The daughter of working-class immigrants, long a “hockey mom” who spent years and years finishing a college degree as a part-time student, Mary Perry knew she was starting late and would be climbing a long, steep ladder in the professional world.
Climb she did, from a low-level bureaucratic position with the state, off to a stint working for private non-profits, then back to the state and up a couple more rungs. With hard work along each step, she learned more, drew on past experience and earned trust.
Now, Perry is the go-to person for large economic development and job creation needs in Southeast Wisconsin.
A 10-year resident of Wauwatosa, Perry is the regional account manager for economic and community development with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC). Her beat is the seven-county area – Kenosha, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Walworth, Washington and Waukesha – that makes up what many call the economic engine of Wisconsin.
Until July 1, Perry had held a series of positions, for just the past couple of years similar to what she’s doing now, with the state Department of Commerce. That’s when Commerce was broken up and disbanded, its pieces parceled out to different entities.
WEDC, a public-private corporation, was created by legislative act to take on the economic and community development roles Commerce had held. But it was not to be simply a transfer of personnel and duties under a new name – it was a tearing down and starting over.
Perry had to, in effect, reapply for the job, and won it, as did quite a few, but by no means all, of the former Commerce staff. Those who made the grade were those who demonstrated that they were eager to shed any “old guard” bureaucratic mentality that might linger.
“We are more agile, more flexible,” Perry said of WEDC. “At Commerce, we had very defined programs, and you had to fit in to one of those programs.
“Suppose you wanted to expand your business and create new jobs – which is what we want. This is the program that seems to fit best, whether that’s, say, non-refundable tax credits, or a low-interest loan.
“You fit this, this and this criteria, but you don’t fit with No. 4.
“Sorry, you don’t qualify. You’re not eligible.”
WEDC has its own long list of programs, some new, some holdovers, but it has fewer stringent rules and, in fact, a mission to customize its services – to break molds where necessary to help ambitious companies succeed when and where they want and need to.
Helping a homegrown company expand
Fi-Med Management is a perfect example. Under the Department of Commerce, it probably would not have qualified for state assistance.
Fi-Med, a Wauwatosa-based company with offices in Richmond, VA, and Orange, CA, had a hot new product in its field, the complex world of medical billing systems.
With about 38 employees at its Wauwatosa headquarters, Fi-Med needed to expand, and not by just a little. The company wanted to add 145 new jobs, soon, but lacked operating capital.
“Bank lending is very tight,” said Fi-Med co-owner Christine Krause. “We couldn’t do it without the help of WEDC.”
Perry went to bat for the company and arranged a $750,000 low-interest loan from the state that no bank was willing to give.
“You have a very tough time persuading any bank to make a loan for operating funds,” Perry said. “And you’ve got something new that you need to act on fast and big, before someone else steps in front of you.
“We wanted Fi-Med to stay out front, and we wanted those jobs here.”
Perry worked closely with Krause and especially her business partner, Adrian Velasquez, to set up the loan while Fi-Med moved forward with its launch. They looked into other WEDC programs as well, such as refundable and non-refundable tax credits. But despite some risk, the quick cash infusion of a direct loan seemed to be the answer for Fi-Med.
“That it what (Perry) has done for us,” Krause said. “She has really been our facilitator.
“For the state to do this has allows us to roll out what we think is a game-changing product in the field of data analytics. We’re adding jobs to do high-level appeals and building our Reveal/MD product.”
Job creation in her disposition
It didn’t hurt that WEDC’s regional office, at 2645 N. Mayfair Rd., is just a few blocks up the street from Fi-Med’s headquarters at 2200 N. Mayfair. But Perry can’t play favorites with Wauwatosa. She has to reach out to the whole seven-county area, and frankly, she likes to get out of the office.
“I have this thing about metal, particularly,” Perry said. “I love it, getting out on the shop floor in a metal fabricating business, watching things take shape.
“I think economic development and job creation is in my blood, growing businesses, because of the way I was brought up.”
Perry’s father was an immigrant from what is now Serbia, her mother from Colombia. They met in their U.S. citizenship class.
“I’m such a patriot,” Perry said. “I really do love this country and want to see it grow, and a lot of that is because of the way my father got his start.”
It was the 1950s, Perry said, and a recruiter from a Chicago foundry was in New York looking for labor when her dad got off the boat.
“This guy steps up to this large group of men,” Perry said, “and he asks, ‘Does anybody speak English?’ Well, my dad said, ‘I do,’ and so he said, ‘OK, you’re my new foreman, round up as many men as you can, I need a busload.’
“They didn’t even know where they were going. They got on a bus, right off the dock, because they had come for jobs.”
A want for skilled, dedicated workers
Things are different now. Family-supporting jobs in manufacturing, once the mainstay of the Milwaukee economy, are now hard to come by.
But Perry says the irony is that manufacturing is still strong here, but less concentrated, more automated, and requires better skills going in.
There are companies throughout the region wanting to grow but unable to find workers with the skills they need.
“That’s the big disconnect,” Perry said. “We’ve got this great opportunity, as the economy creeps upward, but we’ve got to find people who can do the work.
“There are still many companies that are willing to train. But you have to at least have a fundamental work ethic. Will you show up? Will you stay around? Will you accept the task?”
The lack of interest in vocational training is cultural, coming from the home and schools, Perry believes. And her own story illustrates that, too.
“My mother wouldn’t let my father in the house when he came home from work,” Perry said. “He was dirty. He smelled. He had to go to the basement and shower and put on fresh clothes before he could set foot in the house.
“And we were told, you know, ‘You don’t want to come home dirty and smelly, do you?’ It was that mindset that your father worked in a tough, dirty job so you won’t have to. You want to grow up to have a nice clean job.”
Devoted to Tosa, too
Perry tasks herself, then, with convening and facilitating not only with companies but also with schools and agencies, that can channel workers toward those who create jobs.
In her free time, Perry gives as much as she can to her beloved Wauwatosa. She lives in East Tosa, just north of North Avenue, and was until this past year an enthusiastic organizer and promoter of Chili’n on the Avenue, the district’s annual street festival (July 21 this summer).
“I was on the board for a couple of years,” Perry said. “This year, with the changeover to WEDC, I just haven’t had the time. But I’m looking forward to it.”
For economic development and job creation needs, Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org