For all of the transformation of Wisconsin’s economy in the past thirty years, the state is still known as the epicenter of the dairy industry.
The state is a leader in the production of milk – and milk products, like cheese.
But we’re also a leader in a different corner of the industry – so-called “shelf-stable” dairy products, from energy and diet drinks to yogurt and pudding, to the cheese sauce you might have on nachos at your next Packers game.
Germantown-based Gehl’s Foods has been a player in the Wisconsin dairy world since the late 19th Century. CEO Katherine Gehl is the fourth generation from her family to lead the company.
She says her grandfather had wanted to "provide more consistent quality butter."
"My father in 1960's...moved us from being a standard dairy products company into this high-tech manufacturing company we are today," she says.
Gehl comes to the family business from a background outside the dairy and food science world; she's worked at Oracle, with the Chicago Public Schools, and as a special assistant to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. And President Obama appointed her to the board of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.
But Gehl is also known for her outspokenness when it comes to politics, and her leaving the Wisconsin Democratic Party over the recall election of Governor Scott Walker made headlines. Gehl says she felt the recall was being used to protest a policy decision - what she calls a bad precedent.
"Technically we could recall Gov. Walker over anything we wanted, and I felt just because we can doesn't mean we should," she says. She says voters should have waited until the following regular election cycle to express their political feelings.
One of Gov. Walker's key policy issues has been making Wisconsin a good place to do business. But Gehl says she finds it's her company's intense capital needs, not the government, that determines company strategy.
"I don’t go out and do a comparison shopping between being located here and being located somewhere else," she says. "I don’t find that the government is a large factor in our success right now, or in any of the challenges that we’re having."
Gehl has also been critical of the government shutdown. While she agrees that a temporary settlement was necessary, she says Congress needs to find a long-term solution "to avert putting the full faith and credit of the United States government at risk."
"This is the nth of many temporary fixes and solutions and study committees, so therefore, no, I don't support these temporary solutions in general at all," she says. "I'm hopeful, though, that because this is temporary, we might be able to continue a level of focus on the issue which might have dissipated had they allowed themselves more time."
She says the gridlock in Washington is the result of increasingly partisan districts and a lack of involvement from the electorate. She says representatives today only have to appeal to their primary voters, without taking the broader constituency into account.
"Our representatives are responding to the needs of a small number of their constituents rather than responding to the larger question of what's necessary for our country over all," she says. "And we don't demand something different from our representatives and all our elected officials."
Katherine Gehl was our guest in a conversation recorded on the 6th Floor of the University Club in downtown Milwaukee last week as part of the club’s enrichment breakfast series.