Chief Executive magazine recently ranked Wisconsin as the nation’s 14th best state for business, up from 41st place just five 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 Life Insurance Co., 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. Racine-based InSinkErator and Waukesha-based Cooper Power Systems are also expanding their businesses, adding another 400 jobs. And in late 2014, Amazon moved into the first of two distribution centers that will total 1.5 million square feet and create 1,100 full-time jobs south of Milwaukee near the Illinois border.

In suburban Wauwatosa, construction crews continue work on Innovation Park, an 84-acre campus being developed by the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. Two buildings – the Innovation Accelerator and ABB Automation Products’ Milwaukee office – opened in 2014.

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 also home to several global technology companies and 14 Fortune 1000 companies, which is disproportionately high for a region its size.

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 and three Milwaukee-area service companies are included in the Fortune 500 listing: ManpowerGroup and Northwestern Mutual (Milwaukee) and Kohl’s Corp. (Menomonee Falls).

Advanced Manufacturing

The region leads the nation in the production of industrial controls, 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 and Madison. The region is also home to Rockwell Automation and Johnson Controls, global leaders in industrial and building control systems; Joy Global, a major manufacturer of mining equipment; Briggs & Stratton, a leading small-engine manufacturer; Harley-Davidson, the legendary motorcycle manufacturer; and Modine Manufacturing, a global leader in thermal management.

Health Care

Southeastern Wisconsin is a leader in health care quality and research. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has consistently ranked Wisconsin among the top states for the quality of medical care delivered. Health care is also a major source of employment. More than 16 percent of the region’s service jobs are in health-related occupations. Three of Wisconsin’s major tertiary-care hospitals – Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and Froedtert Hospital – are located in Milwaukee County. 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.

The Milwaukee region is home to several internationally recognized medical technology and biotech firms in addition to GE Healthcare: 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 15 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, the world’s leading data processing provider for financial institutions, with 20,000 employees serving 14,500 clients worldwide; and FIS, which serves more than 14,000 financial services firms and businesses worldwide. U.S. Bancorp Fund Services, the securities processing arm of U.S. Bank, and Chase also have significant operations in Milwaukee.

The region is also home to several large software firms specializing in logistics, including Dematic and CDC Supply Chain; Astronautics Corp. of America, an international provider of flight-critical software and instruments for airlines and governments; AQS and Penta Technologies, developers of enterprise solution software; Connecture Inc., a health insurance software provider; and Zywave, which develops software for financial planners and insurance brokers. In addition, GE Healthcare has committed more than $3 million to UW-Milwaukee to help create a cluster of medical imaging software developers and researchers.

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 boasts the largest concentration of food industry talent among the nation’s largest metro areas and the third highest concentration of food scientists. It is home to 18 global or North American headquarters for food companies, including Chr Hansen, Kerry Ingredients, Kikkoman, KHS USA, Lesaffre, Purato’s Chocolate and Seda International Packaging. Seven of the nation’s largest food and beverage companies have significant operations here, including ADM Cocoa, Cargill, Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, MillerCoors and Nestle Chocolate.


More than 40,000 people are employed in creative enterprises in the region with jobs ranging from graphic and product designers to printing and media. 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 with more than 25,000 employees in the United States, Canada, Latin America and Europe. Other major printers based in the region include Arandell Corp., which produces direct-mail catalogs and 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 nearly 1,200 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 more than 273 stores in 26 states under the brand names of Bergner’s, Bon-Ton, Boston Store, Carson’s, Elder-Beerman, Herberger’s and Younkers. Milwaukee-based Roundy’s operates more than 148 retail grocery stores and pharmacies under the Pick ‘n Save, Copps, Metro Market and Mariano’s banners.

Green Technologies

Businesses increasingly view energy efficiency and environmental sustainability as key components of their global competitiveness strategies. The Milwaukee area is home to several companies developing energy-saving or alternative energy technologies. These include Johnson Controls, a global leader in environmental management systems for office buildings, and Ingeteam, a Spanish company that manufactures alternative energy equipment in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley.

Modine is an international pioneer in thermal management technologies. Magnetek and Actuant have entered the market for power inverters, which are key to using the power generated by wind turbines and solar panels.

Cooper Power Systems, which produces integrated, smart-grid technologies to optimize grid performance, has expanded its South Milwaukee facility to meet the demand for its integrated smart-grid technology. The University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, Marquette University, the Milwaukee School of Engineering and several of the region’s private-sector employers are working together to develop microgrid technologies that will be able to store renewable energy.

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