WisBusiness: Ex-Commerce Secretary Nettles putting theory to practice in private sector

By Brian E. Clark


During his two-year tenure as Wisconsin’s Commerce secretary, Cory Nettles worked to increase investment in the state’s industries, grow jobs and improve Wisconsin’s image in this country and abroad.

Some things don’t change. Nettles, a partner at Quarles & Brady in Milwaukee, is still working to bolster the Badger State economy, only in this go-around, he’s comfortably ensconced in the private sector as an attorney and entrepreneur.

“Most of my time now is spent trying to walk the talk,” said Nettles.

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Working in the Doyle administration, Nettles said he promoted policies that were focused on helping companies start, grow or relocate in Wisconsin.

Now, he said he’s enjoying the chance to “execute on some of the (economic) policies that Gov. Doyle was passionate about.”

Since leaving Doyle’s cabinet in early 2005, Nettles said he has helped start a few companies, invested in others and worked on projects to make more risk capital available to enterprises that are growing or interested in moving here.

Nettles said he is proud of his tenure at Commerce and his efforts to promote more regional cooperation in the state, the enactment of Act 255 and helping give entrepreneurship a boost.

“Act 255 (which gives investors in start-ups a tax break) was my baby,” Nettles said. “That was probably one of the most important policy initiatives in which I was involved while I was at Commerce.”

Act 255 was passed with Republican support. Nettles even garnered praise from the often partisan state Sen. Ted Kanavas, R-Brookfield.

In an 2005 interview, Kanavas said of Nettles: “Cory gets it.”

“We’ve been able to accomplish things because the Legislature, the business community and the executive branch worked together,” he said.

Though Nettles could not discuss the new Mid Cities Venture Fund in detail because of SEC rules, he said — generally speaking — that it will help move forward on his desire to “raise and deploy more risk capital, private equity in particular, to help Wisconsin-based companies grow or transition to new ownership.”

In spite of negative news about job losses around the state, Nettles said he believes the overall economy in the state is holding its own as it moves to a more high-tech manufacturing base.

“It’s been a little bumpy, though, and there are still some bumps ahead of us,” he said.

Likewise, he said Milwaukee is managing its transition better than some pundits acknowledge.

He cited a story from the June issue of “The Deal” magazine that touted Milwaukee for its efforts to successfully move beyond its rust-belt past.

The story lauded the Brew City for “reinventing itself” after falling on hard times in the 1990s when many of its manufacturing jobs were lost.  The piece said Milwaukee is now a “21st Century” manufacturing center.

“Part of what this article talks about is the transition to a high-end manufacturing economy,” he said.  “Beyond that, we’ve also picked up some high-end service based opportunities.”

Unfortunately, Nettles said the state will most likely continue to lose traditional manufacturing jobs that are part of businesses that can’t compete in the global marketplace or that are technologically out of date.

“But I think we’ve gone through a lot of that shakedown. We’ve weathered the worst of it and I think we have a lot of promise because our workers are some of the most envied in the world,” he said.

Though the chair at the head of Commerce is empty with the recent departure of Jack Fischer — who resigned under fire — Nettles said he has no interest in returning to public life.

“Been there, done that,” he said with a chuckle. “I enjoy being in the private sector.”

Would he consider running for office?

“No way,” he said. “There are others who are much better suited for that and I look forward to supporting them.”