Photos by Sara Stathas
Rich Meeusen strolled down the driveway at his Delafield home one Saturday to retrieve the morning newspaper. Suddenly, he found himself standing on the front lawn, unsure of how he got there. He paused, meandered back to the driveway, but after a few steps, drifted off course again. He couldn’t walk straight without veering off at an angle.
Convinced he had an inner-ear problem, Meeusen took some over-the-counter medication and rested. But later that morning, he began to stumble as he walked, falling to his left whenever he took a step.
At the urging of his family, Meeusen reluctantly agreed later that day to get checked out at a local urgent care center. Soon afterward, he was admitted to Froedtert Hospital. When he arrived, he had double vision and vertigo, and his left eye was slightly closed. Tests revealed that an artery had clogged completely, damaging an area of the brain that controls balance.
Doctors determined he had suffered a stroke.
They presented Meeusen with what seemed to be a bleak diagnosis: He would not be able to walk for months, and he’d probably have to use a cane for the rest of his life.
Meeusen, chief executive officer at Badger Meter and the driving force behind the Milwaukee-based Water Council, decided he wouldn’t take the news sitting down, literally. Ever the strategist, he immediately began developing a plan to overcome the obstacles he expected to face.
“My daughter was crying, my wife was upset, and my son was surfing the Internet for cool canes for me,” Meeusen says, looking back three years ago to the grim news his family had faced. “And I thought, you know, I can still speak and read, and somebody might have to help me up onto a stage, but I can still give my speeches. I can still function. I can still be a CEO. I can live with this.”
Just a few hours after arriving at Froedtert, Meeusen decided to try to get out of bed and walk on his own. When he toddled a short distance without stumbling, cautious optimism permeated the room.
“Then the neurologist came in with a bunch of interns in tow and said, ‘Show me,’” he says. “Problem was, they had more wires on me than a Colombian drug informant. So they unwired me, and I got out of bed and started dancing.”
Less than two days after the ordeal had begun, Meeusen walked out of Froedtert on his own.
“I dodged a huge bullet, I won’t lie,” he says.
Meeusen’s debilitation would have been a blow to the Water Council’s much-ballyhooed effort to transform the region into a global water technology hub. But Meeusen wasn’t about to let that happen. He had invested too much time and energy in the endeavor. He returned to work about a week after his stroke, in time to preside over the council’s annual water summit.
Those close to Meeusen claim he’s as passionate as ever about his work with the council, leading one community leader to refer to him as a “tidal wave of enthusiasm.”
“He’s the ambassador and the spark of the Water Council,” says Dean Amhaus, Water Council president and CEO. “We wouldn’t be where we are without his vision.”
It’s a sunny, windy, mid-September afternoon in 2013, and hundreds of people are gathered in the street outside the new Global Water Center, a $22 million, 98,000-square-foot, seven-story facility in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood. A large ice sculpture created to mark the event begins to melt as a bevy of speakers address the crowd.
“What we have here is not a field of dreams, it’s a building of reality,” Meeusen roars, his voice cracking with emotion. “This is not a question of an empty building that we are hoping to fill. There are 25 companies in there right now that are actively hiring people, creating jobs and creating economic development and developing technology.”
Meeusen turns up the rhetoric as he talks about the technology he envisions being developed at the center.
“A child dies every 20 seconds from a lack of fresh water. We need to declare war on that abomination,” he says, his voice rising like a preacher delivering a Sunday sermon. “We need to stop that from happening. The battles for fresh water start right here in Milwaukee as we develop technologies that will save lives.”
Located on what had been a portion of East Pittsburgh Avenue, now known as Freshwater Way, the Global Water Center is situated in a renovated industrial building that has stood on the site for more than a century. The facility houses water-related research facilities, existing businesses with ties to water, and accelerator space for emerging companies in the water business.
The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater staffs an outreach office there. Milwaukee-area industrial stalwarts such as Badger Meter, A.O. Smith and Rexnord also occupy space in the building, as do Veolia Water North America and a handful of startups. The Greater Milwaukee Committee rents space, and there are satellite offices for the accounting firm Wipfli, the law firm Michael Best & Friedrich, and marketing and public relations outfit Zizzo Group, which help support the water industry.
Although Meeusen gets much of the public credit for the Water Council’s efforts, others have been crucial to the mission, he insists, most notably Paul Jones, A.O. Smith’s executive chairman. The idea for the Water Council germinated during a visit Meeusen had with Jones at an A.O. Smith lab. As Jones recalls it, the conversation started when Meeusen mentioned the plethora of noncompeting, water-related companies in the region.
“I think the industry was ready for this,” Jones says. “It’s been a lot of hard work, and Rich clearly has been the visionary.”
At the time of the council’s inception, the Milwaukee area already was home to the Great Lakes Water Institute, a research facility located on Milwaukee’s inner harbor.
“We had something very, very unique that we could build off of,” says Meeusen. “We’ve always had this strong base of water technologies. We just never thought of it as an industry cluster. I had a belief that it could work, but I didn’t know for sure. Frankly, I could have ended up as the laughingstock of Milwaukee.”
The Water Council – which is made up of members from business, academia and government – formed in 2007 with a mission to promote freshwater research, economic development and transform southeastern Wisconsin into a world water hub. Meeusen co-founded the council and serves as co-chairman of its board of directors.
The council created a path for success, says Meeusen. “The way we went about building the Water Council, with a nongovernmental program and having it driven by volunteers and private industry, I feel we’ve accomplished in six years what it might take another region 20 years to accomplish.”
According to Meeusen, about $80 million will be invested in buildings and infrastructure that support the Water Council’s efforts. The council has received public funding from a variety of sources, including governmental entities such as the National Science Foundation, the Economic Development Administration, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. The city of Milwaukee also has created a tax-incremental financing district for the Reed Street Yards, a 17-acre property adjacent to the Global Water Center that will serve as a research and technology park for the water industry.
Meeusen and the Water Council claim there are more than 150 companies in the area involved in the business of water in one way or another. Although that roster includes some companies that have a relatively small or tenuous link to the water industry, Meeusen is sticking to the count. Not one to undersell his achievements, he boldly predicts that Milwaukee could one day become “the Silicon Valley of water technology.”
Milwaukee isn’t alone in focusing on water as a potential driver of economic development. Among the regions that are undertaking a similar initiative is the greater Pittsburgh area, which has used Milwaukee as a template.
A study conducted in 2010 recommended that southwest Pennsylvania “emulate the Milwaukee Water Council and create something unique to our area,” says Court Gould, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh, an organization that champions sustainable economic development. “Domestically, Milwaukee is seen as a forerunner.”
The report, titled H2Opportunity, noted that 3,000 firms in the Pittsburgh area are involved in providing components, products and services in the water industry, accounting for more than $5 billion in direct economic activity. Gould admits that the study likely used a broader definition of water technology than Milwaukee.
The report specifically addresses water-related research in the Milwaukee region. “Innovation in the form of R&D activity and patents has been lacking in the Milwaukee area,” it states.
Nonetheless, the report notes that the region has gotten a head start on other areas seeking to create water hubs: “Milwaukee does not necessarily have an edge in terms of industry or research assets, but it is more organized and has a higher level of interest and collaboration among key stakeholders in the water cluster due to its early organizing efforts,” states the report, prepared by Fourth Economy, a Pittsburgh economic development consultancy.
Meeusen spoke at a global water conference in Pittsburgh in 2010 and provided inspiration for the southwest Pennsylvania initiative, Gould recalls. “He was dynamic, driven, convincing and presented an excellent representation of the business case,” Gould says. “He had an important story to tell, and it led to action here in Pittsburgh.”
In September 2012, Sustainable Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, a 10-city coalition that promotes business in southwest Pennsylvania, announced the creation of the Water Economy Network, a group of business, academic and nongovernmental organizations to promote regional water innovation and leverage development opportunities.
Dennis Yablonsky, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, stated at the time that the report and the formation of the water network would position the region as a “national center for excellence for the water industry overall.”
Gould is convinced that water can lead to a deluge of economic development in Pittsburgh, just as water cluster proponents in the Milwaukee area believe.
“For the idea of economic development, you start with an asset-based approach. Water has been an underappreciated asset,” Gould says.
But Gould insists the water initiatives in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee go beyond economic development. “Our abundance of water is in stark contrast to other areas of the world,” he says. “We have a responsibility to be innovating the technology and sharing it around the world.”
The Canadian province of Ontario, which includes Toronto, boasts more than 900 water industry companies, supported research centers, incubators, accelerators and programs that encourage innovative water and wastewater technologies and services.
“There are a number of jurisdictions around the world looking at creating water hubs,” says Brian Mergelas, chief executive officer of the Water Technology Acceleration Project, or WaterTAP, a nonprofit organization created by the province to leverage investment in the sector. “One group isn’t going to solve all of the world’s water problems or reap all of the economic benefits. Part of our job is to connect the dots. We’re trying to create pathways.”
Mergelas has visited the Global Water Center in Milwaukee and has spoken on occasion with Meeusen. He came away seeing similarities with Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District, a nonprofit corporation founded in 2000 to commercialize publicly funded research and other technologies with the help of local private enterprises.
He sees challenges for the Milwaukee region’s initiative. “The fact that it consists of all water companies is good and bad,” Mergelas says. “Sometimes, the solution might come from a sector you’re not even thinking about.”
But Milwaukee’s “remote” location could be a detriment to its efforts. “Toronto is a big city. You can fly directly here,” he says.
Mergelas believes the highest level of success will be achieved if the various water initiatives leverage each other’s programs. “It would be ludicrous for Pittsburgh to build a similar facility to Milwaukee’s when we can all leverage that,” he says.
On the local front, Meeusen and the Water Council have few detractors. Publications such as The Economist, Forbes, Governing and The National Journal have given extensive, positive coverage to the council’s efforts. The U.S. news division of Qatar-based Al Jazeera even trekked to Milwaukee to cover the opening of the Global Water Center.
Michael Rosen, economics instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College, has been openly critical of the efforts of Meeusen and the Water Council. He labels the water initiative as “more hype and smoke and mirrors than anything of substance.”
The engineering, design, and research and development jobs that the Water Council hopes to attract won’t address issues of unemployment and underemployment in the region, says Rosen, president of the union representing MATC faculty and staff. “It’s a false hope,” he says. “It would do nothing to address the main economic problem facing Milwaukee – the high levels of African-American unemployment and underemployment.”
He points out that the region has a significant number of unemployed unskilled and semi-skilled workers that can’t find jobs. “These are the very jobs that this labor force once had and that paid a decent living. Badger Meter has moved these jobs to Mexico,” Rosen says.
At the same time, Badger Meter recorded record-breaking sales and net earnings of $92.9 million and $9.1 million, respectively. That’s according to a required quarterly report filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for the third quarter of 2013, which concluded in September, right around the time the Global Water Center officially opened its doors.
Equally skeptical of Meeusen’s rhapsodic claims is Marc Levine, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and senior fellow and founding director of the university’s Center for Economic Development. Levine issued a research paper in September 2009 critiquing claims put forth by the Water Council. He’s set to issue an update early this year that “deepens the analysis,” he says.
“This isn’t my opinion,” Levine says. “This is strictly an evidence-based analysis that I’ve done as an academic researcher. There has been a set of claims made about economic development. I wanted to look at those claims.”
Levine, who in the past had been a critic of the taxpayer-subsidized Miller Park and, more recently, issued a paper that debunks the idea of an employment skills gap, argues that the Water Council’s efforts, up to this point, are “a kind of smoke screen of a seemingly attractive initiative that has no real meat behind it in terms of what we think of for economic development – job creation, business growth, patents, innovation.”
For the Water Council’s efforts to be deemed successful, new businesses must be launched and a meaningful number of jobs created so the region becomes a core for innovation. “I’d be thrilled to see the evidence that any of this is happening,” he says.
Levine says decisions by A.O. Smith and Badger Meter to shift jobs out of the region fly in the face of the claim that Milwaukee is a hub for water companies. In 2010, Badger Meter shifted about 70 jobs, which Meeusen described as unskilled positions, from Brown Deer to its factory in the border city of Nogales, Mexico, stating that he felt no obligation to continue to provide jobs for high school dropouts.
“You’ve got someone like Meeusen who ships jobs out of the community,” says Levine, “but somehow he’s presented as this civic visionary. It doesn’t add up.”
Levine has noted that of the 40 global water companies listed in a 2008 Goldman Sachs report as generating the highest revenues, none have their U.S. headquarters in Milwaukee. Further, among major U.S. cities, Milwaukee ranked 19th in water technology patents issued and 21st in the employment of hydrologists according to Levine’s 2009 report.
“It’s not a myth that we have water companies, but there is no evidence that we are No. 1 and that people are coming from around the world because this isn’t being done anywhere else. That’s just factually incorrect,” Levine argues.
Meeusen fears future endeavors could fail if faced with what he sees as the unwarranted criticism aimed at the Water Council. “My fear is that somebody else five years from now will start a new effort, and the critics will slap them down so hard that they’ll give up. What I’d rather see them do is say that the Water Council worked, and maybe this new effort will, too. Give it a chance.”
If Meeusen’s goal is to bring jobs to southeastern Wisconsin through the council, it’s doubtful those positions would be held by union workers. He’s unapologetic of his hard-line position against organized labor.
Of Badger Meter’s eight plants worldwide, the Brown Deer factory is the lone facility with a unionized work force. “Clearly, the fact that the [Brown Deer] plant is union affects my decisions when it comes to where to place jobs,” Meeusen says. “The union contract here reduces productivity. It’s not about wages in this case. … I would love to add jobs to the [Brown Deer] facility, but I can’t. How do I explain to my shareholders that I’m going to add jobs in my least-productive facility?”
Badger Meter has about 450 employees in Brown Deer, with unionized workers accounting for just more than 100 of that total. A decade ago, overall employment in Brown Deer was about the same, but there were 300 unionized workers on the factory floor, according to Meeusen.
“Union contracts often restrict flexibility and that hurts productivity,” he says. “That means we move jobs to other places.”
Some of the work has been shifted to Badger Meter’s plant in Mexico, others to Tulsa, Okla., and some to Racine, where Badger Meter operates a factory that was part of a $57 million acquisition of Racine Federated in January 2012. Machining operations that had been performed at Brown Deer have been outsourced over time to nonunion shops in the Milwaukee area.
The union and Badger Meter management are in the midst of a five-year labor deal that expires in 2016. During negotiations for the current contract, the union agreed to freeze workers’ pensions, consolidate labor grades and perform cross-training of rank-and-file workers.
“We are hoping to keep work here,” Meeusen says. Yet, with Indiana, Iowa and Michigan adopting right-to-work legislation, Wisconsin is at a competitive disadvantage for attracting jobs, Meeusen argues.
John Drew, an international servicing representative for the United Auto Workers Region 4, who is based in Lincolnshire, Ill., and has a local office in Oak Creek, says unionized plants have proven that they can operate efficiently and profitably. He notes that Mercury Marine, after intense negotiations in 2009, opted to close its nonunion plant in Stillwater, Okla., in favor of consolidating work at a unionized factory in Fond du Lac.
“If you’ve got a management that seriously wants to work with a union, you are going to find ways to build in more flexibility into a labor agreement,” says Drew, who was UAW’s local president at the now-shuttered auto and engine plant in Kenosha.
A s a CEO of a public company, Meeusen became known in certain business circles, but he’s taken on a much more prominent public role after the founding of the Water Council. He’s frustrated with what he sees as an unwillingness among many business leaders to take a public stance on key issues and initiatives.
“When I was a young man in the Milwaukee business community, there were some giants,” Meeusen says. He rattles off names such as Jack Puelicher, former president of Marshall & Ilsley Bank; Donald Schuenke, who led Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co.; and ManpowerGroup founder Elmer Winter.
“When these business leaders put their backs behind an effort, they moved the ball in Milwaukee, dramatically,” Meeusen says. “What I saw, almost overnight, was business leaders starting to duck for cover. A lot of it was because of scandals like Enron. Corporate boards of directors began telling CEOs, ‘Don’t be out there and don’t be too visible.’”
When the outspoken Meeusen decided to take on a more prominent leadership role, he fully understood that he’d likely be an occasional target of criticism.
“When you speak out, you are going to be criticized, but I felt the city was drifting because it didn’t have corporate leadership,” he says.
The son of an ironworker, Meeusen grew up in West Allis, near State Fair Park, as one of six children. His family was commonly on food stamps and his father frequently unemployed, Meeusen recalls.
His father dropped out of school in eighth grade, and his mother didn’t have an education beyond high school and worked as a secretary. Yet the family placed an emphasis on academic achievement, he says.
After graduating from West Allis Central High School, Meeusen attended the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. “I was an overachiever. I studied extremely hard,” he says. “I was a straight-A student and finished college in three years. I took very heavy credit loads, worked as a janitor at night and went to class during the day.”
Meeusen began his career as an accountant at the Milwaukee office of public accounting firm Arthur Andersen. “People have always been surprised to find out that I’m an accountant because I tend to be more outspoken and at times lacking tact,” he says. “A guy once said about me that some people walk their way through the business world, some crawl. Rich Meeusen careens recklessly through the business world.”
Meeusen believed that becoming an accountant would someday allow him to climb to the top of the corporate ladder and make a lot of money.
“As it turned out, I was right,” he says. “Making a lot of money made me happy. I’m not going to deny it, and I’m not going to apologize for it.”
In 2012, Badger Meter paid Meeusen a salary of $570,000 and doled out a cash bonus of more than $397,000. Taking into account stock and option awards, change in pension value and all other compensation, including car allowances and club membership dues, his total compensation for 2012 stood at nearly $1.7 million, according to a proxy statement filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Not too shabby for a blue-collar kid from West Allis, as he sees it.
After more than 12 years at Arthur Andersen, Meeusen became chief financial officer at Zenith Sintered Products, a family-owned automobile parts manufacturer in Germantown. He accepted the job with the understanding that if he earned his MBA, he’d be in line to be the next CEO of the company. While at Zenith, he earned an MBA from Northwestern University by attending classes on weekends.
After seven years, the company bypassed Meeusen for the CEO post. He resigned on the spot.
“The company decided to go with a family member instead,” he says. “The day they told me, I quit. Two little children at home and a mortgage, but I quit.”
Just three weeks later, he landed a job at Badger Meter after sending out 80 resumes, one of which landed on the desk of Jim Forbes, then-CEO of Badger Meter.
Recalls Meeusen: “When I interviewed with Jim, I said, ‘You need to understand something. I want to be CEO of this company. If you don’t feel I’ll ever be a candidate, you should tell me, but understand that’s the day I’ll quit.”
Forbes hired Meeusen as Badger Meter’s chief financial officer in 1995. Seven years later, Meeusen finally got his wish – he was named CEO, replacing Forbes, who retired.
At age 60, Meeusen isn’t planning to retire anytime soon, but his stroke and the recent early retirement of other relatively young CEOs has caught his attention.
“It’s getting to be tougher to be a CEO of a public company,” Meeusen says. “There’s the liability. People don’t understand that every time Badger Meter files a financial statement, I’m mortgaging my grandchildren’s financial future. The amount of pressure you get from shareholders, the board and all other sources make it a high-stress job. If my health holds up, I’d like to do this until my mid-60s. But you never know. I had one health scare, and it could come back again.”
Meeusen draws a long breath before becoming introspective about the future. “The truth is, given my health history and the fact that I’ve had high blood pressure since I was 30, I’m not sure how long…,” he says, his voice trailing. “I want to make it to retirement, but I’m not sure how long I’ll have after that, but that really doesn’t bother me.”
He pauses again as he contemplates a business bucket list, of sorts.
“What I’m hoping is that I get done what I want in my career and get Badger Meter through a succession plan and get the Water Council to where I want it. If I have five years after I retire or 10, I’m fine with that. At the risk of sounding corny, after 35 years of marriage, I take a little solace in the fact that, in all likelihood, my wife will outlive me, and that means I won’t have to live without her.”
Meeusen’s corner office at Badger Meter’s corporate headquarters is tidy and spartan. His lone indulgence, as far as office décor is concerned, is a stunning spider orchid that adorns a small conference table on this day.
“My one luxury in here is my orchid. My son raises these,” Meeusen says. “He grows them in his basement.”
Since the stroke, Meeusen has changed his diet and works out regularly. He says his wife, personal trainer and administrative assistant “all collude on how to keep me alive.”
“I used to do some pretty rough things. I once flew to Israel for a one-hour meeting and immediately got on a plane and flew home, coach,” Meeusen recalls.
Meeusen’s 32-year-old son, Matt, speaks with concern about the long, stress-filled hours his father spends at work and handling his extensive community and corporate commitments. “I’m worried about him burning out,” he says. “He doesn’t stop.”
He wonders aloud why his father continues to push himself so hard despite being financially secure. “I guess to me, it shows his selflessness. He doesn’t need to do this anymore,” he says.
Although he can be controversial at times or say something that can make people cringe, the son applauds his father’s willingness to speak his mind. “Sometimes, it takes a bold statement to get people’s attention. It can be a call to action,” says Matt Meeusen.
Rich Meeusen’s daughter, Julie Debelack, a middle school teacher, admittedly shares many of her father’s personality traits. “I’m an animated person like he is. I talk with my hands,” she says.
She recalls the two of them watching “Star Trek” and “Jeopardy” together during her childhood. “It was never like being at home with a CEO,” she says. “He was busy and traveled a lot, but he’s just been like any other regular dad.”
She speaks fondly of her father but says they are often quick to butt heads.
“We have the same patience, which is none,” says Debelack, 29. “We’re both stubborn, but I think I have the same passion he does.”
She agrees that her father’s propensity for jokes and tell-it-like-it-is attitude can lead to some uncomfortable moments. “There’s always the line, and he’s always about four steps over it and in situations where it’s not always appropriate,” she says.
Meeusen’s calendar is exceedingly crammed, despite a pledge to curtail some commitments after his stroke. He continues to serve on numerous community and corporate boards.
Meeusen isn’t a man of leisure, by any means. “I am the job. I don’t do a lot else,” he says. “I’m not a guy who has a cabin and goes to the Northwoods to go deer hunting.”
He and his wife have their main residence in Delafield and also keep an apartment on Water Street in Downtown Milwaukee, above Fire on Water, the bar that his family purchased in 2009. Meeusen’s son oversees the operation of the lounge, which features live music on weekends.
“I like having the apartment because I go to a lot of events on Saturday night, and I usually go over to the bar afterward and listen to music. Then I go up to bed. All I’m driving home is an elevator,” Meeusen says.
He enjoys swimming in the pool at his Delafield house and estimates that he reads at least one book, start to finish, per week. “I usually have two books going at once. One is a business book, the other is a guilty pleasure, like science fiction or history,” Meeusen says.
Snow skiing had been a passion of Meeusen’s, but the stroke put an end to his days on the slopes, at least for now. “I’m going to try it again, but I think my days on the black diamond slopes are over,” he says.
Meeusen also enjoys building miniature model cities that feature trains. “I love creating buildings and trees and streets,” he says. “I find it peaceful and restful when you’re under a magnifying glass. It’s very delicate work.”
The hobby is seemingly symbolic of Meeusen’s penchant for organization and managing minute details.
After reaching its first major milestone, the Water Council now is contemplating its next move. It set out with a goal of economic, talent and technology development, but decided to avoid delving into policy issues. That could change, he says.
“Many people wanted us to take positions on the Waukesha water issue and Great Lakes issues. That wasn’t where we were,” he says. “Now that the Water Council has gotten some recognition on the international stage, we may be stepping up and taking positions on policy. But our board has to make that decision. That’s significant.”
Meeusen also sees opportunities to create Water Council branches, possibly targeting areas like Nevada, which has the Desert Research Institute that is dedicated to researching water usage in arid regions.
Meanwhile, he plans to keep on speaking off the cuff. If he ruffles some feathers along the way, chalk it up to collateral damage in the spreading of his various messages.
“I have clearly said things that I probably shouldn’t have,” he says. “I’ve clearly offended people that I regret offending. But I don’t dwell on it. Or keep a list.”
On the contrary, the ever-outspoken Meeusen wishes he would have been even more vocal about the Water Council early on.
“If I would have been sure of the success,” he says with a smile, “I might have been more forceful in what I was saying.”