Haney: Looking back as WMC hones in on a successor

After a quarter century at the helm of WMC, Jim Haney can take pride in knowing he’s one of only four — so far.

Only four men have led Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce during its 100-year history.

“I have often said unless you screw up somehow, there’s pretty good job security,” joked Haney, who turned 66 on Jan. 10.

In a Jan. 13 WisBusiness.com interview, he calls the timing of his exit this spring “perfect.”

During that span, Haney and his boards and his staff (he counts nine alums who either lead or are no. 2 managers in other business groups) have grown WMC into a lobbying powerhouse and political machine.

He notes that when he came on board, the organization was relatively passive and small (one lobbyist and him). Now, it’s a “more proactive player in the process” and much bigger (five lobbyists). He says at one point about WMC’s megaphone to voters and those in government and politics, “They get (information) from all sources — why not us, too?”

Haney and his organization and its members have made it through the worst two post World War II recessions. He says on the government side, the same remedies were tried, higher taxes and spending. “That doesn’t work, and I think we learned that again,” said Haney, adding that the companies that dealt quickly and directly with the downturn “are now poised to rebound much faster.”

“The survivors,” he said, “are going to come through this stronger than ever.”

While acknowledging the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs over the years, he says Wisconsin remains “a heavy manufacturing state” that will always make things to export around the world. “We make some incredibly good stuff in Wisconsin,” said Haney, owing Wisconsin’s manufacturing competitiveness to quality products and a superior work ethic.

With costs of production rising in some of overseas markets that undermined the manufacturing sector, Haney now sees some of those jobs are coming back. “I think we can hold our own with anybody in the world,” he said.

Haney doesn’t gloat over the 2010 elections that brought in a full Republican and business-oriented slate into the statehouse. But he’s obviously satisfied that WMC’s concerns about competitiveness caught the attention of politicians running during a recession. He says both parties “embraced the message” from different points of view.

As to Scott Walker, Haney says the new guv’s economic development message and focus on jobs is “right on the money.” And he’s hopeful the politicians will take care of “systemic structural deficits” that have dogged Wisconsin’s budgets “for as long as anyone can remember.”

Added Haney: “We spend more than we take in. The inability to fix that has been a drag on the economy for a long, long time.”

He’s proud of the soft side of WMC — things like nurturing future business leaders in programs aimed at high school students.

And he lists few regrets. Haney says the biggest regret of his tenure was the failure to convince legislators in good times to cap budget growth by some measure. “Everybody freaked out” at the TABOR effort, he recalls.

And he says of Tommy Thompson, “I think Tommy missed an opportunity to kind of put the fiscal house in order during the robust years (of the 1990s). But he used those resources to do some pretty profound things.”

Haney worked with five governors. He says those with legislative experience tend to be the most effective and that they tend to deliver best on business priorities in the first two years of a term before the tendency to spend before an election creeps in.

Jim Doyle, he concludes, delivered some big pro-business items in his first two years.

“I think he suffers from not getting very far outside his inner circle” and not collaborating with legislators, Haney said. “If you have noble goals and dreams, you have to be able to implement them.”

He speaks most fondly of the governors he personally worked for — Warren Knowles and Lee Sherman Dreyfus.

He was part of Knowles’ “Kiddie Corps.”

“The governor always said good government’s the best politics,” Haney said. “We’ve gotten away from that, obviously.”

Of the man he calls his mentor, Haney said: “He got me started in this crazy life. He was a great man.”

The WMC board is in the interview stage of the formal process to replace Haney.

“I would guess by March they’ll have somebody in their sights,” he said.

In all, Haney counts 27 years at WMC as of May. “And that’s a long time at the helm.”

But guys like Haney don’t really retire. He’ll continue serving on the board of Kikkoman Foods, Inc. and do some advising on the venture capital front.

“So I hope to keep my finger in business activity” while leaving time for “travel and enjoying life,” Haney said.