By Brian E. Clark
MILWAUKEE – The key to starting and growing a successful company is a
tireless work ethic, creativity and self-confidence, three icons of
Badger State entrepreneurism said Tuesday at a Wisconsin Innovates
The trio – Dick Burke of Trek Bicycles, Michael Cudahy of Marquette
Electronics and Craig Culver of the restaurant group that bears his name
– are important role models in Wisconsin because the Badger State ranks
47th per capita for starting new businesses, conference officials said.
The men were among more than a dozen speakers – including author Tom
Peters – at the two-day best-practices gathering at the Midwest
Airlines Center. The event was sponsored by the state Commerce
Department and included an address by Gov. Jim Doyle Tuesday night.
Cudahy, who built Marquette Electronics into a medical device
powerhouse before selling it eight years ago to General Electric, said
he never doubted that his enterprise would succeed.
“We had a ‘go-for-it’ attitude,” said the 82-year-old Cudahy, who barely
graduated from high school. “And while there were some tough times, we
were profitable our second year.”
But Cudahy, a self-educated electrical engineer and tinkerer who designed
and built an electrocardiogram in his garage, joked that he also
wore out a dozen pair of pants begging for money from his bankers to fund
the company he started with Warren Cozzens. The business is now part of
Still, Cudahy acknowledged, his hard-driving ways have taken its toll. He
has been married four times and he said he sold the company because he
did not want to leave it to any of his offspring.
He also said he often had to push his engineers – some of whom he
described as lacking in creativity – to produce machines he thought up.
“And others were held back by fear,” he said. “Fear that they would fail.
But I encouraged them to try, and then try again.”
Culver, co-founder of the Culver restaurant chain, said entrepreneurs are
“I never thought I could fail,” he said. “True entrepreneurs often have
blinders on. I don’t think I even had a business plan when I started. But
I had a passion for what I did, and that’s a key.”
But Culver said he had to ease back from the “intense focus” of the
business’s early years to let others in the company grow and learn from
“I am a Type A micro-manager,” he acknowledged. “I’ve had a difficult
time balancing my business with my family life. I’ve been married to my
“I guess you might say I was afraid of losing control,” he said. “But
I’ve got a great team. I’m now the CEO and no longer the president.
Still, I feel guilty if I’m not there.”
Burke, who co-founded his company in 1976 with five employees, said he
likes pragmatic dreamers who have a realistic “game plan.”
Burke, chairman of Trek and father of Commerce Secretary Mary Burke, said
he has a soft spot in his heart for people who are starting businesses
“Nothing is more satisfying than helping an entrepreneur succeed,” he
said. “It’s fun.”
But Burke reminded the 100-plus people in the audience that they need not
always reinvent the wheel.
“I have 50 to 60 product engineers who sometimes want to paint the next
Michelangelo,” he said. “Often, the greatest new products are improvements
on old ones. I have to remind them of that.
“And you should never forget to give the market what it wants,” he said.
“You shouldn’t forget to put yourself in the consumers’ position.”