Three leaders of the Wisconsin and Minnesota cooperative sector received their business association's highest award recently.
Cooperative Network, the two-state trade association, bestowed the Cooperative Builder Award upon Brian Kulas (Taylor Electric Cooperative, Medford), Larry Zanoni (Group Health Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin) and Jeff Nielsen (United Farmers Cooperative, Winthrop, MN).
The presentations took place at the November annual meeting of Cooperative Network in La Crosse.
Kulas has served as Taylor Electric's secretary-treasurer, vice chairman and chairman of the board; as Taylor Electric's representative on the Dairyland Power Cooperative board; as a member of various Dairyland committees and the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association Education Committee and as vice chairman and current chairman of the Federated Youth Foundation.
In conjunction with the Medford School District and local co-ops in Taylor County, Kulas spearheaded development of a fifth grade curriculum instructing students in cooperative business and principles that's now being adapted for use in more Wisconsin and Minnesota school districts. Earlier this year, the project was honored with a National Rural Electric Cooperative Association Community Service Award.
"The Wisconsin co-op community has greatly benefited from Brian Kulas's years of tireless work," said Bill Oemichen, president and CEO of Cooperative Network. "We especially appreciate his foresight in educating the cooperators of tomorrow."
Nielsen's cooperative career began 30 years ago when he took a job in retail sales with Growmark-FC Cooperatives in Wisconsin.
In 1995, he became feed division manager for United Farmers Cooperative in Winthrop, MN. Over the next four years, both volumes and revenues for the business quadrupled, and Nielsen oversaw construction and integration of new manufacturing facilities.
In 1999, he became general manager and CEO and helped grow sales to more than a quarter-billion dollars, with assets exceeding $90 million. Last year, Nielsen became CEO of United Grain Systems in Winthrop, a co-op partnership with ADM/Benson Quinn.
"Jeff is the kind of guy you want around when it's time to accomplish big things," said Oemichen.
"He has a grand vision of where cooperatives can go, and his energy and enthusiasm will continue to move things forward."
In 1975, Zanoni became operations director of the fledgling Group Health (GHC) Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin. He helped the 500 pioneer members realize their vision of a consumer-owned health care provider, and GHC managed to pay off a $2.5 million federal operating loan, with interest, in less than 10 years.
Taking the position of executive director in 1988, Zanoni has led the organization through noteworthy achievements. Since being named CEO 12 years ago, he has overseen GHC's growth from 50,000 to 69,000 members, built its reserves to $95 million, and helped the cooperative earn consistent recognition among the top 10 health care organizations in the United States.
"Larry's quiet style of executive leadership is truly inspiring," said Oemichen.
"He leads by example, and really empowers his employees to run one of the top health care cooperatives in the nation."
Cooperative Builder Awards were given by the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives from 1976-2008, while recognitions on behalf of the Minnesota Association of Cooperatives, called Cooperative Leadership Awards, were presented beginning in 2000.
In 2009, Cooperative Network started presenting annual Cooperative Builder Awards to honor individuals' distinguished services irrespective of state affiliation.
Cooperative Network is a leading Wisconsin business association. It serves more than 600 member-cooperatives, owned by more than 6.1 million Minnesota and Wisconsin residents, by providing government relations, education, marketing and technical services for a wide variety of cooperatives including farm supply, health, dairy marketing, consumer, financial, livestock marketing, telecommunications, electric, housing, insurance, worker-owned cooperatives, and more.
For more information about Cooperative Network, visit www.cooperativenetwork.coop.