Julia Taylor Looks Back on a Career of Starting Conversations and Connecting Influential People

For 20 years, Julia Taylor has harnessed the potential of one of Milwaukee’s most powerful organizations to make the community better.

“Change occurs at the speed of trust.”

Julia Taylor is not sure where she first heard it, but the simple statement has become her mantra. “It is fundamental to how I live my life as a change agent,” she says.

Taylor’s life as a change agent is about to shift. At the end of December, she retires after nearly 20 years as president – and the first woman president – of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, an influential, private sector, 200-member group of Milwaukee-area CEOs and community leaders. Taylor, an Indiana native and accomplished artist, has made a career out of building trust among disparate segments of a notoriously fractured community and making sure the right people have a seat at the table, whether it be in the boardroom or her own dining room.


Taylor’s high school senior photo; Photo courtesy of Julia Taylor

The Greater Milwaukee Committee is sometimes a creator, other times a collaborator and still other times a catalyst. But whatever role it takes, this collective of Milwaukee’s most influential people has a significant impact.

The 73-year-old organization’s mission is to contribute to the cultural and economic base of the Milwaukee metropolitan area. The projects it takes under its wing range widely but these days focus primarily on education, economic development and effective government.

John Daniels, chair emeritus at Quarles & Brady and former GMC board chair, has been involved with the three key, interconnected civic organizations in Milwaukee: the Metropolitan Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and the GMC. “The MMAC articulates the business agenda for the community, the GMF provides superb leadership around philanthropic efforts and the GMC is at the intersection of business and philanthropy,” he says. “The GMC combines the issues of business and community support, which enables it to move complicated issues forward.”

For the past 20 years, Taylor, a former president of the local YWCA, has been at the point of moving those issues forward. “When you bring all those different people together, not everyone agrees,” says Greg Marcus, president & CEO of The Marcus Corp. and current GMC board chair. “It takes skill to get everybody on board with the agenda. Julia uses her leadership skills to build relationships and trust.”

Taylor, who is exceedingly modest, describes her leadership style simply as “collaborative,” saying that making change means taking risks, and everybody has to give up something. “So if you want to get things done, you have to have trusted relationships around you,” she says.

When Taylor took over the GMC in 2002, it was generally perceived as an “old boys club.”

“I say this as an observation, not a criticism,” says Richard “Rocky” Marcoux, former commissioner of the Milwaukee Department of City Development. “There has been a big change from when the GMC was dominated by an elite group of white male leaders of the business community who made decisions behind closed doors. When the GMC selected Julia to lead the organization, it clearly was a vote for change.”

Photo by Kat Schleicher

When the GMC was formed after World War II, Milwaukee was behind the times. There had been little new construction Downtown, and the city had no symphony orchestra, ballet or repertory theater.

In its early days, the GMC spearheaded large capital construction projects, such as the freeway system, County Stadium, the new zoo and the public museum. To do this, it wrote white papers on key issues facing the community and typically provided seed money to attract the needed funds. Later, it focused on “quality of life” projects, such as establishing the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

By the time Taylor arrived, the organization was ready for a shift in focus. When the GMC was formed, Milwaukee had many strong companies that were family-owned or tightly controlled with local interests. As the economy globalized, those companies were often acquired by larger ones with fewer local ties. “In Milwaukee, there is a lot of generational wealth based on manufacturing, so there were not a lot of risk-takers,” says Ian Abston, director of Hoan Group.

A stained glass piece Taylor made in 1980; Photo courtesy of Julia Taylor

Or as Tonit Calaway, a top officer at BorgWarner and former vice president of human resources at Harley-Davidson, puts it, “Milwaukee is not good at bringing in the next generations. The baby boomer population has got a grip, and they want to hang on to it.”

Under Taylor’s leadership, the organization has shifted its focus to initiatives that address Milwaukee’s longstanding, tougher-to-resolve issues: equity, talent and innovation, regional and local economic development and neighborhood investment.

The staff has grown from three to 14, and its annual program budget increased from zero to $1.1 million. In addition to substantial member support, it now attracts support from national foundations. Some of these funds are used to launch projects through direct and in-kind support; other times it’s seed money to attract outside funding.

If there was pushback from the “old guard” during this transition, Taylor didn’t feel it. “I didn’t make this transformation happen alone,” she recalls. “Everyone was on board with the direction we wanted to go. It was not a hard lift at all.”

The new direction has produced impressive results. “The GMC has played a huge role in creating the city we have today in terms of the arts, entertainment and neighborhoods,” says Cristy Garcia-Thomas, chief external affairs officer at Advocate Aurora Health. “Whether they’ve been in the forefront or behind the scenes, they’ve been leading the charge.”

To broaden the reach of the GMC, Taylor has recruited a more diverse group of business and civic leaders to its membership – women, people of color, younger people, people from low-income neighborhoods.

“Julia is absolutely committed to eliminating racism and empowering women,” says Cecelia Gore, a longtime friend of Taylor’s and executive director of Brewers Community Foundation. “These aren’t the easiest issues to tackle, but she has the courage and vision to keep stepping forward.”

Adds Calaway: “Julia really knows the African American community in Milwaukee, both the leaders of old and the current leaders. She has always had an eye for talent, and she understands the importance of bringing in the next generation.”

Abston is part of that next generation who have benefitted from Taylor’s mentorship. He founded NEWaukee, an organization that connects and empowers young professionals in Milwaukee, and is currently director of Hoan Group, a consortium of up-and-coming civic leaders whose most visible project was illuminating the Hoan Bridge in 2020.

“We were little girls from a farm town. I flunked a 4H project on careers because they said girls can’t be doctors.” 

Kathy Krol, a childhood friend

Abston says Taylor immediately understood the importance of his connections with other millennials and would invite him to key meetings, where he was often the youngest person in the room. “At first I felt like I didn’t belong, but Julia encouraged me to speak up,” he says. “She wouldn’t hold my hand, but she would connect me to the right people.”

Taylor, who is known for being warm and approachable, excels at persuading people of the importance of whatever undertaking is at hand. “She is quite skilled at getting along with people who have different objectives and personalities,” says David Lubar, president and CEO of Lubar & Co. and former chair of GMC’s board. “She’s able to sustain your interest and involvement.”

“Julia disarms you,” says Abston. “You leave a meeting with her, and you’re inspired. She’s very good at figuring out people’s egos and getting them to work together. Also, she can paint the picture of a bigger goal so that everyone can figure out a way they can play a role.”

Adds Gore: “She doesn’t leave you hanging. She rolls up her sleeves and partners with you on whatever it is you are both trying to achieve.” Marcoux adds that Taylor ensures that an action plan ensues from any meeting. “Julia makes sure we all know what we signed on for, and she holds us accountable.”


A Few Signature GMC Initiatives

Economic Development:

Launched in 2005 by the GMC and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, M7 was formed to market the Southeast Wisconsin region to the nation as a place to build business because of its strong and growing economy.

Neighborhood Investment:

The Anti-Displacement Fund, established in 2019, was created by MKE United, a public/private consortium that evolved from the GMC Downtown Action Agenda, created in 2015. It supports homeowners in target neighborhoods near Downtown to ensure that they are not displaced because of increasing property taxes associated with rising property values and new development, i.e., gentrification. “Until we get our neighborhoods stabilized, we will always struggle with the big issues of inequity and lack of educational attainment,” Taylor says.

Talent and Innovation:

Launched in in 2014, The Commons is building a diverse talent pipeline in Milwaukee by helping first-generation and students of color overcome barriers to success. Its programs include corporate training and virtual internships.

Creative Placemaking:

In 2014, the talent engagement group NEWaukee held its first Night Market on West Wisconsin Avenue in Westown, a stretch once considered unappealing and unsafe. This wildly successful free, outdoor street festival – with its carefully curated mix of local vendors, artists and creative small businesses – has increased the vibrancy of the street itself as well as real estate investments in the area.


Taylor with her father and sisters in Indiana, 1962; Photo courtesy of Julia Taylor

Taylor grew up in Windfall, a small community in central Indiana (current population 739). Taylor’s father was an engineer for General Motors in nearby Anderson, and her mother was a stay-at-home mom to Julia and her three sisters and brother. The couple divorced when Taylor was 8.

Taylor’s childhood friends say she was always capable, but they had no inkling she would become so successful. “We were little girls from a farm town who were told we couldn’t do anything except perhaps become teachers,” says Kathy Krol, a friend of Taylor’s since the third grade who is now a retired radiologist in Boulder, Colorado. “I flunked a 4H project on careers because I said I wanted to be a doctor. They said girls can’t be doctors.”

Money was tight, and at age 15, Taylor began a series of jobs. In high school, she sketched portraits at county fairs and designed display ads at the local newspaper. On scholarship at Ball State University (English and philosophy major, art minor), she started a stained-glass business making kites and panel lamps out of cheap scrap glass.

Married her senior year, Taylor and her husband moved to Bay City, Michigan, after her graduation, where she sold insurance (“I hated it!”) and worked in marketing for McDonald’s (“I learned a lot about budgeting.”). Her career in public service began there, as she volunteered on the hotline at a domestic violence shelter, served on the common council and school board, and eventually became executive director of the local YWCA.

Taylor in 1991 at the YWCA of Greater Milwaukee; Photo courtesy of Julia Taylor

“I knew nothing about nonprofits, but I learned quickly,” she recalls. “We moved from ‘gym & swim’ to dealing with social issues, especially racism in a predominantly white community. It was interesting.”

In 1986, Taylor was recruited to be president of the YWCA of Greater Milwaukee, so she relocated with her husband (they later divorced) and then-8-year-old daughter. In her 16 years at the YWCA, she managed a $40 million annual budget and led initiatives resulting in national models for employment training and placement, affordable housing, women’s leadership and racial justice.

“I had a good time at the YW, and I’m happy it still has a strong focus on eliminating racism,” she says. She was at the GMC as a YW representative when she was invited to apply for the president’s job.

Of the hundreds of GMC projects Taylor has overseen during the past 20 years, she is reluctant to pick favorites. When pushed, however, she says she is especially proud of The Water Council. Launched in 2007 and established as an independent nonprofit in 2009, the Council was housed at and supported by the GMC until 2011.

This international nonprofit membership organization – it has members from 20 U.S. states and 10 countries – is one of the most influential freshwater technology hubs in the world. Among other things, it has coalesced a strong cluster of international water technology companies, advocated for the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences and brought together local research institutions with corporations for innovations in the water field.

Rich Meeusen was there at the beginning. “I knew Milwaukee had this concentration of water-related companies, but I didn’t connect the dots until Julia brought a group of us to the table to get this thing launched,” recalls Meeusen, retired CEO of Badger Meter Inc. In fact, according to The Water Council, there are 238 water technology businesses in the region, from Sta-Rite (a water pump company in Delavan) to Kohler Co. (fixtures, Kohler) to Badger Meter (meters and water flow, Brown Deer). Chances are whenever you’re in a public restroom in the U.S., you’ll be using at least one Wisconsin product, if not several.

Establishing The Water Council, starting with a two-day strategic action session in Lake Geneva, was a master class in Taylor’s vision and leadership style, Meeusen says. “She got the right people in the room: industry, academics, government and NGOs. The Water Council wouldn’t have happened without Julia,” he says. “That’s just one of the legacies she has all over Milwaukee.”


Photo by Kat Schleicher

Seeing the Big Picture

JEFF AND SARAH JOERRES already owned several of Julia Taylor’s watercolors when they decided to build a home on Pine Lake. To adorn the walls there, they commissioned Taylor to create some 30 paintings, ranging in size from 15-by-20 inches to 40-by-30 inches. For nearly a year, she visited the construction site, photographing anything that interested her. Then she painted various scenes based on the photos: a sailboat, a boat house, migrating sandhill cranes, flowers.

“Watercolors are tough because the paint dries very fast,” says Jeff Joerres, retired executive chairman of ManpowerGroup. “When you start, you have to have the entire painting in your brain. Julia can do that, and she pushes the paint to extreme detail.”

The subjects of Taylor’s paintings are broad-ranging: animals (especially roosters, a nod to her farm town origins), people and figurative art; landscape and places; and Milwaukee scenes. Her colorful, dynamic depictions of water, smoke and steam stand out, but the images depicted are not murky.

Tonit Calaway is another longtime collector of Taylor’s art. “I love watercolors because they convey a sense of movement,” says Calaway. “And Julia’s paintings have a delicacy to them that I really appreciate.”

The Blue Boathouse; Photo courtesy of Julia Taylor
Pine Lake Sunrise; Photo courtesy of Julia Taylor

Another way Taylor has built connections in the community is through the frequent dinner parties she hosts at her spacious home on Milwaukee’s East Side. For years, these dinners have brought together people – often very well-connected people – from diverse backgrounds for good food and stimulating conversation. “Julia is an adventuresome cook and entertains graciously and generously,” says longtime friend Carol Skornicka, a retired Midwest Airlines executive. “She also has a lot of intellectual energy, which fuels her interest in many things.”

Meeusen describes Taylor’s dinner parties as “the closest thing Milwaukee has to an Algonquin roundtable.” At least one local “power couple” – Gore and real estate investor Randy Bryant – met at one of her dinners. “Six people around Julia Taylor’s dining room table can have a larger impact on the long-term growth of the city than most committees I’ve spent years sitting on,” says Abston.

Taylor with Milwaueke MayorTOm Barrett and former Governor Scott Walker at the Water Council’s Global Water Center Grand Opening in 2013; Photo courtesy of Julia Taylor

After she steps away from the GMC, Taylor, 67, says she is looking forward to traveling, spending time with family – her daughter, Lea Struck, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild all live in the area – and focusing on her art career.

“Her legacy will live on in the GMC’s work. She has sowed a lot of seeds, many of which are still being fertilized and taking root.” 

Richard “Rocky” Marcoux, former commissioner of the Milwaukee Department of City Development

She paints regularly with two groups, one of which calls itself The Watercolor Gals. Even during the height of the pandemic, they Zoomed, painted and talked. She exhibits regularly at the David Barnett Gallery and elsewhere, and recently had a painting accepted for the Racine Art Museum’s “Watercolor Wisconsin 2021” exhibition, opening Dec. 15.

Taylor is retiring from the GMC now because she feels like it’s a good time for someone younger to come in, someone with new ideas. “I don’t want to overstay my welcome,” she adds. She will not be involved in selecting her successor; that will be up to the board, which is working with a search firm. “I want to be very respectful of the new person coming in, to have the space and time they need to put their own leadership in place,” she says. She anticipates continuing to work with some projects, as yet to be determined. “But I won’t step away from the friendships. The ones I’ve made in this job have a special place in my heart.”

Taylor’s friends expect her to remain in the thick of things. “I believe that community is in her DNA,” Gore says, “and so once she takes a moment, she’ll circle back and find out what her next meaningful impact will be.”

Marcoux sums up Taylor’s contributions this way: “She was a gift to this community and she will be missed. But her legacy will live on in the GMC’s work. She has sowed a lot of seeds, many of which are still being fertilized and taking root. Her work will be evident for years to come.”


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s December issue.

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