GMCC’s Brandon selling Madison as ‘innovation hub’

Zach Brandon, who took over as president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce more than two years ago, says Dane County needs more entrepreneurial-minded people like him.

“I am exactly what we want,” said the 41-year-old Brandon, a former Madison city council member and state Commerce Department deputy who has started three companies and raised several million dollars from investors.

“We need more 25-year-old business owners from Ohio to look at Wisconsin, say ‘I should put my next business there’ and then fall in love with this place and stay here. I’m the prototype of what we need to find more of.”

Brandon, who took over as head of the chamber from Jennifer Alexander in November of 2012, praised her leadership. He said he’s now focused on adapting the chamber to an ever-changing marketplace, applying entrepreneurial thinking to a 102-year-old institution with 1,300 members and recruiting more high-growth- potential companies like Epic.

“We complement each other,” said Brandon. “But I’m pushing us in directions that the chamber wasn’t focused on before. We have different styles and are different leaders, but the success that we are seeing is very much due to the strong foundation she built. There’s a Chinese proverb that says, ‘When you drink the water, remember who dug the well.'”

In addition to weighing in on city and regional issues, Brandon said the chamber has recently begun to reach out to state legislators on both sides of the aisle.

Over the past decade, he said the chamber built a robust local governmental relations program that lobbies on city and county issues. Currently, he noted, most Madison City Council members were endorsed by his group and he said the chamber is poised to pick up seats in the spring election.

But he said the Madison business community needed a voice that “transcended local and advocated for Madison’s role in the state economy. There are some great numbers that the city and other economic development entities have put together to show the value and the strength of this region’s contribution to the state’s economy. We wanted to make sure that legislative leaders on both sides – and the newly elected officials – understood and valued Madison as a contributor. So for the past couple of years, we’ve been active on state issues.”

In February, he said the chamber held its first “Meet Madison” gathering for legislators – well attended by Democrats and Republicans.

“If you think about it, every region has a `day,'” he said. “All these regions and communities around the state come to the Capitol and talk about what makes their regions great.

“For whatever reason, whether it was arrogance or ignorance, Madison had never done that. We thought it was a great opportunity for us to engage with many elected officials who are familiar with Madison as their capital city, but didn’t really know that much about it beyond that.

“We wanted to highlight Madison as their second home,” he said. He said the chamber also wanted to correct the false impression is only a public-sector city.

“The other part of this effort was to truly explain what the economy is doing here and get past decades-old thinking of what Madison’s economy is based on. Some 73 percent of our jobs are private sector. And when it comes to new job creation, we outperform. A significant proportion of net new jobs are coming from this region. That is something we should all be proud of. ”

Brandon said he’s convinced the Madison area is going to boom in the biotech, IT and knowledge-creation areas in coming years. He said companies like Verona-based Epic, which has grown to more than 8,000 employees in recent years, has the potential to add many more jobs in coming years. And he noted that Amazon, Google, Zendesk and other firms have opened offices in Madison.

“We need to make sure we understand the sectors that are driving the economy,” he said. “We need to focus on them and do predictive analysis studies to accelerate that. Then we need to bottle and sell it. We aren’t going to compete with Chicago, New York or Austin. But we are going to compete on density and the timing is now.

“I truly believe that Madison is on the cusp of being the next big thing,” he added. “Or the next dense area of talent.  We won’t be Silicon Valley, but we can be what those areas represent to the Upper Midwest.  Madison is in the prime position to be the innovation hub of this region.”