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Hoslet: UW's Business Outreach Program Booming

By Brian E. Clark

MADISON – In July of 2003, UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley created the Office of Corporate Relations in a major effort to build bridges with the Wisconsin business community.

In the two years since the office was formed, OCR Director Charles Hoslet says its outreach has evolved from a group-focused approach to one with a narrower focus, contacting companies directly. And while OCR continues to support smaller businesses, it's also reaching out to larger companies in the state to see what the university can offer them. Overall, Hoslet says OCR has had personal contact with more than 1,000 companies.

WisBusiness.com Editor Brian Clark interviewed OCR managing director Charlie Hoslet recently about the work of the office on its second anniversary.

Brian Clark: What was the mission of OCR when it was created, and is it still pursuing that mission?

Charles Hoslet:
We had two main goals at the start. One was to reach out to the business community in Wisconsin and help companies better understand the variety of resources that exist on our campus for them.

Secondly, we wanted to serve as the front door or first point of contact for companies that wanted to take advantages of our resources and aren’t sure where to go. It can be confusing here, what with our 13 different schools and more 100 some departments. Those goals remain our primary missions.

A third leg is to increase entrepreneurship on campus. We now have a business start-up initiative to help create and sustain companies coming out of the university.

Clark: Is there much understanding of what the university offers in the way of resources once you get outside of Madison?

Yes, but even within Madison, businesses might not know what we can do to help them. We are reaching out to them all. What the business community said we need to do is get out of our offices. We need to meet them in their workplaces and at their economic development organizations around state to tell about our recruiting opportunities and executive education programs and research centers and industrial consortia.

Clark: Do you also hope to build support for the university and its programs through these efforts?

Clearly, we hope there is that derivative benefit. As business people around the state see the value in what the university does to help them, it should build good will. They need to know that it’s not just a great place to send their kids to get an education. We hope they will support us by talking with their legislators or in other ways.

Clark: How many employees are there in your office?

We have six full-timers.

Clark: Based on working with businesses over the past two years, are there any changes in the office's focus?

The first couple of years, we tried doing a variety of program activities, like sponsoring conferences or bringing faculty experts to the Fox Valley to talk in a group setting about e-biz or quick-response manufacturing issues.

That didn’t work very well. People are busy. We didn’t have the turnouts we’d expected. We weren’t able to talk as in depth about individual companies as they or we would have liked. They told us they wanted less “Y’all come programs” and more one-to-one efforts.
Another focus shift is that we are increasing our efforts to make sure we are reaching the largest companies in the state. We have 50 companies with $1 billion or more in revenue. We have relationships with some of them, but not all. Firms of that size often have a better ability and the infrastructure to use our campus resources.

For example, a big company might be able to use our licensing technology through WARF. A lot of technology coming from here is at an early stage. Larger companies can see how they could utilize this better than a smaller company.

We will continue, however, to focus on industry sectors and will assist any company, big or small. But we want to make sure we are reaching the ones that employ the most people and have a bigger effect on the state economy.

Clark: Do you have any figures for the numbers of personal contacts, presentations, etc., for the office over the past two years?

Over the past two years, we have had personal contact with more than 1,000 companies. We met them one-on-one and talked to them in group settings like trade shows. That’s different than mass marketing where you might have some contact with thousands and thousands of firms.

We also made more than 100 formal presentations to Chambers, Rotaries and economic development groups. And in the past fiscal year alone, we referred companies to more than 350 different places here on campus.

Clark: How does OCR approach and support economic development?

There are groups in our state like Forward Wisconsin, as well as the Department of Commerce, whose primary mission focuses on economic development. We see our role as helping individual companies in the state find highly skilled workers, or get technical assistance or get the continuing education their executives need to make them more efficient and their firms more profitable. If we can help companies grow, that will help improve the state’s economy.

We also have been involved in economic development by participating in the life science and venture conferences and the recent entrepreneurship conference in Milwaukee. We also led delegations to bio conferences the past few years. This helps build the local and state economy by attracting new firms and investment to the state.

Clark: Are any other universities using your office as an outreach model to the business community?

We’ve have a number of other schools contacting us to learn more about what we are doing. Our model is different. With most universities, business outreach is through the business school or through their version of WARF.

When we created the OCR 2-plus years ago, we didn’t find a lot of offices devoted to representing the entire university to business community. But we’ve found the concept to be pretty successful. Since then, Duke, Hawaii and the University of Minnesota have sent people here to learn what we are doing. When people from the University of Florida and Gainesville came to Madison recently to learn about this community, they stopped in and visited with us.

Clark: How did OCR come to be?

UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley appointed a task force three years ago. The question to the task force, which was made up of both university and industry people, was “how can the university do a better job of assisting the business community in Wisconsin.”

One strong response was that we needed one central place that was part of the chancellor’s office that would serve as a front door to the university so companies would know where to go if they wanted help.

We held a series of focus group meetings around the state and most business people said they did have any relationship. They also said they didn’t know who to ask for help. They were frustrated.

Clark: Did you replace another department?

Prior to the OCR, there was a university industrial relations office. It was a unit of the graduate school and helped companies with the research and development needs. Those people moved into different schools and colleges, so their function has not been lost. We work not just with R&D needs, but with a wider range of businesses.

Clark: What kinds of reaction have you gotten to OCR and its efforts?

It has been very positive. Many companies we have visited said they had no idea the resources that the university has that might be able to help them. They said, “thanks for reaching out.”

I was in Racine yesterday at a company. We identified three or four areas, ranging from recruiting engineering students to potential research collaborations.

The senior person I spoke with said if we had not contacted them, the meeting would never have occurred because they are running so hard that they didn’t have time to think about who to call at the university.

From time to time, we meet a little skepticism. But 99 out of 100, after I have a chance to talk about our resources, that skepticism goes away.

Clark: Does help from the university cost companies anything?

Unlike MIT, which won’t talk to you until you become a “member” at $50,000 a year, we facilitate connections through this office for free.

Companies pay a nominal recruiting fee and executive education classes are fee-based. But in terms of technical assistance, that advice is often free of charge.

Clark: Is there any overlap with UW-Extension?

Not really. We often direct companies to Extension’s small business development centers. If people want to know how to write a business plan, we send them there. They are a terrific resource that some people might not know exists. Once we talk with a company, we can know where to send them. And if UW-Madison isn’t the right place, we have contacts at the other four-year campuses.

Clark: How much of OCR’s focus is on Wisconsin, how much out of state?

Our focus is primarily here, but we do have relationships with targeted out-of-state companies that recruit a lot of our students or provide funding for research and make donations to UW-Madison.


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