. That will pay dividends for the balance of the state.
There are other pockets that need attention. What is next for the paper industry? If not paper is there a transition into something else, like an environmental product? UW Stout has its own little research park where they are working on plastics. Just focus on those niches and then all hands on deck trying to help.