Northwestern Mutual CEO John Schlifske On Building A Tech Hub In Milwaukee

Every major city in the Heartland would like to consider itself an emerging digital-technology hub. But the CEO of Northwestern Mutual John Schlifske is actually trying to make it happen in Milwaukee.

northwestern mutual ceo john schlifske Every major city in the Heartland would like to consider itself an emerging digital-technology hub. And locations between the coasts have better shots than ever at becoming just that, thanks to rising capabilities of their workforces and the punishing costs of living for tech workers in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

But talking a big game and actually trying to capture and take advantage of this opportunity are two entirely different things. That’s where enlightened and motivated CEOs of legacy employers in these would-be tech hubs can come into play, says John Schlifske, chief of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Milwaukee.

He’s been leading a recent charge by employers in southeastern Wisconsin to make a concerted effort to grow technology in the region by joining to build an ecosystem that can attract and retain the requisite talent for such a hub, especially young professionals. Schlifske helped kick off this initiative informally about a year ago and would like to have a critical mass of contributions by his peers by early 2019.

“I got involved in recruiting some more-senior people from the technology world, and what I found is, they weren’t that interested in finding out as much about Northwestern Mutual as they were in finding out about our tech community in Milwaukee,” Schlifske tells Chief Executive.

“When we used to recruit people here for the investment world, we’d recruit them with two things: the job, and the company. But now, when we recruit people, it’s still about the job, but it’s even more about the ecosystem that surrounds our talent, and not about our specific company.”

This development is especially true of millennial recruits, Schlifske said. “From a career perspective, they’re more interested in building a resume and technology expertise than they are about working for one company for the next 30 years.”

Those were the kinds of realizations that led Schlifske to begin trying to rally fellow local CEOs into making Milwaukee more of a tech hub, amid its traditional reliance on select service firms such as Northwestern Mutual as well as industrial giants including Briggs & Stratton and Harley-Davidson.

To help create a more vibrant startup community, Schlifske led the creation of two venture funds simultaneously. One is aimed at startups and early-stage companies in financial technology—of great interest to Northwestern Mutual and to other local financial companies, such as Fiserv, which just attached its name to the new pro-basketball arena in Milwaukee. The second is called Cream City Ventures, meant to promote and nurture “startups that are unique to Wisconsin and Milwaukee,” as Schlifske explains.

More recently, Northwestern Mutual as well as Johnson Controls, Aurora Health Care and Foxconn—all companies with local headquarters or strong regional connections—formed the Wisconn Valley venture-capital fund aimed at nurturing startups in data analytics. Local educational institutions have joined the effort as well, such as Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, asking the CEO group how they can help fill the tech-talent pipeline.

The group is focusing on talent recruitment and retention; the “rebranding” of Milwaukee based on latent technology capabilities that aren’t well-understood by the outside world; emphasizing the career opportunities for tech mavens in helping legacy industries to make a digital transformation; and promoting the slower, more affordable lifestyle of a place like Milwaukee – in definite contrast to the coasts.

“Now we’re at the next phase,” Schlifske says. “How do we make Milwaukee a tech hub? We think we’ve got to catch up. Other cities have a head start on us, and now we’re figuring out what we need to do around that.”

Read more: My First Job: Northwestern Mutual’s Schlifske Began by Scraping Paint off Trucks


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events