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BizCast 59 Kwik Trip Divesters to Business Investors: Nesnah Ventures with Cate Hollowitsch

Cate Hollowitsch

Episode 58

From Kwik Trip Divesters to Business Investors: Nesnah Ventures’ Cate Hollowitsch

About BizCast Greater La Crosse

We bring you news from the business community. From startups to experienced problem solvers, you’ll get in-depth insight on the challenges and opportunities of doing business in Greater La Crosse. Our show is a collaboration between WIZMNews.com and BizNews Greater La Crosse ( GreaterLaCrosse.media ).

Summary

Cate Hollowitsch, the chief marketing person for Nesnah Ventures joins Vicki Markussen to talk about how Nesnah turned its sale of Kwik Trip shares decades ago into an acquisition and management company. Nesnah is a La Crosse-based company with more than 200 employees and a diverse portfolio of companies. They are constantly looking at growing more. Listen and learn about this hidden gem of a company based here locally.

Full Transcript [generated by AI]

[00:00:00] Cate Hollowitsch: we sell gasoline to convenience stores, airport schools, things like that.

[00:00:05] Cate Hollowitsch: Agriculture feeds, we feed dairy cows. We have Borrachos, the restaurant chain. There’s one in Onalaska, one in Sun Prairie, and one in Eau Claire. And then we are the Midwest’s largest scale distributor. 

[00:00:21] Vicki Markussen: Welcome to BizCast, Greater La Crosse, a weekly podcast from BizNews. We bring you news from the business community. I am your host and founder, Vicki Markussen. And joining me today is Kate Halowicz. She is the chief marketing person for Nesna. ? Where did your professional career start?

[00:00:39] Cate Hollowitsch: Wow. Oh, my gosh. I’m dating myself. My professional career started before there was cell phones and the internet. Oh, mine too. Let’s just say that. I ran shopping centers on the East Coast right out of college. I did that for a number of years. And then I’ve just transitioned. I’ve always been in marketing though.

[00:00:59] Cate Hollowitsch: So marketing has always been the thread that’s pulled through. I’ve been in multiple industries and done several other things, leading me to Nezna Ventures, where I’m at now. And the industries. as specific as the marketing, but marketing has changed a lot over my career. Originally the, it was very traditional print and events, and it’s morphed all the way into what it is now with influencer marketing and social media and digital and SEO and all this stuff that did not exist when I started.

[00:01:29] Cate Hollowitsch: So part of the process now is with Nesna Ventures, one of my side components of my job is I get to manage my boss’s children.

[00:01:38] Cate Hollowitsch: So I spend a lot of my time saying, don’t tell your dad. I said, I love them. They’re just amazing humans. And One or more of them, one for sure, will probably want my job someday, and I don’t want to be in her way when she’s ready to take it. That’s a great way to look at it. I just want to be able to gracefully step aside when she’s ready, and they’ll either have other work for me to do, or I’ll just continue to do some speaking things on the side and be there to help her and support her.

[00:02:06] Cate Hollowitsch: Maybe her and I will switch roles and she’ll become the boss. There you go. And I’ll report to her as a side hustle and some other, I don’t even know but I just don’t want to be in her way when she’s ready and public speaking and sharing my experiences and helping others get ahead of that may be a good fit.

[00:02:22] Vicki Markussen: Yeah. So let’s go back in your experiences. So you were saying you’re on the East Coast, basically running shopping malls. How did you get here? 

[00:02:31] Cate Hollowitsch: I grew up in Eau Claire. Okay, so I’m actually from Wisconsin. Okay. And when, and back then, remote work was not a thing. Nope. So when a job offer came, you either took it or you didn’t.

[00:02:43] Cate Hollowitsch: And the opportunity came for me to relocate. So I did, I actually went to college in Honolulu. So I relocated in that direction first, then came back here, then went East Coast when the job opportunity arose. And then when that opportunity was done. I moved back here. My, my dad was sick for a while, so I moved back to take care of him and just stayed.

[00:03:05] Cate Hollowitsch: Sometimes you have to go away to realize home is the best place. Yeah, absolutely. 

[00:03:11] Vicki Markussen: Especially as people start to have families or family their extended family becomes that much more important. Yeah, I 

[00:03:19] Cate Hollowitsch: love this is home. So it’s nice to be back. So we’ve I’ve been back home since. Oh, gosh, 20 years.

[00:03:26] Cate Hollowitsch: I’m sure I’ve been back in this area. Yeah, all in marketing, all in marketing. Yeah. I did a small little stint in fundraising, but to me, that’s still marketing. Absolutely. To me, everything is marketing. It is. And everyone is in marketing. Absolutely. Yes. If it touches the customer or it touches the consumer, it’s marketing.

[00:03:47] Vicki Markussen: And everyone has to tell a story. Yes. Yep. We’re on the same page. I love it. So great. Okay. So let’s get to Nesna. So I was saying Nesna is just this hidden gem of a company. I know of it. It’s Hanson spelled backwards and they were originally tied in with Quick Trip. Is that correct? 

[00:04:04] Cate Hollowitsch: Correct. Yeah. Yeah. They were the original founders and they sold it to the Zillows fully.

[00:04:09] Cate Hollowitsch: They were partners for a while as part of that journey, but they sold it in 2000 outright and I think it was the very next day. Yep. Yep. They missed working together, and so they founded Nezna Ventures. So they have we have a wholesale gasoline company, so we sell gasoline to convenience stores, airport schools, things like that.

[00:04:27] Cate Hollowitsch: Agriculture feeds, we feed dairy cows. We have Borrachos, the restaurant chain. There’s one in Onalaska, one in Sun Prairie, and one in Eau Claire. And then we are the Midwest’s largest scale distributor. in the Midwest, so weighing and measuring everything from the truck scales at the weigh stations on the side of the interstate down to the scales you find at festival that weighs your potato salad.

[00:04:52] Cate Hollowitsch: So I knew a small 

[00:04:53] Vicki Markussen: fraction of everything that you just said. Oh, and 

[00:04:56] Cate Hollowitsch: Cote d’Ivoire. We own we make violin, carbon fiber violins. Oh, I didn’t know that. That’s up in Winona. 

[00:05:02] Vicki Markussen: Yeah. Composites. Yeah. Is that new? Is that a new acquisition? No, 2016 I think they purchased that one. That’s kind of new, but yeah.

[00:05:14] Cate Hollowitsch: I’m never bored. If I don’t want to talk about cows, I’ll just talk about violins. 

[00:05:17] Vicki Markussen: Right. Or take your pick because there’s a variety. And so they don’t start businesses, they acquire businesses. Correct. 

[00:05:25] Cate Hollowitsch: Correct. We’re not, we don’t love this startup. Yeah, that’s a lot. We love to buy businesses we look for small to medium size.

[00:05:36] Cate Hollowitsch: We’re not going to buy a large corporation small to medium size, where typically things like HRIT, maybe accounting for sure, marketing, don’t have full time roles. In the organization? Mm-Hmm. . Yep. Because we offer that as shared services. We like business owners that are ready to divest in some way, shape or form.

[00:05:57] Cate Hollowitsch: Either they wanna retire or they wanna try something new or do something new. There’s usually not a succession plan in place. They maybe don’t have a family member or somebody in the business that’s able to carry it forward, but they don’t want the business to die. They, or. go away. They want their legacy to continue.

[00:06:15] Cate Hollowitsch: They just don’t have either the capital or the resources or the expertise to do the thing that needs to be done next. 

[00:06:22] Vicki Markussen: Because they’ve, for a lot of small businesses, that’s their retirement is being able to sell that business because they’ve built that value up over time. And so That is something that Nesna takes a look at.

[00:06:34] Cate Hollowitsch: Yeah, because, and we do buy and build. We’re not a typical private equity where we turn and burn it after a few years or dismantle it for parts. We want to look at businesses that we could actually keep for the long haul and turn them into something fabulous if they’re not already fabulous.

[00:06:49] Cate Hollowitsch: Yeah. 

[00:06:51] Vicki Markussen: So do you have a lot of converse, I’m getting into the muck of business you always think about scale. Can some of these businesses scale? It’s not just I’m assuming not just maintain them as is, even though they’re great businesses is how do you grow them? Is that part of the goal? The restaurant chain for example it could grow in a number of ways.

[00:07:08] Cate Hollowitsch: It could morph into a completely different concept and branch off, or just simply add more locations, and do what we’re already doing just in other cities and grow it that way. The carbon fiber company we could start making something else. It’s a lot more of, like, we can’t get charged for anything but a year we don’t have the change to start making something else.

[00:07:26] Cate Hollowitsch: All of them have some ancillary way that we could take and grow it. None of them are just, it’s what it is, and that’s all it’s ever going to be. They all have the opportunity to have something else connected to it. 

[00:07:41] Vicki Markussen: pattern as to how often Hanson or Nesna, sorry, Nesna purchases? Are they looking to purchase every 

[00:07:49] Cate Hollowitsch: few years?

[00:07:50] Cate Hollowitsch: No, because we want it to be right. But there’s a few of us, Mark Hanson, and then myself, and our CIO, and then three of the third generation. the little MNA committee. We’re just constantly trolling. We have hundreds in the pipeline at any one point in time. And some of them funnel through to closure. Some of them fall off at various stages of that process.

[00:08:17] Cate Hollowitsch: So we just know that Sometimes we talk to a company and within six months we’ve purchased it. Sometimes eight years go by and we still haven’t purchased it. So we know that there just has to be a lot of conversations 

[00:08:33] Vicki Markussen: in 

[00:08:33] Cate Hollowitsch: there to make it happen. So there’s no real once a year, once every two years, there’s no pattern like that.

[00:08:39] Vicki Markussen: How many employees? Across all the portfolio companies, we’re in the mid 200s.

[00:08:43] Vicki Markussen: Okay. 250 to 260 on any given day, if you had everybody together. And how many would you say in the core? In the core at Nesna, we’re around 70, I believe. Okay. And that’s just literally just supporting the Yep, it’s all of HR, all of IT, all of accounting, finance, all of marketing. And then we’ve got the shareholders in that mix and some other support people.

[00:09:09] Vicki Markussen: Fascinating. 

[00:09:10] Vicki Markussen: Have they 

[00:09:10] Cate Hollowitsch: ever sold any? Oh, yes. Okay. We’ve had to do that. It’s just, it’s the nature of the beast. Sometimes you get a business that either the situation they’re in, whether that’s the industry or the economy or the marketplace shifts. And it’s not, I started with them in 2020 and we’ve divested of two.

[00:09:31] Cate Hollowitsch: in that time. So either it’s an industry that we’ve decided it’s not our ball of wax and we want to get out of it, or there’s an economic reason attached to it. There’s not any rhyme or reason to that, but it’s not, it is not our favorite thing to do. Obviously, it’s not our intention. We go into these hoping to keep them forever, but we’re also not you know, going to continue doing something that makes no sense whatsoever.

[00:09:57] Cate Hollowitsch: Yeah. So when the writing is on the wall, sometimes that’s what, what has to occur inevitably. But 

[00:10:02] Vicki Markussen: I hate to ask it this way, but is there a strategy in terms of which companies you acquire based on whether they fill a hole that’s between companies? 

[00:10:14] Cate Hollowitsch: Sure. Not necessarily between companies though. So each of our companies have to five year strategies.

[00:10:20] Cate Hollowitsch: And they may need an acquisition of some sort in order to accomplish what their three to five or even ten to fifteen year plans are. Those would be priorities. I will make it up in an unrelated industry so that I don’t give out a secret. Let’s say we owned a hair salon. The hair salon may have a secondary of acquiring a massage therapist type business.

[00:10:49] Cate Hollowitsch: So the M& A team would then start looking for an existing massage therapist type business that could bolt on to the hair salon. So that would be one part of the M& A strategy for Nezna. The other part could be, we own a hair salon, and we own a massage salon. A car dealership and maybe name a whole bunch of industries.

[00:11:10] Cate Hollowitsch: Mm-Hmm. . And when you look at the cyclical nature, maybe there’s a pattern, maybe we purchased all kinds of businesses that all have revenue spikes at the exact same time of the year. Or maybe all of our companies are not recession proof. Mm-Hmm. . So the gap could be, we need a company that. Recession proof or we need a GAP whose cycle, sales cycle is opposite of the ones we already have.

[00:11:32] Vicki Markussen: Yeah. With cashflow. Yeah. 

[00:11:34] Cate Hollowitsch: So those types of strategies could impact where we go looking for something as well. 

[00:11:39] Vicki Markussen: Ah. Have there been, I’m sure there have been. Have there been businesses that you just really, really want, and they just will not sell? 

[00:11:49] Cate Hollowitsch: That’s a good question. I actually don’t know that. I don’t know the answer to that.

[00:11:55] Cate Hollowitsch: It’s possible that the Hansons have had something like that, that they keep hoping will flip, but I’m not aware of it. 

[00:12:04] Vicki Markussen: Well, it hasn’t happened since you’ve been there. Not since I’ve been, but there could be 

[00:12:07] Cate Hollowitsch: something that’s lingering from decades ago that I just don’t know of. There is a current one, the one that I said we dated for eight years and has not come to fruition.

[00:12:17] Cate Hollowitsch: That is one that we were pretty adamant about. We wanted it and we could not get it over the finish line, so we had to walk away from it. Interesting. 

[00:12:27] Vicki Markussen: Is it usually price? Is it their devotion to employees? What are some of those negotiations? 

[00:12:34] Cate Hollowitsch: I think it depends. I guess in some cases it could be price.

[00:12:38] Cate Hollowitsch: Ultimately, I think, and I’m just My opinion, I don’t have any facts to base this on, but the types of businesses that are appealing to us are beloved of their founders, because that is part of what makes them so appealing, that a human on earth poured a lot into their baby, into this company, they’ve built a brand, they’ve had a lot of success with it, it’s their passion, they, it has a seat at the dinner table.

[00:13:09] Cate Hollowitsch: It’s part of the family. Ultimately, that’s also what makes it hard for that owner to part with. Of course. Even when they’re ready. And sometimes it’s the spouse saying, we are done and I want a vacation or I want to whatever, but that doesn’t make it easy. And many of us, I’m, I am like the jerk of all the work personality tests.

[00:13:32] Cate Hollowitsch: I’m the high D overachiever type A unhealthy sense of me. Like you named the trade. I’ve got it. In my mind, too, a lot, you will have to have some of that spirit to be a good entrepreneur. And many of us cannot picture what our worlds look like without our work defining who we are. And I would speculate that for a business owner, that is a big part of their identity.

[00:13:59] Cate Hollowitsch: And then who are they when it’s gone? Our goal is we want to be that guide for them and help shepherd them through that process and help them figure out what it, what are they when it’s over and what can they be and how can they find fulfillment in a different way, but they still have to do the work of getting there themselves too.

[00:14:17] Cate Hollowitsch: And sometimes that doesn’t happen. Because they’re just not ready for some reason. 

[00:14:21] Vicki Markussen: . So one of my common closer questions is, what makes you passionate about what you 

[00:14:27] Cate Hollowitsch: do? Marketing, of course, we talked about that. I’m passionate about marketing.

[00:14:30] Cate Hollowitsch: It’s something that I just have been in my blood since I was about 14, I think, and I’ll always love that. But right now, my biggest passion are those. Third generation Hansen kids. Oh, that’s awesome. I am just nutty about all of them. Mm. They are delightful humans, and they’re fascinating, and they are so much smarter than me and I dedicated employee.

[00:14:53] Cate Hollowitsch: They just, I just can’t, I don’t know. I feel like I’m gushing a little bit, but I love spending my days watching them do amazing things. Hmm. And in watching them make a difference and work, even the ones that are not in the business, I just, I’m just fascinated by their lives and the things that they’re accomplishing and achieving in the world. 

[00:15:15] Cate Hollowitsch: And I’m passionate about upholding my end of the bargain. I want to do my job so well that Nesna Ventures is functioning and vibrant for them when and if they’re ready to take it over. And I feel like that is, that’s my job. I have to ensure that I don’t let down my end of the bargain.

[00:15:36] Cate Hollowitsch: I don’t want it to fail on my watch, if that makes sense. And they’re just, yeah, they’re just amazing. I call them kids because they are, but they’re not, they’re grown adults. Some of them even have children. So they’re, they’re not really kids anymore, but they’re just, Delightful. And when they come into the office, it’s like a family member comes home and amazing.

[00:15:57] Cate Hollowitsch: I just am crazy about them. 

[00:15:58] Vicki Markussen: Yeah, it’s kind of a mentorship opportunity pass on what you know, watch it grow. And I’m sure they’ll do even more amazing blooming things beyond what you

[00:16:10] Cate Hollowitsch: Hey, Hi. Hey.

[00:16:24] Cate Hollowitsch: Hey, how’s it going? Welcome to Hey, ACE Who? That’s amazing as well, working in the business, but there’s actually four generations walking on earth. So the fourth generation are babies and toddlers. They’re out there. So it’s kind of an additional motivation for one of them may want to come back. So now we have a whole nother group of people that we got to keep it working for.

[00:16:43] Cate Hollowitsch: So 

[00:16:44] Vicki Markussen: right. And it’ll keep getting passed on. That’s amazing. Yep. Great. Well, you’ve been listening to Kate Holowitz. She is the chief marketing person at Nesda. And I am your host, Vicki Markussen. We’ll catch you next week.

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