Resource Connections

Asking, What If?

Photos by Kris Kathmann

When Kathie Davis left her job with the Region 9 Development Commission in 1996, co-workers said “bon voyage” with a gold watch and an office chair.

Those were useful and appreciated gifts, but Davis left with something of far greater value: Her thick Rolodex, brimming with the names and telephone numbers of people she knows can make things happen in southern Minnesota and beyond. It’s the chief asset of “Resource Connections,” the company she formed after serving Region 9 from 1973-79 and 1985-96 as public information coordinator and marketing director.

Davis runs Resource Connections from her home in North Mankato, spinning the Rolodex, fattening it, putting it to work for a lengthening and ever-changing list of clients. It contains hundreds of names from little places like Amboy and from bigger places like Mankato, St. Paul and Washington, D.C., names of people who have the &Mac222;nancial, intellectual or political resources to make life a little better in rural Minnesota. (Davis says when she dies, she wants the headline to read “Rural advocate dies.”)

The Rolodex provides muscle for Resource Connections, much like the monster diesel engines in 18-wheelers, but without noise and fumes. Davis fuels the engine with her years of experience in the arts of collaborating, facilitating and enabling.

Got a problem in your business, organization or agency? Chances are, Davis can shed new light on it, get you thinking differently about it, and connect you to resources you might never have suspected existed. (Hence the name, Resource Connections.) Davis always asks clients “what if?” and then stands back as the possibilities and opportunities begin to unfold.

Often this process uncovers the desirability of collaborating with others, a concept some find diffcult to accept at first. “Collaboration doesn’t mean you have to give up or share everything, just what it takes at the moment to best resolve the issue,” Davis said. “I help them connect with government or the guy next door who’s making something they might need.”

Having worked so long for Region 9, much of what Davis did and does involves a string of government agencies, quasi-governmental organizations and nonprofit groups. That’s unfamiliar territory for manufacturers, small business owners and entrepreneurs, who may have only a fuzzy notion of what such entities do or why they even exist. They’re not likely to see government and non-profits as part of a solution to any problem they might have. “Business and government folks often are so busy in their established roles, they can’t see what they might have in common,” Davis said.

Still, some problems are unsolvable unless addressed by a combination of public and private resources, according to Davis. “If you can’t attract workers to your community because it lacks affordable housing, if workers need training or retraining, or if you want to build an ethanol plant, nobody’s going to get these things done all by themselves,” Davis said. During her career with Region 9, she helped forge solutions to those kinds of challenges, often attending conferences where she spent “a lot of time…trying to get government to think like business.”

Much of her ability to relate to the private sector can be attributed to her personal background:

• She grew up in a family-owned business, Spencer-Armstrong Funeral Homes of Winnebago and Amboy.

• As a teenager, she began shepherding the affairs of the Amboy Community Club, which grew into the Amboy Area Chamber of Commerce. It’s one of the smallest communities ever to become part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

• In 1980-85 she owned and operated weekly newspapers in Amboy and Winnebago, an adventure that helped define “entrepreneur” and “private enterprise” for her in very personal terms.

This background helped Davis understand how to build bridges between the public and private sectors during her years with Region 9. She kept the traffic moving on those bridges with her skills at consensus-building, collaborating and facilitating.

Armed with her Rolodex, Davis then applied those skills to establish an entrepreneurial beachhead for Resource Connections six years ago.

Davis essentially teaches clients how to identify and analyze problems and how to solve them by a variety of means, including collaborating and networking with others. By what Davis calls “over-sharing of information,” she often works herself out of a job. (Remember the parable about giving a man a fish and he’ll eat that day, but teach him how to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime?) “If you’re doing a really good job of teaching and sharing, probably the next time around they feel they can do it by themselves,” Davis said.

Resource Connections has handled some relatively straightforward assignments, including developing advertising, marketing or public relations programs for private firms serving Southern Minnesota. Some projects involve only non-profits or government, such as helping arts groups organize the Mankato Area Coalition for the Arts and get funding for it. But most of Resource Connection’s contracts are more complicated, requiring a linking of public and private resources.

The first client to sign with Resources Connections was Mankato’s Child Care Resource & Referral, a nonprofit. “They needed to find some way to increase their visibility in the community and also earn dollars,” Davis said. The group hoped to do it by staging a “Festival of Trees,” modeled after a Christmas event in Georgia.

Davis put her Rolodex to work, contacting companies to buy the trees and have them decorated by volunteers, arranging ticket sales and finding a place to hold the event. The first festival, held in Minnesota State University’s student union, was a “magnificent display of 30 trees, just a fun thing. The first year we netted several thousand dollars and the second year was even more.”

Convincing businesses to pay a premium for a Christmas tree once a year is one thing, according to Davis. Convincing them to get and stay involved in long-term projects is quite another. But she does it because problems like affordable housing, job training and rural healthcare require on-going, in-depth efforts.

Davis seems to vibrate with extra energy when she talks about improving life in rural Minnesota. “We have so much to offer in rural Minnesota, but we have to step up the plate and take a leadership role in what happens to us,” she said. She believes that rural people must get to know and then work with state officials who make decisions about healthcare, highways, telecommunications, industrial development and other important rural issues. “People in rural areas should have the same access to healthcare, goods and services, communication and transportation as anyone else in Minnesota. It’s a good place to raise a family, a great place to live and work, but people have to have a livable wage and a place to live.”

Along those lines, she’s now helping a client, Minnesota Rural Health Assn. (MRHA) build bridges to state officials who make healthcare decisions. “I’m a firm believer that relationships make the world go around,” she often says. This summer she facilitated that process by helping identify rural health issues, then inviting state legislative candidates to debate them at the Blue Earth County Fair. No matter who wins, they’ve been exposed to a discussion of rural health needs.

The MRHA was formed about five years ago through the efforts of Minnesota Rural Partners, a nonprofit group devoted to “insuring that issues having an impact on rural Minnesota are addressed,” Davis said. Rural Connections was hired to help form the healthcare group and organize its first conference. (For that event, Davis spun her Rolodex and produced former U.S. Senator Dave Durenberger as a speaker.)

Some of Rural Connections’ activities have an immediate rather than long-term impact on people. For example, Davis arranges “Home Stretch” classes which teach the “ins” and “outs” of buying a home, including financing it. (The Home Stretch curriculum was developed by the state to reduce mortgage foreclosures. The eight-hour class is required for people using certain kinds of state-backed financing.) Partners for Affordable Housing and South Central Minnesota Housing Redevelopment Authority in Mankato sponsor the classes, but it’s Davis who arranges the schedule and lines up volunteers, ranging from lenders to lawyers to home inspectors, to teach the sessions.

Twice a year, the sponsors treat these volunteer teachers to an appreciation luncheon because Davis thinks it’s important to say “thanks.” That’s a lesson she learned from Paul Hadley, former executive director of the Mankato Area Chamber of Commerce. “He taught me that for people to give of their time or their finances, you have to personally ask and then be sure to say thank you,” Davis recalled. “I’ll never forget how many times I watched him earn dollars where no one thought any were available because he made the situation a winning partnership for both involved,” she said. That’s how Resource Connections works, Davis says. “People who think they have no relationship with others, or businesses that feel competitive with others, find if they each give a little, they each are winners.”

In the past few years, Resource Connections has had a hand creating about two dozen affordable housing units in places like Winnebago and Mapleton. But you could probably credit Davis with twice that many because her methods were copied by officials elsewhere in Southern Minnesota. “It’s another case of over-sharing information,” she laughed.

Davis became involved in the Winnebago housing situation at the request of Bob Weerts, a Winnebago businessman concerned about such issues as shrinking population, affordable housing and rural cooperation. When Davis was with Region 9, Weerts had sought her help at the beginning of what became a successful effort to establish an ethanol plant in Winnebago. Weerts Companies also contracted with Resource Connections to facilitate meetings of “Faribault County Future,” a group focusing on a unified approach to rural problems.

“It can’t be Blue Earth against Winnebago. All the towns have to unite instead of fight,” Weerts said. “If Blue Earth gets a business, or Winnebago, it’s good for all of us.”

The Faribault County Future group continues to be active today, amid signs it has achieved a measure of unity and “connected” to decision-makers in St. Paul. “When JM Manufacturing wanted to expand in Winnebago, Blue Earth went to bat for us in the legislature. Fairmont helped too,” Weerts said. He estimated that Minnesota has 26 commissioners of various government departments, such as agriculture or transportation. “We had 17 of them to a meeting down here so we could thank them for helping us out (on various rural issues). We’re in a lonely part of the country. We’re not like Mankato. We’re shrinking. People are moving out of here, not in,” Weerts said.

Weerts said he and his companies have turned to Davis because “she’s connected. She can put you in touch, whether it’s with the highway department, the labor end of it, political help, or housing projects. She has a way of knowing where to go at the state or federal level.”

The Little Town That Could

Kathie Davis began asking herself “what if…?” at an early age.

It’s a question she now asks every client, hoping to get them thinking “outside the box.”

Her professional career began in the mid-1960s, making a five-minute newscast for a Blue Earth radio station from the kitchen table of her family’s Amboy funeral home. A divorced mother with two daughters to raise, she needed more income than a daily five-minute newscast could produce.

“This news must have value,” she thought. “What if I could sell it to others?”

Soon she began reporting news for Mankato radio and television stations and writing part-time for The Free Press. Still, it wasn’t enough, so she added another part-time job, managing the Amboy Community Club, using the same kitchen table as her office.

“What if we had more members?” Farmers already held memberships, but what about teachers? “It appeared they had a vested interest in the community,” Davis said. “In a town of 600, you have only so many ways to increase your membership.”

Thus teachers joined and the community club became a full-fledged Chamber of Commerce, a dues-paying member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In the late 1960s, another “what if” question came up. “What if we could get some national publicity for Amboy?”

Davis recalls that most small towns “were floundering at the time, starting to fade, but we were in good economic condition.” She began calling NBC News, eventually convincing John Chancellor to send a television crew to report on a town that was a bright exception to what was becoming a dismal rule.

“The crew didn’t want people to stop and stare, but they arrived in a black limousine, so it caused a great commotion. They were there a day and a half, doing interviews in the community,” Davis said. When the crew said it couldn’t find the Amboy Chamber office, she took them to her kitchen table.

“As they were sitting there, with the lights and recording equipment, the phone rang. It couldn’t have been timed better. It was a radio station, asking about locating in Amboy. They were really surprised,” Davis said.

The crew, led by journalist Bob Jameson, assembled a report called “The Little Town that Could.” But they couldn’t tell Amboy residents when it would be aired. Worse yet, most TV sets in Amboy couldn’t get NBC signals because cable television hadn’t been installed at that time. But NBC programming could be seen at Kranz Implement “so we had to go down there every night for a week to see when it would be on.”

The short segment on the NBC Nightly News is still remembered in media circles as a major public relations coup for Amboy.

Encouraged by a Mankato Chamber executive to do so, the Amboy Chamber eventually decided to provide some expensive professional training for Davis. They sent her to a management institute operated by the U.S. Chamber in Boulder, Col., with funding help from Security State Bank and Mankato Citizens Telephone Co.

“They partnered to give me an educational opportunity I will never forget. Other Chamber executives (at the institute) looked at me kind of strange when they learned I was from a city of 600 that belonged to the U.S. Chamber,” Davis said. “It was very unusual for a small town to send a manager to this management institute because it’s so expensive. It’s the perfect example of learning to step outside our paradigms. Amboy had the same job description, program of work and committees as a much larger chamber. The only major difference was the staff salary.” (Davis made $100 a month, running things from her kitchen table.)

In the early 1970s, Davis took on another part-time enterprise with Region 9 Development Commission, writing stories to publicize the newly formed organization’s activities. In 1973, she walked into the Region 9 office, carrying a yellow, smiley face clock. “I told them the clock needed a desk. I was driving back and forth and at times putting in more hours than many of their regular employees, plus I had two daughters to support,” Davis said.

The ploy worked and Davis landed a full-time job, staying until she bought the Amboy Herald in 1980 and renamed it Country Times. “A weekly newspaper has an incredible value to a community and I had a commitment to this community,” she said. Fortunately, Davis seems to have little fear of jumping into unfamiliar situations. “I’d never even seen a layout sheet,” she said. When the printing plant staff offered to provide training in how to paste stories on a layout page, Davis said “I knew how much trouble I was in.”

But she learned, persisted and even went on to found a second newspaper, The Homesteader, at the request of Winnebago businesses. (She dedicated the first issue to her dad, Victor Spencer.) “I thought two newspapers would be cheaper to run than one, but I forgot to get advertising commitments.”

As the farm crisis of the mid-1980s deepened, Davis decided to sell out rather than dilute her news coverage. “I would have had to change my beliefs about the way you should operate. I determined that the newspaper business wasn’t for me if I had to jeopardize my values in order to afford to keep it going,” she said.

Davis then rejoined Region 9, staying for 11 years until leaving to form Resource Connections in 1996.

The two daughters?

Mary Jo Davis, who did her share of broadcasting for Blue Earth and Mankato outlets and sold newspaper advertising for her mother, now sells advertising for Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine in the Twin Cities.

The other daughter, Marcia Timlin, also explored marketing but became a nurse in St. Cloud.

“I am so proud of their values and in watching how they treat the people they do business with or work with. They both give more than 100 percent to their jobs and family,” she said. “That is what being raised in a rural community is all about. We have a tremendous work ethic out here.

And Davis enjoys the full-time job she’s created for herself with Resource Connections. “It’s the best there is in life. I can work out of my own home, set my own hours, get up at night and work,” she said. “If I want to be a grandma on a Monday or a Tuesday, I can. I don’t have to adhere to a fixed schedule.”

© 2002 Connect Business Magazine. All Rights Reserved.

Roger Matz

A freelance writer from Mankato. [Editor: Roger Matz passed away in December, 2003.]

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