Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday named Organic Valley executive Melissa Hughes as the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.’s fourth CEO, hoping to bring a statewide focus — and further stability — to Wisconsin’s top economic development agency.
Hughes, who was selected from 28 applicants narrowed down to six finalists, will be the first woman appointed to serve as WEDC’s secretary and comes to the department with no history of political contributions to the governor — presenting some contrasts with her most recent predecessors since WEDC was created under Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2011.
Evers, a Democrat, said Hughes, who has spent more than 15 years as general counsel with Organic Valley/CROPP cooperative, will take a full, 72-county approach to economic development to create middle class jobs across the state.
“With her background helping small businesses and family farms, coupled with her experience navigating complex governmental, regulatory, trade, and business matters, Missy Hughes will be an incredible asset to our team as we work to grow an economy that works for everyone,” Evers said in a statement.
Hughes will take the helm of a public-private agency that dispenses more than $3.1 billion a year in tax credits, grants, loans and bonds. The entity also comes with a history of negative audits, media reports about questionable loans and accusations of mismanagement.
“Having worked in a high-growth business for many years, with the goal of helping farmers stay on their farms now and for the coming generations, I am excited to bring my experience to the Evers administration, and I look forward to helping all of Wisconsin thrive,” Hughes said in a statement.
Hughes was not available for an interview Thursday. Evers’ office did not provide what her salary would be.
Walker formed WEDC in 2011 as a replacement for the state’s Department of Commerce, which had been criticized as not being agile enough to respond to the needs of job creators.
WEDC’s first CEO, Paul Jadin left the job amid various reports of problems at the agency and behind-the-scenes disagreements with Walker, who at the time served as chairman of the agency’s board of directors. Jadin became head of Dane County’s regional economic development agency in late 2012.
Jadin said Thursday while he does not know Hughes, her background in agriculture is “refreshing” and should provide a resource for WEDC.
“I think there’s clearly been a focus on advanced manufacturing over the last several years and the Governor has signaled a shift to startups and growing our own as opposed to (attracting) businesses to move here,” he said. “The agricultural background is one that will serve our region very well.”
Jadin’s replacement, Marshfield Clinic’s retired executive director Reed Hall, had been serving as interim CEO until Walker hired him to officially lead the agency. Hall, who did not formally apply for the position, was selected over three finalists and 120 applicants.
Hall departed the agency in 2015 amid reports of mishandled loans and discontent among employees. He was replaced by retired banking executive Mark Hogan, one of Walker’s longtime political supporters.
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Since WEDC’s inception, audits by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau have pointed to issues with how the agency has tracked job creation and awards given to companies. Those concerns lessened, but were not eliminated, during Hogan’s tenure.
Under Hogan, WEDC also negotiated a record-breaking tax credit deal with Foxconn Technology Group, a Taiwan-based electronics manufacturer, to bring an electronics manufacturing campus to Racine County. The company could receive more than $4 billion in state and local tax subsidies if it invests $10 billion and creates 13,000 jobs in Wisconsin over 15 years.
Hogan officially resigned Tuesday. A law Walker and Republicans passed in December prevented Evers from appointing Hogan’s successor until the beginning of this month.
Evers said during his campaign he wished to dissolve WEDC and move its functions to a fully public agency like the former Commerce Department. His first state budget, however, left the agency intact.
Hughes appears to have kept her money out of state politics, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks political donations in the state. A search of all contributions from Organic Valley employees to partisan candidates since 2011 found a total of $312 in contributions to Evers, none of them from Hughes.
By contrast, Hogan contributed close to $25,000 to Walker’s campaign before his appointment and donated $10,000 to a Super PAC supporting Walker’s presidential campaign. Hall had donated $1,000 to Walker.
Hughes was selected from a list of six finalists, according to application documents obtained by the Wisconsin State Journal. Other finalists included:
- Elmer Moore Jr., executive director of regional economic development group Scale Up Milwaukee;
- Sam Rikkers, strategic economic initiatives director with the Wisconsin Department of Administration;
- Brian Taffora, principal with the Michael Best Strategies consulting firm;
- Carrie Thome, former Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation chief information officer; and
- Jamie Wall, former strategic and operational management consultant with Askeaton Advisors in Green Bay.
Hughes joined La Farge-based Organic Valley in 2003 as chief mission officer and general counsel. The cooperative of organic livestock, dairy and vegetable farmers was created in 1988. It includes more than 2,000 family farms and has annual sales exceeding $1 billion.
“As someone with a connection to the Coulee Region, I have enjoyed working with Ms. Hughes through her work at Organic Valley,” Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said in an email. “Ms. Hughes has extensive knowledge in business, leadership and management and her experience will be a valuable asset for the state of Wisconsin.”
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, did not respond to a request for comment.
Hughes’ appointment requires approval from the Senate. She is expected to begin her new role on Oct. 1.