пятница, 14 сентября 2012 г.

BIRKIE TIME.(THE CAP TIMES)(BUSINESS BEAT)(Column) - The Capital Times

Byline: Mike Ivey

The old line about first shooting all the lawyers doesn't apply to Madison's Don Becker.

Becker has quietly become one of the most charitable givers in town.

In fact, the largest cross country ski race in this country - the American Birkebeiner - now carries Becker Law Office as the presenting sponsor. Becker's name is splashed all over the 36th annual event scheduled for Saturday in northern Wisconsin.

'Don is just an incredibly generous person. ... Plus he's a pretty good skier,' says Ned Zuelsdorff, executive director of the Birkie.

Subaru has been the main corporate sponsor of the Birkie for several years but decided to pull back on its commitment because of slowing auto sales and the soft economy.

That left the door open for Becker Law Office to sponsor the feature event, the 50-kilometer race from Telemark Resort outside Cable to downtown Hayward.

'Ned came down to Madison, camped out in my office and made me write a check,' laughs Becker, 57, who will be skiing his 25th Birkie on Saturday.

Becker's giving ways extend well beyond the ski world, however. He and his wife, JoAnn, have hosted a plant sale for the last 10 years and raised $80,000 for six different charities with a child component: Dane County Partners For Foster Care, Safe Harbor, Rainbow Project, Access Community Health Center, Porchlight, and also Second Harvest Food Bank.

When the La Follette High School student newspaper was about to go under last year, Becker stepped in with a quick $500. This fall, he sponsored the Boys All-City Cross Country team banquet, the first time the event has been held since the 2004 season.

A 1982 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, Becker has also been active in supporting the health community and has sponsored the National Alliance on Mental Illness annual walk at Olin Park, the AIDS Network, the Epilepsy Foundation of Southern Wisconsin, Access Community Health Center and other efforts.

'As a business person, I like to do what I call community marketing,' he says. 'It helps me get my name out there but it also allows me to support the kinds of people who help build community.'

The Becker Law Office - which includes attorneys Anne Hartwig and Charles Kreimendahl - hasn't made its money representing wealthy corporate clients. Rather, the firm specializes in Social Security disability, income, retirement and survivor benefits. The firm collects only if a client wins a back pay settlement from the government.

So how can Becker afford to give so much away? He declined to share actual dollar amounts but acknowledged it's well into the five-figure range annually.

'The question is how extravagantly do you live and how do you spend your money,' he says. 'Some guys want a big-ass boat. For me, I'm happy with a new set of ski poles.'

Going the distance

The Birkie is arguably the biggest single winter tourism event in the state, with an economic impact of over $4 million for northern Wisconsin.

Over 7,000 skiers have registered for Saturday's events, which include the featured 50K Birkie Skate, 54K Birkie Classic, 23K Kortelopet and Prince Haakon 8K races. The event is in line for its second largest turnout ever. The 25th anniversary race in 1997 drew a record 7,880 skiers.

Race director Zuelsdorff notes that another 1,300 kids ages 3 to 13 are participating in Thursday's Salomon/Swiss Miss Barnebirkie; with 400 teens set to race the CenturyTel Junior Birkie and around 300 skiers of all ages expected for the Cheqtel 5K and 10K events.

'In all, we are expecting 9,500 participants in our 2009 events,' says Zuelsdorff, a former top official at the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Getting nearly 10,000 skiers to sign up for anything is no small feat in itself. But two consecutive winters of good snowfall in the Midwest have helped.

Still, Mother Nature threw Zuelsdorff a curve last week when an ill-timed February thaw hit. The race course is still in good shape but there were questions about getting enough snow on Lake Hayward to bring the race to its traditional finish on Main Street. The lake had turned into a giant puddle atop the surface ice following the warm spell.

But any worries about having to shorten the race were settled Tuesday when officials made the call to go all the way into town. Organizers plan to plow a ribbon of snow across the lake, with temperatures expected to remain below freezing between now and raceday.

'The trail base remains solid with a four- to six-inch base,' Zuelsdorff says. 'The grooming crew is working very hard preparing for a full race course.'

Skiers from 21 countries and 48 U.S. states participate in the American Birkebeiner. Aside from the United States, the top three countries represented are Canada, Norway and Russia. The top five U.S. states include Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan and Colorado.

mivey@madison.com