Nettles: ‘Relationships crucial to building successful businesses’

October 22, 2015

By StCory Nettleseve Waring

Special to the Milwaukee Times


Cory Nettles and his little sister were born in inner-city Milwaukee to a single teenaged mother. The children were raised by their mother, grandmother and other members of what he describes as a “close-knit family with strong religious values.” The children attended Milwaukee Public Schools. “I was a pretty mature, precocious, hard-working kid and I enjoyed attention, but I never got into any trouble,” he said. Instead Nettles said he set goals for himself early and satisfied his need for attention by excelling academically and earning the praise and attention he sought. When pressed he laughs and admits he was probably a bit of a ‘nerd’ in school. “I was a pretty good student,” he said.

“I had a lot of support from teachers and administrators because of my enthusiasm. I have been blessed with many guardian angels.” After graduating from high school, Nettles chose to attend Lawrence University, a private college of fewer than 1,600 students located in Appleton. While perhaps not as famous as some other historical liberal arts colleges, in a study by the National Science Foundation, Lawrence ranked 28th nationally in the percentage of graduates who go on to earn doctorates.

For as long as he can remember Nettles said he had wanted to be a lawyer and a business manager. Among several guardian angels that helped him during his time at Lawrence, Nettles said Tom Lawrence (no relation to the school) stood out in particular. After graduating magna cum laude in 1992 Nettles said he was eager to start law school, but Lawrence persuaded Nettles to apply for a very prestigious post-graduate fellowship sponsored by Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM. Nettles said he was one of less than 20 who were selected.

The fellowship provided funding for one year of self-directed, self-taught study anywhere in the world. Nettles decided to visit nine sub Saharan African countries and study foreign investment. On his way to Africa he passed through Europe and on his way back in 1993, he spent time in Moscow, studying the Russian economy two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The opportunity gave him a much broader view of the world and he is glad now that he waited a year before starting law school. Nettles literally believes in guardian angels. “I am a person of faith,” he said. “I believe in God and Jesus his son.

I pray regularly and believe that God has a plan for all of us… You can’t teach Sunday school without being a believer.” Nettles said he regularly teaches an adult bible study class for anywhere from 40-60 people at New Hope Missionary Church,, 2433 W. Roosevelt Dr. Based on the brief summary he gave of the lesson he prepared for the class he taught on October 17, it would appear that Nettles puts as much thought and care into preparing for his bible study as he does into doing a business deal. Nettles received his law degree from UW-Madison in 1996. He also met his wife, Michelle, in law school. She is a non-practicing attorney with MillerCoors.

They live in Milwaukee and Chicago. During college he had worked two summers for Senator Herb Kohl. During law school he was an intern for Quarles & Brady, LLP, the second largest law firm in the state of Wisconsin. After receiving his law degree Nettles joined Quarles & Brady until he was appointed Secretary of Commerce by Governor Jim Doyle in 2002. He returned to Quarles & Brady as a partner in 2005.

In 2007 he reduced his role at the law firm and launched Generation Growth Capital Inc., which invests in small businesses in the upper Midwest. Nettles said he looks to buy companies where the owner is looking to retire while the company finances are still stable. His philosophy is to provide capital investment to boost growth during a five-to six-year period and then perhaps turn around and sell the company at a profit. Currently Generation Growth owns nine companies and has sold three.

Fifty percent of the companies he owns are in heavy industrial manufacturing, with the remainder in health care and technology. “I’m from this area,” he said. Investing and building up companies is more than just a matter of dollars and cents for Nettles. “Relationships are crucial,” he said. “Anything I’ve done, I can trace to a person who stepped forward and helped.” Nettles also donates generously of his time to the community.

He said he sits on close to a dozen community boards and is one of 4 co-chairs of this year’s United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County campaign which has set for itself a goal of raising $60 million. Nettles said he is confident they will meet their target. Inner-city Milwaukee holds a special interest for Nettles, but he has not yet been able to figure out a way to entice some large employers to relocate to the area or figured out a business plan that he thinks he could make work. That does not mean he hasn’t been considering ideas, however.