Dept. of Commerce: Sec. Mary Burke Column: Innovation-Key to Business Success

By Mary P. Burke, Secretary

Department of Commerce

Process and product innovation are not only powerful tools for meeting the escalating challenges of the global economy, but essential ones for businesses hoping to stay competitive in the marketplace.

On the heels of the recent good news that Wisconsin’s export business grew by over 17 percent to a record $14.9 billion in 2005, a 40-percent increase since Gov. Doyle took office, coupled with the fact that the state has added 140,000 jobs in that same time period, it’s evident to me that there are some very successful companies here in the state that have risen to the challenge of competing in a global market.

How do they do it? What are their secrets to success? Why have some U.S. manufacturers closed while others continue to gain larger market shares? That is the $64,000 question, which, during the first annual WI Innovates! Conference in Milwaukee on March 28-29, we dissected at great length.

Thanks to the collegial atmosphere and camaraderie of Wisconsin’s best and brightest, who generously agreed to share their time and talents with us, we learned a number of things that set our successful companies apart from the poor performers. While no doubt the answers to that question are as varied as the products the companies produce, we definitely saw a pattern. The companies that are thriving are the ones who innovate. They have recognized the fact that business as usual is no longer business as usual, and have accepted that change is inevitable.

According to a recent study by Booz-Allen Hamilton, leading U.S. companies spent $384 billion last year on innovation. Since 2002, innovation spending has increased an average 11 percent annually. Clearly, innovation is not something you do just once – you must keep working on it.

The road to success in the future will be the ability to innovate – to find new uses for old products, new products for old uses and niches to fill with the resources on hand. Internationally-renowned consultant and best-selling author Tom Peters, who is widely considered North America’s leading proponent of business innovation, was the keynote speaker at the conference, and offered his signature blunt talk about the state of doing business in the 21st century along with some concrete steps that companies can implement to gain a competitive edge right now.

Individual speakers and panel discussions gave insight into how even the most successful businesses need to change, evolve and grow to best the competition – even in countries known for cheap labor. Ariens, Inc. president Dan Ariens cited one compelling example of how his company beat out China in both price and delivery time by simply taking a comprehensive look at a problem.

We’re received some great feedback from conference attendees and are already planning ahead for 2007. Our goal here at Commerce is to help Wisconsin businesses continue to flourish and thrive, and one of the best ways to do that is to listen and learn from others who have successfully met challenges, and overcome them.

There is no denying that these are tough times for many businesses, but with hard work, forward-thinking and determination we can all grow Wisconsin’s economy together.