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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Wisconsin)

Julie Tolan has spent her career at nonprofit and private institutions working to raise millions of dollars for the arts and higher education efforts. Now she finds herself learning the ropes of bankruptcy as she works with attorneys, the courts and others to help pull the YMCA out of a $29 million hole that nearly sank the 155-year-old Milwaukee institution.

As the president and CEO of the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee, Tolan's name appears on the court papers filed to seek bankruptcy protection in federal court last month listing more than 250 creditors, including major banks.

Bankruptcy was a bold move for the Y, but one that Tolan and other board officials say was necessary to develop a plan to save the organization and refocus its mission to continue to serve Milwaukee.

The plan calls for selling most of the Y's real estate and downsizing to concentrate on the central city with healthand wellness programs for youths and families.

For the Y, the bankruptcy opens a new chapter in its long, local story. For Tolan, it opens a new, and perhaps the biggest, chapter of her career.

But those who know her say she's up to the challenge and express confidence in her abilities to shepherd the Y through this most difficult period.

"I can't think of many in the city who would be more qualified for the tough job of getting the Y through this, like Julie," said Andy Nunemaker, the CEO of Dynamis Corp., who knows her from the Milwaukee Symphony Board and Marquette University.

"She's confident, smart and a hard worker who sticks her nose to the grindstone," he said. "It's almost too easy to work with her because she's so personable."

"Her style is pragmatic, but gracious," said Julia Taylor, the president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee. "She's good at getting down to the crux of an issue, but working with a group to get there. She inspires confidence in the ability to see where the future is and how to get there."

Both praise her nature to be transparent.

Even before the Y filed for bankruptcy, Tolan and Bob Venable, the chair of the Y's board, went public and outlined the seriousness and unsustainable nature of the Y's crushing debt and dim finances in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Soon after, the Y filed for bankruptcy, an announcement that drew big headlines and thrust Tolan into the spotlight.

While filing for bankruptcy was a difficult step, in many ways it's been a relief, Tolan said.

"It's been a relief to be able to tell people and to be open with all the members of our family in the community and share our plans," she said in an interview at the Rite-Hite Y.

The reaction has been universally positive and supportive, she said.

"We needed to know that. I don't know how to ask for help and engage people without being as transparent as we can," she said.

But in trying to figure out what to do about the Y's finances and its future, there were some sleepless nights and even some fear, she said.

"I didn't know if we could figure it out - if it was salvageable. I didn't know if we could find a plan to ensure a sustainable future. Now that there's a plan I'm sleeping a lot better," she said.

In the spring of 2013, Tolan was chosen for the job to succeed Bob Yamachika, who retired after 30 years with the Y in various positions, including chief operating officer, and who had presided over the Y's building boom.

"Julie was far and away our strongest candidate for the job and our top choice because of her track record to build strong organizations and inspire people," Venable said.

"She calls it like she sees it; not as we would like it to be," said Venable, who led a Y task force to deal with the mounting financial challenges.

Tolan accepted the job as the 12th president of the Y and started in August. She said she was aware there were financial problems.

But it was on Labor Day that the severity of the situation struck. After years of restructuring, layoffs, salary freezes, benefits cuts and membership losses, the financial challenges had never been fully addressed, she said.

"The most stunning data point and the most vivid clarity came to me when I learned that 280 of 350 full-time employees had left the organization in a 12- to 18-month period. That's an 80% attrition of people who left voluntarily. ... We were imploding."

Although the Y board is composed of more than 25 sophisticated business and community leaders, the extent of the problem and rate of deterioration was hard to come to terms with, Tolan said. "It was like a snowball going down hill. It was not as steep at the top."

As a newcomer to the organization, she believes she had the ability to be "clear-eyed and as unemotional as possible."

In some ways this job presents the greatest challenge of her career, especially in terms of the magnitude of the problems and the risks, Tolan said.

Now 49, Tolan grew up in Brookfield the youngest of three children and the only daughter. Her father, David,was an agent for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. and had his own business. Her mother, Roseann, was a teacher and later a stay-at-home mom and active community and school volunteer.

"They were tremendous optimists and I'm an optimist," Tolan said. "They showed us both the joy and responsibility of being in a community and of being involved and making a contribution."

After graduating from Brookfield Academy, Tolan received an English degree from the University of Michigan. She has a master's degree in management from Northwestern University.

Her first job was at the United Performing Arts Fund working on special events. Then she left to work in fund development at Marquette.

After 10 years, she returned to UPAF as president, where she was responsible for raising $10 million a year to support arts organizations.

In 2002 she moved back to Marquette as vice president for advancement, where she is credited with raising more than $650 million in 10 years for the school, an increase of about 90%.

In 2012, she left Marquette to form her own consulting firm, where she worked with large and small nonprofits.

"My whole career is in the nonprofit sector, but I don't think of myself as a fundraiser," she said. "Fundraising is the outcome of a process that begins with a clear vision, developing strong strategy and then executing. If you do that well, you can engage people. That's the part of the work I've always loved."

Tolan and her husband of 14 years, Mark Wiesman, live on Milwaukee's east side. She's stepmother to his two daughters, Anne, 21, and Mary, 19. The couple enjoy walking, reading and golf.

Although she knew there were challenges at the Y, ultimately what persuaded her to take the job was that not many nonprofits have stood the test of time like the Y, she said.

"Adapting to change and finding its place of relevance - that's the way it's survived," she said.

But the brand got confused when the Y tried to do too much - a charter school and other community efforts - that meant borrowing. Then the recession hit, competition increased and the Y couldn't keep up.

"It's easy to question all of that," she said. "But at the end of the day we have a chance to chart a new course and build a strong and meaningful tradition. A lot of organizations just go away. That's something we could have done. In some ways, that would have been easier. But there's a lot more for the Y to do."

July 10, 2014

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