By Judith Liebaert
Retired Douglas County Administrator Andy Lisak Served as a Tenacious Advocate for the Superior/Douglas County Area
From the time he was 10 years old, Andy Lisak had his sights set on going to the United States Naval Academy. Things didn’t quite work as planned, but after a career devoted to the betterment of Wisconsin communities, including those in the Superior and Douglas County area, he’s not complaining.
Given the circumstances, that says a lot about the recently retired Douglas County administrator, who championed efficient, effective county government, as well as wise use of taxpayer dollars.
A little more than a year ago, Lisak publicly announced his diagnosis of Stage-4 Squamous Cell cancer, noting that it was an aggressive form and he was facing a lot of unknowns. Within a week, he was told the cancer had spread to his lungs. Now, after a year of chemotherapy treatment, he remains at Stage-4C. Yet Lisak remains positive and hopeful.
“I’ll probably get this wrong,” he said when citing statistics. “It’s something like 80 percent of those diagnosed with this die in the first four years, and only 8 percent have long-term survival beyond five years. I’m going to be in that smaller percent. I feel it,” he said.
After his diagnosis, Lisak continued to work in a limited capacity, helping County Board Chairman Mark Liebaert, board members, managers and employees of the various Douglas County departments with administrative transition. On January 24 of this year, Lisak formally stepped down from his position with Douglas County.
“I didn’t think I had the financial ability to go to college. I’d planned
on going to the Naval Academy.”
– Andy Lisak
Lisak was born and raised in Superior’s North End neighborhood. He fondly remembers his grandparents’ homestead on Connor’s Point and the many hours his whole family spent there, tending their large garden and caring for chickens. He attended classes in the Catholic school system through junior high and graduated from Superior Senior High School in 1980. It was there he found his first of many mentors.
“I didn’t think I had the financial ability to go to college.
I’d planned on going to the Naval Academy and I had a principal nomination. Bill Rhenstrand asked me what I would do if I didn’t get accepted. I told him I’d probably go to work for the railroad like the rest of my family,” Lisak said.
Rhenstrand was an educator in the Superior School District for many years. He guided Lisak through scholarship and college admittance applications.
As a result, instead of applying for that railroad job, Lisak went on to The American University in Washington, D.C., graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in economics and sociology. He then went on to graduate school at Cornell University, where he studied industrial and labor relations.
While studying at Cornell, Lisak worked as assistant program manager in the university’s Program for Employment and Workplace Systems, and during that time he became fascinated by the process of employee ownership. That fascination would prove useful during his first job—seven years in all with Wisconsin Cooperative Development Services in Madison. During that time, he worked as an employee ownership developer, business developer and marketing manager.
“He’s the one … everybody counts on, no matter what party they’re affiliated with. Everybody knows they can trust Andy Lisak.”
– Managing Partner Bill McCoshen, Capitol Consultants Inc.
“The biggest project I worked on at the Development Council was the Antigo Cheese Company,” Lisak said. “Kraft was shutting it down and consolidating the Parmesan cheese production to a plant in California. The employees thought they could continue to produce a high quality Parmesan. We helped them complete the buyout from Kraft.”
In 1993, he took a position as a business development consultant with the Wisconsin Department of Commerce in Madison. While there, he worked with then-State Commerce Secretary Bill McCoshen. In 2000, McCoshen left the Department of Commerce to become a lobbyist in Madison as a managing partner at Capital Consultants Inc., a nonpartisan firm specializing in government relations, public affairs and issue-based grassroots advocacy. Today, he is a managing partner at the firm.
“I’ve had a lot of exposure to Andy in the last 25 years. I’m a big fan,” McCoshen said. “We’ve worked on numerous projects together. Andy has always held jobs that are slightly perceived as political – but he is not partisan. Andy is a doer. He’s been instrumental, yet always behind the scenes, in all the big state initiatives for Douglas County and Superior. He’s the one that makes sure everything gets done, the one everybody counts on, no matter what party they’re affiliated with. Everybody knows they can trust Andy Lisak.”
Working in Madison, Lisak found his passion in economic development, but said he’d always wanted to move back to Superior. “Whenever I was home, I would talk to organizations involved in development about the possibility of a job, but there were no positions available,” he said. “But my heart has always been here, so when I had the opportunity to go into business with a relative in 1998, I took the chance. It was a big jump.” Lisak worked as part owner of Superior Solid Surface – a business that manufactured solid surfaces such as countertops, sinks and other items – until 2001.
Former Douglas County Board Chair Doug Finn recalled asking Lisak in 2001 if he’d be interested in applying for the position of executive director of The Development Association. “I didn’t know Andy that well, but I knew his parents. They’d talk a lot about his years in college and his work in Madison,” Finn said. “One thing about Andy: He knows this community from a family standpoint and from a business standpoint. He applied for the job and got it.”
“He knows this community from a family standpoint and from a business standpoint.”
– Former Douglas County Board Chair Doug Finn
Jason Serck, the City of Superior planning, economic development and port director, credits Lisak with bringing Development Association goals and initiatives back to the front burner. “It was in a bit of rough shape when he got it, but the membership increased and he got some good results while he was there,” Serck said.
During that time, Lisak was part of a special commission of the Wisconsin Legislature in regard to the Great Lakes Water Resource Compact. He said an important aspect of that job was playing defense, trying to protect the companies already established here. “I was actively involved in engaging, being present and testifying on matters of importance to our businesses here,” he said. “A big part of it was the ballast water regulations; trying to make sure that whatever the state decided wouldn’t negatively impact businesses here.”
Serck said ballast water issues might not be exciting or understood by the average person, but it was an important issue for the community. “Andy worked to help the community understand what was at stake, but also at the state and federal level to accurately represent the impact to our businesses. He helped them understand from our industry perspective,” Serck explained.
After nine years with The Development Association, Lisak became the chief administrative officer for Douglas County, overseeing 24 departments and approximately 300 employees. “I think what defined my tenure with Douglas County was Act 10,” Lisak said.
Also known as the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill proposed by Gov. Scott Walker, Act 10 was passed by the Wisconsin Legislature and became effective June 29, 2011. It primarily affected collective bargaining, compensation, retirement, health insurance and sick leave for public employees. It was fiercely opposed by organized union members and their supporters and even challenged in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which eventually ruled it to be constitutional in July 2014.
“Andy was a friend to commerce; he understood … the needs of businesses throughout Douglas County.”
– President and CEO Taylor Pedersen, Superior-Douglas County Area Chamber of Commerce
“It changed the way that public employers relate to their employees. Two-thirds of our workforce was covered by one of nine collective bargaining agreements. We had personnel policies in place for only a third of our employees,” Lisak said. “We had to make a transition from a workforce that was heavily unionized to one that was not.”
As a Superior native, Lisak was well aware of the strong labor force history in Superior and Douglas County. “There was some fear and apprehension on the part of the employees who were under collective bargaining agreements, about how they would be treated by the County,” he said.
Finn agreed. “Act 10 was a hard thing for all of us. It took a long time for employees to adjust. Andy had to make some tough decisions. Overall he did a great job for us,” he said.
Lisak believes Douglas County’s record of employee relations helped. “One of the great things about Douglas County is that with or without collective bargaining agreements, the County had always been a fair employer that respected its employees and treated them with high regard,” he noted, adding that “It took time for us to prove to our employees and team members that we would continue to treat them fairly. There was a lot of emotion tied up in Act 10 when it was happening; there was a lot of uncertainty.”
McCoshen isn’t surprised by Lisak’s success in overseeing a satisfactory transition. “That’s his DNA, bringing people together to solve problems. He’s always had a positive attitude. He’s been a happy warrior for Douglas Country and Superior for the better part of two decades,” McCoshen said.
“He had to take a hard look at priorities and arrive at agreement … There was no better man for it.”
– Planning, Economic Development and Port Director Jason Serck
Serck agreed. “Andy brought administrating back into the administration. There were some tough budget decisions to be made to make the county run a bit more efficiently,” he said. “He had to take a hard look at priorities and arrive at agreement with the County Board and most of his folks. There was no better man for it.”
During the implementation of Act 10 changes, Lisak said Douglas County was often on the leading edge and the first to bring questions to the State Legislature. “We were asking what we could and couldn’t do under Act 10 – what is allowed and what isn’t allowed? We weren’t afraid to ask those questions. We wanted to make sure we did things right,” he said.
Current Douglas County Board Chairman Mark Liebaert said it became clear – during his attendance at numerous County Association meetings and workshops throughout the state – that Douglas County has a reputation for being ahead of the curve under Lisak’s administration. “We’re there to learn things like priority budgeting and marketplace evaluations for employees. We’ve been doing that for years; Andy taught us years ago,” Liebaert said.
Liebaert, who has been a Douglas County board member for more than 16 years and is now serving his second term as chair, said their relationship has always been based on mutual respect and cooperation. “Andy didn’t tell us what to do as a board; he gave us the tools and the vision to look at what we wanted to prioritize,” he said. “I might have disagreed with him sometimes, but I never once doubted his interest in bettering the county. I know we always had the same end goal.
“We had distinct styles. When we were lobbying in Madison, Bill McCoshen would introduce us by explaining that Andy would present the facts and figures and I would follow up with the color commentary. So we had different approaches – but we were always working together for the betterment of Douglas County and making the best use of the taxpayers’ money,” Liebaert said. “We were a good team. We were just hitting our stride full-bore when Andy left. It’s a big loss to the county.”
“We were a good team. We were just hitting our stride full-bore when Andy left. It’s a big loss to the county.”
– Douglas County Board Chair Mark Liebaert
The same holds true for Finn. He wishes there had been more opportunity for
Lisak to work on some creative ideas for economic development. “We still get together. If anything, I have even more respect for him now,” Finn said. “He always talked about the importance of faith, family and friends. And he’s staying true to that now, making time for everybody, making sure he sees everybody and stays in touch. I’m so impressed with his positive attitude. He’s an example for everybody.”
Both Finn and Liebaert said Lisak makes a point of staying in touch with them, and Liebaert said he misses the teamwork they’d established. “I think there’s so much more we could have accomplished with time,” he said.
Sen. Janet Bewley shares many of the same sentiments, expressing regret that she’s had only a brief time as a senator to work with Lisak on county projects. In the past, they worked together when Bewley was with the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Association (WHEDA) and Lisak directed The Development Association.
“It’s always been my pleasure to work with Andy. He is the consummate professional and a true gentleman. Every experience I have with him, I can easily remember his knowledge, his generosity, his gentleness,” said Bewley said. “But at the same time, the man has a spine of steel, no matter what agency or entity he was working for. The rehab of the New York and Washington buildings, when I was with WHEDA, always stayed in my mind. He was very clear on his parameters and what his goals were. That clarity was always so helpful.
“When he joined the county, he knew his job was to run an efficient and economical county with a lot of serious constraints. He wasn’t necessarily an advocate for all the individual programs, but he let the people make the case for these things,” she said. “He was an advocate for the well-being and integrity of the county.”
“I can easily remember his knowledge, his generosity, his gentleness. But at the same time, the man has a spine of steel.”
– Sen. Janet Bewley
“Andy was a friend to commerce; he understood business and understood the needs of businesses throughout Douglas County,” said Taylor Pedersen, president and CEO of the Superior-Douglas County Area Chamber of Commerce. “His leadership and friendship will be missed by the Chamber. Andy has been – and always will be – a positive influence and ambassador for our region. We wish him nothing but the best on the road ahead.”
Shawn Wellnitz, who’s president and CEO of the Entrepreneur Fund, also
appreciated Lisak’s economic development acumen. “I moved to Douglas County in 2004 and I didn’t know anyone,” he said. “At the time, I started working for the Entrepreneur Fund and Andy was heading up The Development Association, so we shared office space and were partners in economic development. Immediately, I greatly admired his intellect on economic development and influence – from the region all the way downstate to the capital.
“In the most divisive environment, he has always been the bridge builder and voice of reason for doing what was best for Douglas County,” said Wellnitz. “He’s given me timely professional advice and was always generous to connect me within the community before I had become part of it. He reflects exactly the kind of person and ambassador you want for Douglas County. He is a North End kid through and through.”
Serck describes Lisak as being driven: “Driven then and driven now in what he’s battling. I think that’s helping his cause.”
However, Lisak doesn’t look at his cancer and chemotherapy as a battle. “It’s more of a journey,” he said. “I’m fortunate to be in a community with a great health-care system. I have a great team of physicians and nurses and I’ve enjoyed getting to know them.” For now, he’s enjoying time with his family, his wife, Sara Dorfman, their two adult children and a three-year-old grandson. And he’s taking each day as it comes. “From my perspective, it’s in God’s hands now,” he said. “Whatever happens, happens.”
“In the most divisive environment, he has always been the bridge builder.”
– Entrepreneur Fund Executive Director Shawn Wellnitz
In reflecting upon a distinguished career, especially here in Douglas County, Lisak said it was his privilege to serve the community – more so a pleasure to work for what he is passionate about, and to be
able to do so in his hometown. And he’s still thinking about ways to improve Superior and Douglas County.
“When it comes to what Superior can offer, I think the key is housing opportunities in a community that respects people’s ability to do the right thing, a community that doesn’t pass onerous laws on business and is sensitive when it comes to taxes,” he said. “We have to look at what we can provide, and we don’t necessarily have to provide everything. As we encourage more people to live here by creating the housing they want, it will help with the tax base.
Then some of those other amenities will follow.”
Lisak believes there is a second avenue to growth as well. “We live in a great area – beautiful natural resources, beautiful scenery, good, hard-working people with
a strong work ethic and a good sense of
right and wrong. How do we become [more] welcoming to outsiders, especially people from other countries?” he asked.
“Look at our history; when we had periods of fast growth here, those were periods when immigrants were coming in waves. They built this community, built the industry here. How do we reach out like that? It’s not going to be the folks from northern and central Europe. These will be folks from other parts of the world – Central and South America, Africa, Asia,” Lisak noted. “How do we create a community that welcomes folks from vastly different cultures?
“Again, they’ll have some of the same struggles our ancestors had, but each generation was able to better itself and move up,” he said. “I’m an example of that.” PS
Judith Liebaert is a freelance writer based in Northwestern Wisconsin.