Rich Meeusen retiring with confidence in both Badger Meter and nonprofits he serves: Q&A

Posted by Patrick Leary from Milwaukee Business Journal on October 15, 2018

In September, Badger Meter Inc. chairman and CEO Rich Meeusen announced he would retire at the end of 2018, with current president Ken Bockhorst succeeding him.

Meeusen had been the CEO of the Brown Deer-based flow measurement systems and controls company (NYSE: BMI) for 23 years. During that time, he ushered in a period of prosperity at the company, developed a significant presence in the Milwaukee nonprofit sector and occasionally sparked controversy.

Meeusen recently caught up with the Milwaukee Business Journal to talk about the timing of his retirement, his future plans and how he sees Milwaukee’s business climate moving forward in the coming years.

Why did you decide to step away now?

“We really made this timing decision several years ago. This has been a long-term plan. Badger Meter is a 113-year-old company. I’m the fifth CEO. Ken will be the sixth. When you have a company that has that kind of longevity, it shouldn’t surprise anybody that a succession plan has been in the works for a couple of years.

“During that time, we did a very thorough search, we found Ken and we brought him in. I’ve had a year overlap working with him. My plan was always to retire at the end of this year. I will stay as chairman of the board until the end of next year. Just for next year, and then after that, Ken is totally on his own. And it’s important that the previous guy step away and let the new guy run the company.

“As far as why, I’ll be 64 in December. CEO is a very stressful job. I’ve had some health problems. We’ve had many CEOs in Milwaukee that have had health problems I think related to the stress of the job. I had a stroke about seven years ago. I had some heart problems about three years ago. It is difficult, and I don’t want to go out in a body bag. Whatever years I have left, I’d like to enjoy some time with my grandchildren. I’d like to travel. I’d like to enjoy life a little bit. I made the decision that 64 was going to be my out and we started planning for that.”

How do you ensure a strong transition for Badger Meter?

“A one-year overlap is a pretty heavy overlap for bringing in a successor. It costs the company money to do that. The board decided we were going to incur that cost and we were going to do it to make sure we had a good overlap.

“Ken and I have gotten along really well. As he says, he’s prying the company out of my warm fingers, not my cold, dead fingers, and that’s fine. It’s a lot easier for me to retire knowing that I have a lot of confidence in my successor, and I do. So that helps too.

“By being on the board for a year, I’ll be able to continue to help him with both strategic and governance issues. After that, it’s really as he needs me. If he wants to call, I’ll be available. We get a good phase out for me and a good, smooth transition.”

Why spend just one year on the board after you retire?

“I have seen people stay on boards for three or four years and that generally turns out to not work real well for the new person. Part of the problem is my insider knowledge kind of gets frozen in time when I retire and then you’re three years later and you still have this frozen image of what the company is like. It’s hard to relate. So I think it’s best that after 2019, I’m completely done.

“I’ll also say that I have a sizable stake in Badger’s stock. I will take that down slowly, but I’m not dumping it right away because I have confidence in where this is going.”

You are significantly involved in Milwaukee-area nonprofit boards. How are you choosing to alter your involvement in those after you retire?

“The two I’m keeping are Goodwill and The Water Council. I’ve been chairman of The Water Council since we started it. I told them at the end of the year, I will no longer be chairman. I will stay on the board. That’s simply a labor of love. I started The Water Council, I enjoy working with The Water Council. I want to see that keep going. The Water Council has actually grown beyond Wisconsin into an organization with a national scope, so even being part-time in Florida, I can contribute a lot.

“Goodwill Industries (of Southeastern Wisconsin), I’ve been on for about 20 years. I was chairman, I’m not anymore, but I was very involved in recruiting the current CEO there, Jacqueline Hallberg. I do a lot of mentoring of her, and I’d like to continue that and to continue to see to that organization’s goals.

“I had to narrow it down to just a couple and those were the two that I picked. There were other very worthy organizations that I’ve been involved with, but they’re in pretty good shape, as far as having a strong board that can fill in. Not saying that these two aren’t, but I feel good about those other organizations. I don’t feel like I’m leaving them in the lurch in any way.”

Does your plan to spend much of your time in Florida impact your decision to leave more locally focused organizations like the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and the Greater Milwaukee Committee?

“Yeah it does. I’ve always felt that if I couldn’t dedicate the time to a nonprofit board, I wasn’t going to do it. I really try to be very active in the boards that I’m on. I don’t have any boards where I lend my name only. I am there. I am active. I take a leadership role.

“Clearly, the ones that are directly related to the Milwaukee business community, those ones I don’t feel I should be on there if I’m not part of that business community.”

Do you have any thoughts on where the local business community is heading as you transition out of it?

“The business climate in Wisconsin, in the last eight years under Scott Walker, has really prospered. The U.S. economy has been in a very slow growth mode, but I think Wisconsin, and in particular, Milwaukee, has done much better. There was nothing being constructed. In the ’90s, the 2000s, there was nothing being done. Now, I go downtown and, holy crap. Sometimes I can’t find my way around downtown because all of the roads are blocked off with construction. You’ve got the Northwestern Mutual building, the Fiserv Forum, the new BMO Harris building going up. There are so many exciting things going on down there. It’s just incredible.

“The business climate here is good. My concern, if you want to talk about the future, is the talent issue. I think all of the businesses are going to struggle attracting talent. I’m just seeing it now as I’m finishing my career, but I’ve just got to believe it’s going to get worse. Right now, it’s very hard to find engineers, and there’s a lot of competition for engineers. I think that’s going to spread, especially when Foxconn gets up and running.

“The solution to the talent war is going to be education and that’s where we have a problem. I think we’re very fortunate in Milwaukee to have several large, good universities around here that generate talent, but the problem is they’re not going to generate enough graduates for what we need.

“It’s the non-college graduates that I’m particularly worried about. We have to take those people who never finished high school, get them their GEDs, get them the additional training, so that we get them in the workforce. That’s going to help solve the talent shortage. If we don’t do that, we’re going to be in trouble. We can have all the economic growth we want. If we don’t have the people to do the jobs, it isn’t going to work.”

What would be your advice for fellow executives?

“Stress can be good. The only thing that causes stress is if you care about your job. If you don’t care, there is no stress. So I like stress. I like feeling stress, because it means I care about my job. But there’s ways to manage it.

“My problem is, in my 42-year career, I didn’t do a good job managing stress. I didn’t take good care of myself. It wasn’t until I had the stroke that I started going and working out every week, working with a personal trainer, trying to eat a little bit better.

“When people ask me if I have any regrets in my career, my biggest regret is that I didn’t take better care of myself physically. These CEOs coming in have to understand that you’re going to have stress. You can’t eliminate stress if you care about your job. But you can manage it better. And that means taking some time for yourself.”

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