Jonathan Zierdt

JZ's Campfire Tale

Jonathan Zierdt is president/chief executive officer of Greater Mankato Growth, the 800-member entity created in October 2007 from the merging of Greater Mankato Chamber of Commerce and Greater Mankato Economic Development Corporation.

Photo by Jeff Silker

 “Once an Eagle Scout, always an Eagle Scout,” says Jonathan Zierdt, a boyish grin spreading as smeared peanut butter and jelly all over his facial features. At one time, Zierdt was more than just a highly decorated Eagle Scout. Nearly fifteen years ago, he also oversaw about 1,500 Boy Scouts in dozens of Owatonna-area troops and packs and was this close to becoming a lifelong Scouting executive.

With the Scouts, he began applying lessons learned.

For example, Boy Scout rule #1: Always leave a campsite better than you found it. Everywhere he has worked—the Boy Scouts of America, Owatonna United Way, Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce, clients of his personal consulting business—Zierdt always has left organizations better off than before. Just ask them. Eventually, he will leave his Greater Mankato Growth campsite that way, too.

Boy Scout rule #2: Be prepared. Since the October 2007 merger that created Greater Mankato Growth, Zierdt has helped assemble a professional, competent work team to wrestle growth opportunities to the ground.

Finally, the Boy Scout Oath: A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. Honestly, Zierdt aspires to master every word.
So listen intently, you Tenderfoot, rub your ice-cold hands over the orange-glow flame burning bright—the glow of Greater Mankato economic and business development. Zierdt has a special campfire yarn to unravel. In part, he spins a passionate devotion to vocation, life, and neighbors.

I’ve heard some people call you “JZ.”

It’s a fun nickname for them and me. Sometimes life is too formal. It’s okay if we can be real. JZ is real for some people and helps puts them at ease with me. I feel closer to people when they call me JZ.

You are in a position in which it wouldn’t be easy to be genuine and real all the time. It would be easier, it seems, if you were to put on a plastic face.

With me, what you see is what you get. I love life and people, love what I do, and feel like I’m here for a reason. I’m full of energy. Some people after first meeting me tell me later they thought there was no way someone could be that positive, upbeat, and energetic. It had to be an act. Then they get to know me and realize it isn’t. I wear my heart on my sleeve.

The only area where I have to guard myself is in situations where the work I do deals with confidential information. That’s difficult for me when I can’t talk about some things. However, if I did, it would be inappropriate and unfair to some people. Sometimes it’s difficult not sharing information that could benefit someone.

And the minute you start sharing inside information is the minute you kill your reputation.

Yeah, we’re done then. We lose our credibility and the ability to play the role we have to play.

In your office you have the word “integrity” in big letters on one wall, and the same words on a framed print on another wall. How do you define “integrity”?

Being honest, truthful, and dealing straightforward as possible. I don’t want to be walking down the street and always have to remember what I told this person or that, for instance. I’m not smart enough to keep all those stories straight. To me, integrity is just trying to be real, true to yourself, and honest—and if you are all that, you won’t end up in difficult situations.

Can you give an example of when you were honest to someone and that honesty had the potential to hurt you, but you did it to preserve your integrity?

I can think of fewer examples of that and more of when someone has taken advantage of me. Sometimes, I put it all out there and don’t hide anything. I’m always willing to forget what happened two minutes ago and believe in the best. Sometimes that gets me in trouble and I try to be careful to not let that happen again with that person.

When that happens, how do you react?

I am disappointed. Why would you want to hurt someone and then have to come back and deal with that person later? I try learning from it. I then know a little more about that person, need to be more careful with them, and handle them differently in the future. I have to learn from those situations.

What parts of your job are out of your comfort zone? You can’t be perfect at everything. You know that.

I definitely know it. I’ve learned there are many things I’m comfortable doing in public, but swinging a golf club is not one of them. (Laughter.) I’m not uncomfortable when it comes to public speaking. I like strategy, and in my job I have to think about the future.

I didn’t grow up with a financial background. In college, I double majored in biology and secondary education. If I get into MBA-type discussions on business—well, my MBA has been earned on the street. I don’t feel inept in those discussions, but I certainly don’t have the depth of knowledge that comes with an MBA. In business conversations, I’ll be the first to ask someone to help me understand what they meant. Six years ago before I came here, margins and return on investment weren’t even part of my language. It is now. Instead of being uncomfortable in those situations, I’ll say, “Okay, this isn’t my strength, so educate me. I can learn quickly. Bring me up to speed so I can be helpful in this conversation.”

Instead of faking it?

I can’t fake it. I’d rather be in the conversation genuinely and bring knowledge. I’m not uncomfortable learning any subject. What I don’t enjoy is confrontation, such as when I have to call someone out on something. My strength is collaboration, not conflict. If you and I disagree, I try finding a place where we can feel comfortable quickly, and do it with equal sharing and respect. Your view may be different, but that doesn’t mean your opinion is any less important, or any less right or wrong.

You are a self-described introvert and yet you have so much energy.

I’m an introvert and need time to myself. That’s where I get my energy. I don’t get it from going into a room full of people. Now, I can go to a Business After Hours, like last night, and be around a few hundred people. If you watched me there, you would have said there was no way this guy is an introvert. But in some ways that was a stage I was invited to. As their organizational leader, one of my roles is to make sure I get to know those people. But if you invite me to a setting like that and I don’t have a role, I’m the guy that seeks out people I know and latches onto them. If you’re one of those people I latch onto, I hope you have a lot to talk about because I’m going to stay with you. (Laughter.)

When coming to Mankato, you were relatively young.

I am 42 now and was 38 then.

You didn’t know everything, and you knew coming in you didn’t. Who took you under their wings and taught you?

Before coming here, I had a lot of conversations with people here I already knew. In one role before I came, I had my own consulting firm, and had the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation as a client. I did consulting work for them to help establish their Leadership Circle. Tim Penny and I worked to get that organization off the ground. In that group of about 25 CEOs was Dennis Miller of Midwest Wireless. We developed a relationship and eventually chatted about the lead position with Greater Mankato Economic Development. He talked about Mankato’s exciting future, its assets, and its people.

Along the way, I’ve had interactions with many people, such as with Dan Menden of Orthopaedic & Fracture Clinic, who described Greater Mankato to me as a “big city that knows how to play small.” I grew up in a small town, Spring Valley, Minnesota, which is about the size of Lake Crystal. Everyone knew everyone, and everything they did they first thought how it would affect their neighbors. There is a certain way we behave in Mankato, and relationships are really big here. This community has an intricate web of interaction you won’t find in a big city. As this community grows, the ability to maintain that personality is what will separate us from becoming just another metropolitan area.

Early on, I also had Bob Weiss, with USBank, as my board chair. He spent a lot of time helping me understand the community. Tom Riley was another, who became my board chair after the first year. Nobody has a bad thing to say about Tom. Really, I had a board of 18 people that helped me. I could go to any of them asking for help, and did.

Your personal story?

I grew up in Spring Valley, 30 miles south of Rochester. We moved there when I was four. My dad was an elementary school principal, and my mother an elementary school teacher. I like telling people I grew up in a Leave it to Beaver household. I had June and Ward as parents. My dad was really engaged in the community. He was a Cubmaster, Scoutmaster, and was on the church council. After I left, he became involved with city council and economic development. He taught me at an early age that I was part of a community. I have an older brother, Jeff, who is a manufacturing engineer that helps turn companies around by increasing efficiency.

I enrolled at the University of Minnesota Institute of Technology as a chemical engineering student. My mother’s side of the family had many engineers, and I was always told growing up that I had the shiniest coat and strongest teeth. I was told I’d be the best engineer their family ever had.

At that time, chemical engineers had a promising future. The summer before starting at U of M, I saw what my brother did at his company in Wisconsin. It didn’t intrigue me. At the U of M, about three weeks in, I was sitting at a lab table, and looking out the window. It was a fall day. The leaves were changing. People were throwing footballs outside. I was sitting in this chemistry lab pouring fluids from one beaker to another. It occurred to me then that I didn’t want to be in a relationship with glassware the rest of my life. (Laughter.) I knew that wasn’t where I needed to be. I called home and told my parents I couldn’t go through with it. I was dropping out. It was only three weeks into the semester.

They wanted to know what I wanted to do. I’d grown up as a Boy Scout and had worked at Boy Scout camps. I had always enjoyed the interaction and teaching. I told my parents I thought I wanted to be a teacher. I said I had always enjoyed leading things, so maybe I could be a principal or superintendent someday.

I asked my father what I should do. He hired teachers from only two schools, he said: Winona State and Wisconsin-River Falls. At the time, my high school sweetheart, Ginger, was at River Falls studying accounting. It wasn’t a difficult choice. I started the winter semester.

At River Falls, I missed science, changed my elementary education major to biology, and finished within five years. While in college, I worked as a program director at a Boy Scout summer camp. The end of my junior year, the Scouting executive for the Rochester area asked me to consider a career as a professional Scouting executive. Ginger and I were engaged by then, and she had switched to majoring in elementary education. We together decided on my being a Boy Scout executive, and after graduation they assigned me to Owatonna, with Dodge and Steele counties as my service territory. I was responsible for fifty Packs and Troops, 1,500 boys and 400 adult volunteers.

Nine months into it, my student teaching supervisor from Wisconsin called. He said he was retiring as a high school biology teacher. His principal in New Richmond was prepared to offer me the job to replace him. I could start in August, and coach sports. Ginger and I discussed whether this was what the Lord wanted us to do. We decided it wasn’t. At age 24, God had me on another road. I needed to stay with the Boy Scouts. At the time, Ginger was commuting from Owatonna to teach at Monroe Elementary in North Mankato. One interesting thread in my life is I’ve always responded to a call. God’s call to me has always been to serve communities through these types of organizations.

After five years in the Boy Scouts, I had learned a tremendous amount about recruiting and working with volunteers, and helping volunteer groups move forward. I learned how to run a camp, and through it budgeting and managing people.

And you learned how to tie knots?

(Laughter.) After five years with the Boy Scouts, I was getting invitations from larger Scouting councils around the country asking me to take on some really significant responsibilities. I was getting dream offers. Again, Ginger and I discussed and prayed about the offers. But we soon realized we didn’t want to spend the rest of our lives moving from community to community, moving up the ladder. I told my bosses in the Boy Scouts that I wasn’t going to pursue moving up in the organization.

We didn’t know what to do then, but God made His plan clear. A week later, the United Way director in Steele County, Carol Hansen, announced her retirement. After another week, about six people called to ask me to consider the position. I eventually got the job. At age 28, that was my first experience as the top executive of a community-based organization. I had to do budgets and strategy with a board. I was the leader and go-to guy—marvelous experience.

I was in that position two years when Ted Ringhoffer, the Owatonna chamber executive, was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given six months to live. He had been there 27 years. The evening the sad news broke, Gregg Draeger, the chamber board chair and an accountant who annually audited our United Way, and I, were on a walk/fundraiser together to benefit the Owatonna Women’s Center. I was shocked hearing the news. I said to Gregg, “In my role as United Way director, if there is anything I can do to identify people or serve on a search committee, let me know what I can do to help find the next leader.”
Ted turned, grinned, and said, “Glad to hear you say that, because we need you to be the next director of the chamber of commerce.”

I reminded him that I had a biology degree, and had been a Boy Scout and United Way executive. I asked, “How could someone like me ever lead a business organization? I don’t know the first thing about business.”

He said, “It’s not about that. It’s about someone who can establish vision, someone people can rally behind and believe in. And it’s about someone who can survive what is about to happen.”
He said that whoever became chamber president would have an incredibly difficult first six months. That person would not be able to measure up to Ted. Gregg said I could do it, though, because people would support me. He promised that when times got tough, he and others would defend and support me.

They were your firewall.

Yes. The first sixth months were hell. We came through it, though, because they helped me as promised. Over the next few years, we did some wonderful things. I respected everything Ted had done.

After three years there, Ginger and I felt as if our life together wasn’t right. We felt something was amiss. I remember one day when Ginger hadn’t been feeling well. I should have stayed home for her. She had a debilitating illness. We didn’t know at the time what it was, but learned later it has endometriosis. I was going off to a city council meeting that night and was at the stop sign at the corner when I realized I had ignored my wife all day in her time of need. She was afraid, and needed things, and I was going off to a city council meeting.

After coming home, I talked with Ginger. We realized our priorities were out of balance. Soon, we both walked away from our careers—she from teaching. Ginger eventually took a position at Minnesota State as a faculty member in elementary education. Suddenly, I was getting telephone calls from people asking me to work on projects for them. In about 30 days, I had six projects and the start of my own consulting firm. Primarily, I was helping launch new initiatives or projects for higher education and healthcare entities. I spent the next four years doing it.

Life was wonderful; business was booming. Then Greater Mankato Economic Development called. I wasn’t interested. I told them we had sold our home and were building a new one in Owatonna. Then I told the caller we were “content,” and as soon as I said that word it was as if a lightning bolt had been thrown down at me. I realized I wasn’t placed on earth to be content. I am here to serve, work hard, and face challenges. In this sense, God doesn’t want me content.

In my first official interview, I said, “If what you are looking for is an economic development guru, I’m not that. We don’t need to spend any more time in this interview. I don’t want to waste your time. I have clients in Owatonna that want me to get back to work.” GMED was looking for a person to bring people together under a common vision to move forward. They needed a leader. They needed someone to have the attitude of a consultant, to challenge the organization, to speak their mind.

Wal-Mart’s 880,000 sq. ft. distribution center: Will it ever be built?

Until the walls go up, nothing is guaranteed. Anyone can change their mind, and market dynamics and forces can cause it. Wal-Mart is best in the world at logistics and planning. They have delayed building their distribution center because of economic headwinds. Their retail store build-out has slowed. So it could be that their current hubs servicing this area, given the slow-down in build-out, is the most cost-effective and efficient means to do business right now.

Do you trust they will come?

We don’t have any reason to suspect they won’t. Paul Vogel (Mankato community development director) and Pat Hentges (Mankato city manager) continue to work closely with Wal-Mart. Much of what we see happening with infrastructure is being done to prepare for the distribution center. Everything is going to plan with only one exception—delaying the opening. Right now we are looking at an October 2010 opening.

They are going to employ more than 550 people. When that was announced a couple years ago, most of our employers were struggling to find employees. One question: Where are these employees going to come from? About 40 percent of our workforce already commutes in. We are fully expecting many of these employees will come from a 50-mile radius. As for affecting other companies already here, from what we have seen of Wal-Mart studies is that current Greater Mankato companies might lose up to five percent of their employees. These local employers are concerned about what it will take to keep the other 95 percent. What will Wal-Mart do to their compensation package, for instance?

But aren’t some of these local businesses assuming labor is a zero-sum game? For example, let’s say someone from Rochester is moving here to work at the distribution center. If married, they likely will be bringing with them a spouse, and suddenly the region will have another potential worker.

It’s not a zero-sum situation. And with this one-year delay, our existing businesses have been able to better prepare. When we announced Wal-Mart’s decision to site here, Pat Hentges called it a watershed moment—it was for Greater Mankato as a regional marketplace, much like the day the building of River Hills Mall was announced. This distribution center won’t just affect Mankato positively. It will be in Mankato, but, again, 40 percent of our workforce comes from outside the community. Our region will benefit.

Describe your “angel” funds?

There are two. The TRAIN fund began a couple years ago. It has 18 equal investors. We don’t own or operate it—we just helped get it started. They make all their own decisions. Investors in TRAIN pool their money, and make investments on majority rule out of a common checkbook. The other organization we helped start is Wellspring Investor Alliance, a non-pooled fund made up of SEC accredited investors. WIA investors have the opportunity to see promising, qualified deals, and decide individually whether to invest. Usually, new businesses go to a bank, but often banks won’t invest in an R&D-heavy company. There isn’t any collateral for the bank to collect.

Along those lines, the Technology Plus facility has been operating in Mankato about ten years.

A few years ago, the Technology Plus and GMED boards decided to dissolve Technology Plus Inc. The City took over managing the building, and GMED took over managing the start-up business activity. Out of that, we created the Business Accelerator. This area has about 20 different organizations to help start-ups. It’s difficult for an entrepreneur to figure out which they need. Each organization has its specialty. Our Business Accelerator, in part, facilitates the connecting of an entrepreneur to the appropriate organization. We act as a neutral broker.

Could there be a perception among businesspeople that their intellectual property could be leaked by someone on your board?

Entrepreneurs don’t want others knowing their ideas. Most tend to fear sharing them with anyone. They may think that we have to tell the board everything we’re working on, but that isn’t the case.

You’ve changed the way you get your word out to the community. Greater Mankato Growth used to have a monthly insert inside the Mankato Free Press.

The old insert had a nice run, but from a profit and loss standpoint was losing a great deal of money. We used to sell all the ads, pay for graphic design, and have to pay the Free Press an insert cost. We looked at many alternatives, including publishing our own magazine or newsletter. I wanted to continue communicating to the business community and also to the community as a whole. So for the latter, we run a half-page once a month in the Mankato Free Press. It’s very cost-effective for us.

The Mankato Free Press gives you eight pages free in its new monthly business journal. So it’s a no-brainer.

Right, and we have the monthly advertorial with it. We were able to eliminate the cost and the in-house work spending on it.

You came from Greater Mankato Economic Development, and now you’re running what used to be the Chamber with it. How do you answer critics who say you’re not spending enough time promoting Chamber business.

I’d say someone on the other side of the table is saying the same, that I’m not spending enough time on economic development and too much on Chamber business. It’s all the lens people look through.

Before merging the organizations, the Chamber had a CEO, as did GMED. Each had overlapping support services. When we added up the numbers, we learned 65 percent of our resources were going to administration and overhead, and only 35 percent to delivery and program services. After merging, and realigning, 35 percent of our resources were going to administration and overhead, and 65 percent to programs and services.

We did it to deliver more services. In the last 12 months since the merger, we have had the resources to begin the Young Professionals Group, which has almost 100 members. Except in Connect Business Magazine, we haven’t even mentioned the group. It helps 21- to 39-year-old professionals network and develop professionally. Since the merger, we’ve also started the Wellspring Investor Alliance and the College Welcome Fair. We have been able to put out valuable new product. This is what the merger was all about.

We have a big agenda, and Greater Mankato is fortunate to have a professional team at Greater Mankato Growth, from vice president to programming people to the financial director, and on and on. If you look at our team—they are very good, talented, passionate, and committed.

I get the feeling you enjoy your work.

I just love this role and what we do. The day I no longer love it is the day I’m not here. If I can’t give this thing 250 percent, and it’s not my every being, then I’m not the right guy.

Technology Plus

CONNECT: Real world now: Let’s say I want to move my start-up into the Technology Plus building. What’s the process?

ZIERDT: Not long ago, a start-up business operating outside our regional marketplace was struggling. They needed to get started here in a short time. We helped them move in within 72 hours. Given the situation, we can move fast.

The building is leased at market rate, roughly $17 a sq. ft. We meet with the potential client, and sometimes after consulting with an expert we determine they aren’t ready for us. If they are ready, we put together a proposal and submit it to the City, which owns the building. One possible scenario: We would propose, for instance, that the client rents space the first 12 months at 50 percent of market rate, then increasing to 60 percent. Or the first six months could be rent-free. It’s all how we structure the space equity. We give them space at less than market rate because the hope is three years from now that business will employ many more and build a large building and pay property taxes. We have success stories, including DayPort and MJ Biologics.

Getting to know you: Jonathan Zierdt

Born: August 18, 1966, in St. Louis Park.

Education: Spring Valley High School ’85; Briefly attended the University of Minnesota-Institute of Technology in ’85; University of Wisconsin-River Falls ’90.

Family: Wife, Ginger, the director of Minnesota State University Center for School-University Partnerships.

Daniel Vance

A former Editor of Connect Business Magazine

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