Hughes on a trek toward statewide economic prosperity

Two days after Gov. Tony Evers‘ state of the state address, Missy Hughes traveled far north of Madison with two other members of the Evers administration to promote rural and small-town prosperity initiatives.

Among their stops was Crandon rubber-wheel trolley and bus manufacturer Hometown Trolley, which previously received expansion financing through the agency Hughes heads, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC).

The tour extended to businesses and organizations across two other cities in central and northern Wisconsin. The day trip is one recent example of Hughes’ treks — 2,500 miles her first three months on the job — to learn about WEDC’s role in economic development and how local businesses and leaders view the agency.

“This is the best job ever,” said Hughes, who is WEDC secretary and CEO. “I can’t believe how much fun I’m having.”

That’s a somewhat surprising statement considering the controversies WEDC has endured and the fact that Hughes loved her previous position as an executive at Organic Valley cooperative in La Farge.

Hughes said she wasn’t seeking a new job when she interviewed with Evers about running the agency that handles contracts with Foxconn Technology Group and hundreds of other businesses. But the opportunity intrigued her enough to accept Evers’ offer.

“There’s a lot of political division in Wisconsin,” Hughes acknowledged. “But as you head into communities and talk with folks eager to move forward with projects, you feel empowered. It’s very exciting to see how people want to work together.”

Hughes, 51, succeeded Mark Hogan Oct. 1, 2019, and is the fourth CEO of WEDC, which was founded in 2011 as an initiative championed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker. She is the first CEO of the agency appointed by a Democratic governor.

In her four months on the job, Hughes has impressed her Evers administration colleagues and WEDC board members with her positive approach, preparedness to address problems and willingness to explore new frontiers.

Wisconsin Department of Administration Secretary Joel Brennan, who joined Hughes on the trip to Crandon, said she brings a fresh set of eyes to WEDC and is dedicated to doing right by Wisconsin taxpayers.

“She’s gotten off to a good start and had a really positive impact and gotten really positive responses from a lot of the stakeholders she’s working with,” Brennan said.

WEDC board member Randy Hopper, who is a former Republican state senator who backed legislation to create the agency, said he was skeptical of Hughes because she was appointed by onetime WEDC critic Evers. But Hughes has exceeded Hopper’s expectations with the way she’s organizing her 127-member staff and extending her reach across the state.

“She’s got an attitude and an energy I believe will be very successful for not only WEDC but for the state,” said Hopper, president of radio station owner Mountain Dog Media.

Hughes was steeped in the dairy cooperative industry for 16 years, first as general counsel and later adding the chief mission officer title. Organic Valley is a small-town success story with 2,000 farmer-members, 900 employees and $1.1 billion annual revenue.

Her husband, Tripp Hughes, remains an executive at Organic Valley. Hughes retains her residence in nearby Viroqua, commuting home on weekends where she attends her youngest son’s hockey games, visits friends and walks in the woods.

Organic Valley CEO Bob Kirchoff said her experience with the cooperative prepared her for the WEDC role and he predicts she will succeed there.

“She’s strategic, she’s forthright, she’s positive and she gets things done when she sets her mind to something,” Kirchoff said.

The most high-profile and controversial situation Hughes inherited is the Foxconn project in Racine County, which is eligible for up to $2.85 billion in state income tax credits. Walker helped recruit the Taiwanese tech giant and Hogan worked on negotiating the contract, but the Evers administration contends the company broke the terms by changing its initial plans.

Hughes says the Evers administration is seeking a positive outcome resulting in the “best progress” on the project.

“As we head into this phase of construction happening on the site and jobs being hired, we need to understand Foxconn’s current plans because I think everybody will acknowledge that they have shifted,” she said. “WEDC has a good, thoughtful process for working with companies as their businesses shift — that happens all time.”

Hughes is frustrated that Foxconn receives so much attention from WEDC critics. She’s focused on other projects and programs including the rural economic development Evers announced in his Jan. 22 state of the state address.

Given her small-town lifestyle and experience working with dairy farmers, the rural prosperity push is in Hughes’ wheelhouse, Kirchoff said.

“I’m excited about convening that conversation around the state,” Hughes said.

  • Title: Secretary and CEO
  • Organization: Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.
  • Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science from Georgetown University; law degree from the University of Wyoming
  • Family: Husband Tripp Hughes, 19-year-old twin son and daughter, and 17-year-old son
  • Hometown: White Plains, N.Y.
  • Residence: Viroqua
  • Age: 51
  • Career mentor: Former Organic Valley CEO George Siemon
  • Off the clock: Former marathoner. She completed marathons in New York City and in Minneapolis. Workouts now include road biking 25 to 30 miles in the Viroqua area. (Art work: She enjoys drawing and painting with water colors.)
  • Recent family vacation: The Hughes family trekked to Norway and Sweden in 2019.
  • Likes about Viroqua: “I love to spend as much time in the woods as I can. There is a group of friends I treasure who I’ve known throughout our kids’ schooling.”
Rich Kirchen, Milwaukee Business Journal

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