Last spring, in one of his first moves after becoming CEO of Lands’ End in Dodgeville, Jerome Griffith met with UW–Madison chancellor Rebecca Blank to discuss ties to the university.
Less than a year later, the well-known clothing company has opened a new office on Main St. in downtown Madison, and begun collaborations with UW–Madison faculty, staff and students.
“When Jerome joined Lands’ End, he was extremely interested in learning more about our current connection with the university, and expressed commitment to finding ways to grow the relationship,” said Tom Gloudeman, head of talent acquisition for the iconic American lifestyle brand. “One of the things we talked about at the meeting was establishing a physical space in Madison to facilitate interaction with students and faculty.”
As Wisconsin businesses face a future dominated by ramped-up change, the need for specialized help in a range of areas – including engineering, data analysis, and digital issues of all sorts – is growing more acute. The quest for such help is one reason why several large corporations have opened outposts near the university in Madison in recent years.
Oshkosh Corp., for example, now has a Madison office, 84 miles from headquarters, to intensify its ongoing relationships to UW–Madison. “We are looking for skill sets in finite element analysis, modeling and simulation,” says Tom Quigley, vice-president for business development. “These are higher engineering skills that we sometimes struggle with in hiring or finding resources.”
With about 16,000 workers worldwide, the company places great emphasis on UW–Madison talent. “It’s a tier-one school for us, from a recruiting perspective,” Quigley says. “We start to engage at a grass-root level, and students start to understand what Oshkosh is and what opportunities we may offer them.”
Oshkosh and Lands’ End join high-tech giants Microsoft and Google, which opened Madison offices about a decade ago. Microsoft’s Gray Systems Lab sponsors collaborations in database science between staff and computer-science grad students. About two-thirds of Google’s Madison staff have UW–Madison degrees, mainly in computer science, said the office director, James Laudon in 2016.
One motivation for the outposts is the massive university expertise in many of the most pressing issues confronting industries where the only constant is change, said Nick Pasquarello, a senior university business liaison the Office of Corporate Relations. “For 15 years, OCR has helped businesses such as these navigate successful relationships with the university. We have worked to ensure these outposts could find technical expertise, research colleagues and talent that is distributed across many campus departments, institutes and centers.”
A second motivation is to “raise the flag” and increase awareness of jobs, challenges and workplace cultures outside Madison. Lands’ End “was an early member of the Center for Retail Excellence and the E-Business Consortium,” says Gloudeman, “but we felt the next step was to open a physical space. The center is strategically located in downtown Madison to allow Lands’ End innovation, marketing and data science teams to work side by side with students on key projects and initiatives. The center is an opportunity for us to continue our strong partnership with the University of Wisconsin–Madison and drive innovative business development in the retail industry.”
Already, three Ph.D. students have begun working on data for Lands’ End, Gloudeman says. “We have a lot of data, and it’s no secret that we are focused on digging deeper into data analytics. When we find students who have academic curiosity in our project areas, we provide them with a practical outlet for research. It’s not theoretical; it’s tied back to a specific business challenge.”
“Lands’ End, like anybody else in retail, is looking for new ways to connect with consumers, and tapping into ideas on campus is only going to help,” says Jerry O’Brien, director of the Center for Retail Excellence in the School of Human Ecology. The company, he notes, sponsored a student competition to design the most appealing fitting room. “Lands’ End is about to open stand-alone stores, and they thought it would be a great opportunity to go to the next level. Four teams designed some amazing fitting rooms. I can’t say they will use one of the designs intact, but I am confident they will use some of these ideas.”
More contact is better, says Gloudeman. “The purpose of establishing a space like this is to access university talent and create a place where we can test and learn in a variety of ways. With our new Center for Innovation, we are thrilled to extend our partnership with the University of Wisconsin–Madison. At Lands’ End, we believe innovation is a key part of a successful business – and UW–Madison is an important partner to help us build a strong future in retail.”
David Tenenbaum | University Communications