Retirement didn’t take for Dave Gordon, who’s still making a difference

Dave Gordon hit retirement and decided it was time to get to work.

During a long career at Procter & Gamble, Gordon and his family vacationed every year in Chippewa Falls, his wife’s hometown. Upon retiring a decade ago, he and Ann decided to permanently settle here. But he didn’t settle into retirement.

“When you spend a career developing skills, it’s fun to use them. In my career I’ve been trained and learned and experienced things that I now want to use in my retirement,” he explained. “I’ve been very fortunate in my career and my life, so I believe that a part of being responsible is to give back when you have been successful and enjoyed life.”

Besides co-owning Lucy’s Delicatessen and Foreign 5 with his brother-in-law Sheldon Gough, Gordon sits on the board of several non-profit organizations such as the United Way, the Chippewa County Historical Society, and the Legacy Community Center.

His positions at Procter & Gamble were in management, and he’s finding that leading in the private sector and steering community organizations require many of the same skills. A big one that comes in handy through all aspects of life is communication.

“For most problems I’ve encountered, the root cause is communication,” he said. “I try to listen, but I don’t always do that very well. I try to be sure I understand what people are talking about or asking.”

In his career Gordon honed his motivational skills and learned that what works best for him is often to give people more freedom. “If you tell someone what you want them to do and exactly, step-by-step how you want them to do it, there’s very little challenge or motivation for them. But if you lay out what the expectations are and what you want to achieve, then the challenge for someone else is to figure out how to get there.”

Taking up projects

These skills continue to be important now that he’s trying to rally people behind his ideas and projects. One such project is the Legacy Community Center.

Gordon and five other county residents realized that one solvable barrier to helping residents in need was how decentralized the area’s service organizations were. This group reasoned that if one building housed the point of contact operations and office spaces for several organizations — such as a free clinic and a food pantry — they could more easily be accessed by the folks who need them.

This is where Gordon’s motivational skills will come in handy. The group has found land on which to build the center, but soon they will need to begin fundraising. He estimates that they need to raise about $2 million, and he also hopes that the center will receive enough donations on an annual basis that the organizations housed there can operate rent free, so more of their funds can go towards providing services rather than covering overhead.

Raising those kinds of funds means convincing others, of course, and Gordon said he’s learned the value of having one-on-one conversations with people to share his ideas and gather their input. “I’ve been talking to a lot of people about the Legacy Community Center and about what we want to do and what it would be like. I get a lot of positive reinforcement,” he said.

“Eventually when we get to needing money for these projects, the question becomes, does the community agree with you, is it the right thing to do? Chippewa Falls is a very generous community. They support a lot of things that go on in the community, so I’m encouraged that the Legacy Community Center will be supported as well …The people of Chippewa Falls are very concerned for the people who live in the area who may not be doing as well as they should.”

New ideas

As a board member for the United Way of the Greater Chippewa Valley, Gordon has had to do a fair bit of convincing as well. Traditionally, the United Way doled out funds to charitable organizations, but Gordon notes that this approach wasn’t working here. The number of people in need is not shrinking, it’s growing.

A few years ago he attended a United Way community leaders conference where they talked about changing the way the organization works. Instead of simply giving out funds, the United Way would work with the community to critically examine the primary problems and target those issues specifically. Gordon sees the advantages in bringing that “community impact” idea to the Chippewa Valley.

“I think it’s going to begin to pay off big time because we’re now focusing on the issues here in Chippewa County and on what do we do about them with the resources we have,” he said. “We have identified education, income and health as the areas of life that have the greatest impact on the quality of your life, so we’re focusing on what the issues are in the Chippewa Valley around those aspects and looking at how we make changes.”

“Dave has actively immersed himself in understanding the new model, learning how it could be replicated in our community, has attended multiple United Way national conferences … to learn more, and has been candid to share his knowledge,” said Jan Porath, executive director for the United Way of the Greater Chippewa Valley. “Instead of easily saying that ‘it’s too challenging to implement community impact,’ Dave has rallied the board of directors and volunteers to bring the model forward and embed it as part of our organization. You would expect this from an employee, but you don’t always expect that from a volunteer.”

Thinking big

The Legacy Community Center is not the only building Gordon dreams of adding to the cityscape. He is also president of the board for the Chippewa County Historical Society. The Historical Society and the Chippewa Falls Museum of Industry and Technology (CFMIT) have two buildings in the county, but neither was built to be a museum and so they aren’t ideally suited for that purpose. He would like to see a new building constructed that would be more fitting as a museum so the two could benefit from being in one location.

The way Gordon became involved in the historical society seems rather typical. They had a need for a new board member, and even though he had never been much interested in history, he wanted to help. As he became more involved, he became more interested in the subject.

“The Chippewa Falls area has such a rich history. I’m amazed at what has come out of this little community in west-central Wisconsin. It’s pretty amazing. The object with the Historical Society is to try to share this history with people because I’m not sure that everyone who lives here understands the impact that Chippewa Falls has had, not only on the country but the world,” he said.

For example, Chippewa Falls was the home of what was the largest saw mill in the world. Darley pumps, which were once on every Navy ship in World War II and are now used in fire engines around the world, are still manufactured here.

“I’ve heard lots of talk about leaders are born. I’m not sure about that,” he said. “I think you learn from watching others. You see people who are good leaders and you try to emulate them, and you see people who are not good leaders and you make a mental note of that and you say, ‘I don’t want to do that!’”

Porath sees leadership in Gordon’s attitude. She said that where many people might say they can’t help or that something won’t work, “Dave sees things differently and gets to yes and makes it happen.”

Guiding groups

Before working for Procter & Gamble, Gordon served for five years in the Navy, and he has always been interested in athletics. So it’s no wonder that he believes in the power of teams.

“I have learned over time that it takes a group or a team to make things happen,” he said. “It’s unusual in life that one individual alone can make a difference. In management positions, you basically get to work with a lot of different people, you explain what you’re all about, you explain what your job is, what your mission is, and then you try to motivate people to all pitch in and get the job done.”

Guiding groups as their paid manager can be a little different than acting as a board member guiding volunteers. Although the motivational tactics may be the same, Gordon notes that, of course, paid employees have a significant incentive to show up (i.e., their paycheck). There is still a trick with it, though, which is to figure out how to motivate them to put in that extra effort to make their company shine. Seeing his company succeed and put out good products that benefits society was very rewarding for Gordon.

Perhaps more rewarding for him is his current work in the non-profit sector. You still need to figure out how to get volunteers to give a little extra, but volunteers are motivated by their interests and by the task at hand. “It feels good when you see someone who needs help and you can help either through your organization or through your volunteer work,” Gordon said.

Vision of the future

Gordon’s vision of a Chippewa Falls of the future includes, of course, a Legacy Community Center and a new building for the Historical Society and CFMIT. In addition, he is looking forward to seeing what the city does with the riverfront.

“We have lived in communities that have developed the riverfront, and that really becomes a fun thing for the people who lived there. You get to go to concerts and all kinds of community things that can happen in a park like that.”

Especially with the new riverfront developments, Gordon believes the city has the potential to expand its appeal to tourists. “I would like to see people continue to come downtown and to see tourists visiting us because we have a lot to offer and a rich history to share with people. I think Chippewa Falls could become a tourist destination. There’s a lot to do here if you come to Chippewa Falls for the weekend or even a week, especially in the summer.

“I would like to see Chippewa Falls as a growing, thriving community where the citizens all participate and enjoy living here,” he says. “Chippewa is a neat place to live, and I would hope it continues to go that way. But you do have to work at that. It doesn’t just happen.”

Who knows? Maybe the next tourist to settle here in his golden years will be one of the city’s next great leaders.

This article appeared in the Chippewa Valley Business Report.

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