Chief Executive magazine recently ranked Wisconsin as the nation’s 12th best state for business, up from 41st place just seven years ago, an increase the editors called “meteoric” and the second-best improvement among the states ranked. There are many good reasons for the business community’s optimism in Wisconsin and the Milwaukee region, which is the state’s economic driver. Northwestern Mutual, the nation’s largest provider of individual life insurance policies, is expanding its corporate headquarters in downtown Milwaukee with the $450 million, 32-story Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons, and is building a 33-story apartment tower on adjacent property.

Several area companies have announced major expansions, including Direct Supply Inc., a national leader in equipment, ecommerce and services for senior living communities. REV Group, a specialty equipment manufacturer that is moving its corporate headquarters to Milwaukee. Just south of the downtown is the rapidly growing Water Technology District, which includes office and research space for water-related businesses. In suburban Wauwatosa, the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee is helping to develop Innovation Park, an 84-acre campus with research, educational and business facilities. In northwest Milwaukee, the Energy Innovation Center offers an incubator and laboratory for developing energy and power technologies.

High-Tech Firms

The Milwaukee Region, ranked as the fifth up-and-coming tech city by Forbes magazine, features a solid, high-tech base. Milwaukee is a leader in the production of medical diagnostic instruments, industrial robots, electronic controls, factory automation, printed circuit boards, CAD/CAM processing, avionics, printing technologies and advanced ceramics. It is home to several global technology companies, including Rockwell Automation, GE Healthcare, Astronautics Corporation of America, Johnson Controls, Modine Manufacturing and Quad/Graphics.

Advanced Manufacturing

Manufacturing remains a very important engine for the region’s economy. More than 16 percent of the workforce is employed by manufacturers, well above the 9-percent average nationally, and the region is home to many well-known manufacturers, including Harley-Davidson, Master Lock, Johnson Controls, SC Johnson, CNH Industrial, Rockwell Automation, InSinkErator and Snap-On.

Southeastern Wisconsin participates in the federal government’s Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership (IMCP), which recognizes the Milwaukee area’s strength as a manufacturing center. The region leads the nation in the production of industrial controls, X-ray equipment, steel foundry parts, mining machinery, hoists, monorails, speed changers, drives and gears. It also leads the nation in the production of medical diagnostic equipment, thanks to GE Healthcare, which has several Wisconsin facilities located in Milwaukee, Wauwatosa, Waukesha, Oak Creek and Madison. The region is also home to Rockwell Automation and Johnson Controls, global leaders in industrial and building control systems; A.O. Smith, which produces water heaters; Briggs & Stratton, a leading small-engine manufacturer; Harley-Davidson, the legendary motorcycle manufacturer; Modine Manufacturing, a global leader in thermal management; Actuant, which manufactures hydraulic, electromechanical and electronic motion-control systems; and Brady Corp., which markets labeling and identification systems worldwide.

A Diverse Economy

Although many people consider Milwaukee the historic beer capital of America, its breweries today employ less than 1 percent of Milwaukee’s workforce. In fact, no segment of the area’s manufacturing industry employs more than 5 percent of the metropolitan labor force. Within the manufacturing sector, the focus has shifted to advanced industries focused on industrial equipment, medical imaging, consumer products and green technologies. It is increasingly known for diagnostic equipment, electric car batteries and wind turbine equipment.

Three locally based industrial companies are on the Fortune 500 list: Harley-Davidson and Rockwell Automation (Milwaukee); and Johnson Controls (Glendale). Three other industrial companies based in the region have revenues greater than $3 billion: Quad/Graphics (Sussex), SC Johnson (Racine) and Snap-On (Kenosha). In addition to the many “brand-name” manufacturers that call Milwaukee home, the region is home to hundreds of smaller manufacturers that provide quality products for customers around the world and create a valued supply chain.

Service Businesses

The service sector has been the fastest-growing segment of the regional economy. Service-providing jobs account for more than 80 percent of all nonfarm jobs in southeastern Wisconsin. Health care and social assistance, retail trade, accommodation and food services, and finance/insurance are among the largest service-sector segments. Four Milwaukee-area service companies are ranked as Fortune 500 companies: ManpowerGroup, Northwestern Mutual, and WEC Energy Group (Milwaukee) and Kohl’s Corp. (Menomonee Falls). Two other service companies based in the region have revenues in excess of $3 billion: Aurora Health Care (Milwaukee) and Fiserv (Brookfield).

Health Care & Medical Research

Milwaukee is home to the Medical College of Wisconsin, the state’s largest private research institution, ranks in the top third of the nation’s medical schools for National Institute of Health research. Faculty researchers conduct 2,000 studies annually with more than $144 million in government and private funding. Marquette University, Aurora Health Care and the Milwaukee Bucks professional basketball team are creating a $120 million Athletic Performance Research Center on a 12-acre site located near the Marquette campus. 

The Milwaukee Region is home to several internationally recognized medical technology and biotech firms. GE Healthcare, a global leader in medical imaging and information technologies, patient monitoring systems and health care services, employs nearly 6,000 people at multiple facilities in the region. In addition to GE Healthcare, southeastern Wisconsin is home to several medical technology firms, including Vesta, which manufactures medical devices; Cambridge Major Laboratories, which develops and manufactures pharmaceuticals and pharma intermediates; Mortara Instrument, which manufactures diagnostic equipment; Criticare Systems, which manufactures medical monitoring equipment; and Bradshaw Medical, a manufacturer of orthopedic and spinal surgery instruments.

Information Technologies

During the past 10 years, Milwaukee has evolved into a major center for electronic commerce. Two of the largest data processing firms in the world have significant operations in southeastern Wisconsin. Brookfield-based Fiserv is the world’s leading data processing provider for financial institutions. The region is also known for its strong supply-chain services. It is home to several large software firms specializing in logistics. It is also home to Astronautics Corp. of America, an international provider of flight-critical software and instruments.

Financial Services

Southeastern Wisconsin is a leading financial services center. Dozens of financial institutions and fund managers are based here, including Northwestern Mutual, the nation’s largest provider of individual life insurance with more than $215 billion in assets, and Robert W. Baird & Co., an international asset management, capital markets and private equity firm. Several of the nation’s largest banks have a significant presence in the region, including BMO Harris, Chase, PNC, U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo. The largest locally headquartered financial institutions include: Bank Mutual, Guaranty Bank, Johnson Financial Group, North Shore Bank, Tri-City Bankshares and WaterStone Bank.  

Food & Beverage

Southeastern Wisconsin is home to more than 250 food manufacturers, employing nearly 15,000 people. It boasts the largest concentration of food industry talent among the nation’s largest metro areas and the third-highest concentration of food scientists. 

Printing & Publishing

Tens of thousands of people are employed in creative enterprises in the region. Quad/Graphics, which is based in suburban Sussex, is the second-largest commercial printer in the United States and one of the largest printing companies in the world. Other major printers based in the region include Arandell Corp., which produces direct-mail catalogs and demographically targeted marketing products, and Serigraph, which specializes in industrial and point-of-purchase printing.

Retail Firms

Menomonee Falls-based Kohl’s is one of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing department store chains with more than 1,100 stores in 49 states coast to coast. Milwaukee also is home to the national merchandising and marketing operations for The Bon-Ton Stores, which operates 270 stores in 26 states under the brand names of Bergner’s, Bon-Ton, Boston Store, Carson’s, Elder-Beerman, Herberger’s and Younkers.

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