When Mary Burke has a vision, watch out.

The new state secretary of Commerce is known to friends and colleagues as an irresistible force who's likely to sweep everyone along - nicely - in a wave of enthusiasm, hard work and inspiration.

As a volunteer, she mentored two little boys at the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County. As a board member, she helped restore the club to financial stability after a painful embezzlement.

And as president, she persuaded the board to undertake an expensive and potentially risky expansion into the city's troubled Allied Drive neighborhood.

"It was not a slam dunk," said Jeanan Yasiri, a board member of the Boys and Girls Club and vice president for innovation at Dean Health System.

Board members recall that Burke handled the issue as she always does: encouraging critical discussion and sharing her opinions without imposing them.

In the end, though, it's that vision thing.

"Without her leadership, I don't think the Boys and Girls Club would have had the vision to really take the step," said Dave Florin, a club board member and president of the Hiebing Group.

In the end, if we don't help Allied Drive children, Burke asked, "Are we really being true to our mission of reaching out and supporting kids in Dane County?" Florin said. "Once that issue was put out there with that amount of passion," he said, the board embraced the project.

Burke has led a successful drive to raise $6.25 million to open and begin operating a club in Allied Drive. Groundbreaking is set for noon May 14 and she'll be there.

Burke is expected to bring the same passionate focus to her state job, where she heads a department of more than 400 people with an annual budget of $221 million.

Gov. Jim Doyle appointed her Jan. 25 to the $105,000-a-year job, calling her "a real Wisconsin success story." He said she understands what it means to compete in the global marketplace.

People who know Burke say she moves easily from hot-dog lunches on paper plates with youngsters at the Boys and Girls Club to the international business circles critical to her success at Trek Bicycle Corp., Waterloo.

"When she comes to the Boys and Girls Club, she's present with her heart," said Michael Weiden, a Madison attorney and club board member. "She's going to bring the same drive and commitment and personal skills" to the Department of Commerce.

International business was Burke's job at Trek, which was co-founded by her father, Richard Burke, in 1976. From 1995 to 2004, she was director of forecasting and strategic planning for Trek. Previously she was Trek's director of European operations, establishing its presence in Britain, Germany, France, Switzerland, Spain, Austria and the Netherlands.

Cook, dog lover

Burke's not always on the job. She is single and lives Downtown with her beloved pet, Masta (rhymes with pasta), an affable Swiss mountain dog. Friends say she was devastated when her other dog, a black Lab, died of cancer just before Christmas.

She parties with the Paris Six, a group of girlfriends.

Their nickname stems from a long weekend in France a few years ago when Burke offered her surplus frequent flier miles to take her friends abroad.

She devours food and wine magazines and is famous for whipping up gourmet hors d'oeuvres, perhaps persimmon slices wrapped in prosciutto, from recipes in Bon Appetit or Gourmet. She served an herbed rib roast for her family's Christmas dinner.

Both of Burke's jobs -- for the state and for the children -- are a logical combination of her business background and her girlhood in a family that offered opportunities many children don't have.

From earning her own money for a coveted pair of leather high-tops to playing tennis on the boys' team, Burke grew up athletic and ambitious. Her room was papered with posters of basketball players.

She was born in Madison, at St. Mary's Hospital, when her father was credit manager for Mautz Paint. The family later moved to Wauwatosa and then to Hartland.

She was second oldest among three sisters and a brother. They all had allowances, chores and roles in family projects, such as "adopting" another family at Christmas and tutoring younger children.

Now, helping others is "just something that is as much ingrown and part of my nature as waking up in the morning," she said.

Even after earning a bachelor's degree in finance from Georgetown University and a master's in business administration from Harvard, she couldn't automatically get a job in the family business when she wanted to return to Wisconsin after working in New York City.

When she approached her father for a job, he said he'd think about it. A week later, he said he didn't have anything for her.

It was the same message she had heard as a child: "He made sure we were independent and understood we are not given things in life. He wasn't going to make a job for me."

About six months later, a financial vice president left the company and Burke got the job at Trek.

Burke drew sympathetic murmurs from a Madison business audience when she confessed to the failure of her own small business. Founded in 1988 in New York City, it offered information and referrals for residents and tourists.

She lost money and her partner eventually bought her out. She was working in Wisconsin and commuting to Manhattan on weekends, sleeping in the mice-infested office to save money because she had sublet her condo.

That experience suggests the Burke who focuses intently on the job at hand, whatever it is.

"Whatever she does, she does 110 percent," said her friend Gigi Kelly.

Burke shares "girls' nights out" with the Paris Six, who will probably celebrate her 46th birthday this week. Books are a likely gift; she enjoys biographies and sports non-fiction, "really quality books that she learns something from," Kelly said.

Snowboard sabbatical

On her gleaming resume of global business experience, the only surprise is the time she spent snowboarding in a obscure town in Argentina. How did that come about?

"I was going out with this guy," she said. "I had sort of burned out. I had worked really hard setting up and overseeing these (Trek) offices."

She likes to try different things.

After she moved to Madison, her brother, John, was being a mentor to a little boy and asked if she'd be interested. She met two brothers, ages 7 and 9, and became their friend.

"You meet these kids and it was easy to become attached and to want to spend time with them," she said. They have since moved to Chicago, but she keeps a framed photograph of the parka-clad boys from their first ski trip.

She discovered the Boys and Girls Club and it discovered her.

"In her heart, she really wants to make a contribution and help the kids," said her friend Mary Greenhalgh. "It's not just a matter of, oh, here's a challenge."

Burke was invited to join the board shortly before the club discovered its office manager had embezzled $30,000. She offered to help. "I know something about what type of controls are needed in small organizations," she said.

When board president Peter Brey asked her to join the board, she warned him: "I'm not good at asking for money. I don't like doing it. I've never done it."

She learned how to do it.

"Whatever she does, she wants to do it to the best of her ability, and that's a great trait," Brey said. "A lot of people talk like that. She actually lives like that."

She doesn't expect anyone to work harder than she does.

"She's the first one there and the last one to leave," said board member Randy Sproule, describing last summer's Trek for Kids fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Club. When he arrived at 8 a.m., Burke was setting up tables and unloading equipment; when he left at 3 p.m. she was still working.

Colleagues say her personality will serve her well at Commerce.\

High expectations

Gordy Meicher, managing partner of the CPA firm Meicher and Associates, works daily with hundreds of small businesses and thinks Burke will be a wonderful Commerce secretary.

"She'll hold people to expectations," he said. "She's relentless."

When Burke decided to play golf, she flew to a Florida academy for lessons. Then she practiced every day and took more lessons in Las Vegas. Now her handicap is three and she's ranked as a state amateur.

(She especially liked her photo in Wisconsin Golfer magazine because it was next to a shot of Brett Favre.)

Burke plays regularly at Maple Bluff Country Club, where she served as club president until recently.

How does she react when she hits a bad shot? "She gets mad at herself, says oh, Mary.' She's hard on herself," said Peggy Gierhart, who plays in state tournaments with Burke.

When Burke has a vision, she doesn't just talk about it to, for example, potential donors to the Boys and Girls Club.

Instead, she invites them to a "buddy lunch" at the club. They share a meal of hot dogs, maybe with french fries, and the youngsters offer tours and talk about their favorite programs.

"What really makes the impression is seeing the kids, because that's really what it's all about," she said.

Contact Anita Clark at aclark@madison.com or 252-6138.

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