Bottling the power of education, work

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Margaret Plevak | August 23, 2016

LAKE GENEVA — Forty-five years ago, Milton “Mick” Neshek, then a Walworth County attorney, was part of a small group hired by the Kikkoman Corp. in Japan to help the company build its first North American plant in the town of Walworth. Today, he's Kikkoman's general counsel, a special adviser to its chairman and a member of the international corporation's board of directors and executive committee. He and his wife now split their time between their Lake Geneva home and a residence in California, where Kikkoman recently opened a second plant.

Neshek also is a longtime contributor to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents. First appointed to the State University Board in 1965 by Gov. Warren Knowles, Neshek supported a 1971 merger that created the current UW System, then served seven more years on the merged board, with an appointment by Gov. Patrick Lucey.

Consider this interesting slice of life with Mick Neshek.

Farm roots

It was my grandfather who in 1907 decided to come to America through the auspices of the Baptist church, which is still in East Prussia, where his family was from. They moved to the United States and northern Wisconsin. The family was quite poor. My dad had to work in a sawmill when he was 10 years old. Unfortunately, Dad didn't have the benefit of an education. He could not read or write, but he was good at math. He bought his own farm where I grew up, north of Green Bay and right outside the outskirts of Coleman. We had 80 acres and 34 cows — a beautiful Holstein herd. When we went to the county fair in Marinette, we always came home with a box of blue ribbons.

Legal sights

I always had a pretty good sense of gab. In one of our high school drama classes, we were putting on a play and I had the role of a lawyer. I thought, you know, that's not bad! Maybe I'll be a lawyer.

University tradition 

I received my law degree and undergraduate degree from UW-Madison. My son received his undergraduate degree in accounting and his law degree in Madison. My daughter received her undergraduate and master's degree from Madison. And my first wife, deceased some 30 years ago, also attended UW-Madison. All three of my grandchildren graduated from UW-Madison. My daughter-in-law, my son-in-law are both UW-Madison graduates. When you count them up in the immediate family, we have almost 15 degrees.

Cost of education

I think the biggest challenge we face in higher education is how can we provide higher education degrees without our kids going into debt? As I see it, there are only a couple of ways to alleviate this situation. One, of course, is to have total funding of higher education by the government, which I'm not for. I think as a tax burden, that's not a very viable situation. I like to think out of the box a little once in a while. As people live longer, maybe we have to look not at a four-year college degree, but a six- or seven-year degree and meld that in with working and going to college. That's probably a paradigm that would be very hard to sell to businesses and the faculties of universities. But I could envision plants and companies clustering around a university and having this tremendous workforce. It's temporary, but highly skilled with the smartest kids, and hopefully after six, seven years, they would pay for their own education.

Getting on board

I had worked hard on a campaign for Governor Knowles as the campaign manager for the 1st District. I was very successful, and I thought maybe I could serve some other place, so I went through the Wisconsin Blue Book and saw “regents.” That sounded interesting. I called Odie Fish, then the statewide  (Republican National Committee) chairman and a successful businessman who was very supportive of higher education. I said, “Odie, do you think the governor might consider appointing me to the board of regents?”

He said, “I'll call you back in five minutes.” When he called back, he said, “Regent Neshek, you're in.” If you follow the politics of becoming a regent now, you know it's a little different. Times have changed.

Army lawyer

After I went into the Army, I was able to get a transfer into the JAG (Judge Advocate General's Corps) and got a special certification from the judge advocate in Washington to be certified to practice in general courts. I was stationed in Fort Riley, Kansas, where people who had committed serious offenses were sent. I was a defense counsel for most of my Army career.

Getting acquainted

When I first started with the law firm down here, I was right at the bottom, doing collections, small time stuff. I was not known. I was a complete stranger in Walworth County. Somehow I had to build up a practice and in those days lawyers couldn't advertise. So I decided I would run for district attorney. Now I ran against a gentleman who I didn't have any chance of coming close to beating, who had excellent credentials and whose family had been here for years and years. But I campaigned hard. I put over 5,000 miles on my car within Walworth County. I hate losing, but it was not my plan to win. I didn't want to be a D.A. As it turned out, I lost, but I had built up enough relationships where I had to have two secretaries to handle my workload. That's how I got my career started.

A call from Japan

Four of us were involved in the founding of Kikkoman: our present chairman in Japan, Yuzaburo Mogi, who was then the international director; one of his classmates from Columbia, Malcom Pennington; my law partner, Tom Godfrey, and me. We were to purchase the land and do the legal work, the contracts for building the plant. Kikkoman had done some groundwork before they came to our law office.

Kikkoman campaign

The county board had already approved the zoning, but there was one little item that they didn't think of or weren't advised on. Under Wisconsin statutes, the town board had the veto power on this and the board was split. One was for it, one was against it and one was undecided. So the four of us went about the local community in Walworth township, telling them what this would mean to them in terms of their tax base, employment — all of the things that come with a top manufacturing company. We went to Farm Bureau meetings, 4-H clubs, National Grange — anybody who would listen to us. Most of the people who were opposed were on farms in the township, had been there since the 1800s — three, four generations. They did not want to see farmland converted to manufacturing, and that was a legitimate reason, but this huge plant would bolster the economy.

The town chairman told us they were going to have a town meeting and let the residents decide. The vote was advisory, but they were committed to following the decision. The treasurer of the township was vehemently opposed to this. She was also a prominent Democrat.

Calling on an ally

I had worked with (Gov. Patrick) Lucey on the merger, so I thought I'd see if he could talk to this town treasurer. I called and was telling him about the town meeting when he said, “Do you want me to come?”

Our county, as you know, is not Democratic. I said, “Oh, well, um, I, ah, yes, we'd be honored, governor, to have you come.” I didn't tell anyone that he was coming other than our own group. The meeting started and Lucey walked in. And there was a hush. He made the presentation and did a masterful job, telling how this state had vetted this company, what it would mean to the state economically, what it would mean for jobs in the local community. When they took the vote, it was 53 in favor, 13 against.

Earlier, Kikkoman was going to go to Milwaukee or Chicago for their general counsel for, as they say it, some firm or lawyer who had great influence and prestige. After I delivered Governor Lucey, they decided we could become general counsel.

Makings of success

The Walworth plant is now the world's largest manufacturer of brewed soy sauce. When the plant was built, people asked why did Kikkoman come here? Number one, we have a good source of fresh, clean water. Number two, the Japanese like the rural employment picture because rural people are hard workers. They're honest. They're devoted. We have a wonderful workforce. The Wisconsin plant was central for distribution in North America. And a friendly state government played a part in the final decision.

Business, Japanese style

The concepts of business in Japan and America are so different. Under the Kikkoman concept, employees are considered the company's No. 1 asset. Management is from the bottom up, not top down. The American concept is the VP says, “I'm in charge of this. I'll make the decision on this.” In the Japanese way, they'll bring the managers in, they'll all get an idea on how to do something and they'll reach a consensus. It takes longer, but when you finally reach consensus, your chances of success are almost assured because everybody's on board to make it work.

Giving back

Another Japanese concept is putting emphasis on community affairs. Chairman Mogi established a foundation and we receive many requests for gifts and grants. We try to center those locally, like high school scholarships, and, of course, we have a strong presence with the universities, both private and public. We gave a million dollar grant for the fermentation lab at UW-Madison. We just made a million-dollar grant for the new fresh water science school at UW-Milwaukee. Sustainability of our water supply is very important, not only for Kikkoman, but for everybody.

Condiment of choice

Do I like soy sauce? Absolutely.

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