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Vistage Spans Generations

For 65 years, more than 100,000 executives have turned to Vistage to become better leaders and drive better results. Of those thousands, three members — two current and one former — share a unique bond.

John W. Mellowes of Charter Manufacturing and Dennis Konkol and Robbie Fullerton of ER Wagner lead companies whose executives were there when founder Robert “Bob” Nourse held the first-ever meeting on October 25, 1957.

Then-presidents Charles Mellowes (Charter) and Robert S. Wagner (ER Wagner) sat with Nourse and other local executives to talk about their challenges. By the end, the group agreed to meet again, and The Executive Committee (later renamed Vistage) was born.

Vistage has remained connected to these companies, helping executives continue to learn, grow and succeed — in one way or another — across generations.

PASSING IT DOWN FROM FATHER TO SON

For years John W. Mellowes didn’t know his grandfather, Charles, was a founding member. He just knew his father, John A. Mellowes, was a member of a group he thought was spelled T-E-C-H. “I had no idea what it was,” says Mellowes.

A graduate of both Princeton University and The Wharton School, the younger Mellowes worked outside the family business for years before joining Charter in 2003. As Mellowes adapted to working with family members, his father suggested joining a peer group.

“Being in a family business is incredibly powerful, but it can be frustrating as well,” Mellowes says. “So to have a resource group that you can talk to on a confidential basis, and they know where you’re coming from, that’s a great resource to have.”

Mellowes started in a Vistage group of younger-generation members from local family businesses in 2004, later joining a Chief Executive group after becoming CEO in 2013. A 19-year member, Mellowes continues to utilize his membership, particularly the thought leadership from guest speakers.

Still, Mellowes says the issue processing has been the most valuable. That guidance helped Mellowes lead Charter to No. 25 on Deloitte’s 2022 “Wisconsin 75™,” a ranking of Wisconsin’s 75 largest private companies.

“Whether you’re a junior member in a family managed business, a senior member or just an executive, the phrase ‘it can be lonely at the top’ is really a true statement,” he says. “So to be able to have a sounding board to bounce ideas or work through specific problems, that’s a great resource to have.”

Recently, Mellowes learned about his grandfather Charles’s status as a founding member of Vistage. That makes sense, the third-generation member says, surmising that his grandfather convinced his father to join.

“My father would have taken him up on the offer very quickly,” says Mellowes.

BRINGING VISTAGE BACK INTO THE FOLD

Robbie Fullerton didn’t know his grandfather, Robert S. Wagner, was a founding Vistage member when he joined in 2006. He just knew Vistage sounded like a good idea.

“I was really attracted to the notion of ‘Hey, let’s hop in a room together, spend a day a month, and let’s focus on the business issues, bring in speakers, all of it,’” says Fullerton.

The founder of Blue Rock Advisors, a fund-of-funds investment firm based in Wayzata, Minnesota, Fullerton spent almost seven years as a Vistage member, learning how to grow his business into an industry leader in market-neutral strategy.

Fullerton left Vistage and moved from CEO to the Chairman’s position after a medical condition required him to step back. But a few years later, Fullerton learned from a former Chair that ER Wagner had fallen on hard times. That prompted Fullerton to join the company’s board.

“My father made it very clear that under no circumstances would we work for any of the family businesses,” Fullerton says. “When I heard about the performance at ER Wagner, that gave me cause to get involved with the business with the blessing of my family.”

After joining, Fullerton set about finding a new chief executive for the Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin-based metal fabricator and manufacturer. While scanning the resume of local executive Dennis Konkol, Fullerton noticed something immediately.

“He was a 20-year member of Vistage,” Fullerton says. “That really says something about someone.”

A Vistage member since 1997, Konkol has stayed with his CE group because of the value he’s found as a young executive and as a seasoned C-suiter.

“I have a simple way of looking at leadership, both tone and technique. So let’s just say that I was a tone leader and what TEC brought in was more technique,” Konkol says. “Now it’s just about fine-tuning.”

When he interviewed with Fullerton for the CEO job, Konkol said he’d only take it if he could remain a member. “Some companies are persnickety about stuff like that,” Konkol says, adding that Fullerton encouraged it. “I know Vistage is a source of pride for those guys.”

Now in his fifth year, Konkol says the company is righting itself. Fullerton concurs. “Dennis has done a number of incredibly proactive things,” he says. “We’re confident we’ve got the right guy at the helm.”

Over the years, these executives have found value in being a part of Vistage, to sustain and grow their businesses. And it’s a partnership they plan to continue for years to come.

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