By David Ward, AEM Director of Public Affairs

When AEM Senior Vice President of Government and Industry Relations Nick Yaksich announced his retirement earlier this year, it was met with a great degree of gratitude throughout the association and the broader equipment manufacturing industry. Because after 20 years, Yaksich had left a firm footprint across the industry thanks to the many personal relationships and impact he made during his tenure. Countless policies passed under his watch made it easier for the industry to sell more equipment, create more jobs, and help grow the broader U.S. economy. Yaksich also was elected to a number of industry leadership positions, which raised AEM’s profile in the nation’s capital.

So at the same coffee shop where Yaksich interviewed me for my job seven months ago, I interviewed him about everything he experienced in two decades, his plans for retirement, and even about who he envisions to win the next World Series.

Here are his answers to a few of the questions I asked:

Q: What’s the biggest lesson you learned after 20 years with AEM?

Yaksich: When I first started in the industry, the internet was just starting. Everyone was talking about how the internet was going to change everything. The lesson I learned over 20 years is the equipment business is still about the people. It’s a people business. People want to buy from people they like, people they trust, and I think from an AEM perspective, too, our strength is from people being engaged in our grassroots efforts, our political efforts, and in our programs.

Q: What are you biggest hopes for AEM and the industry?

Yaksich: I hope there’s continued growth and success. In my 20 years, I look back at the 2007-2008 recession, the main economic turn and our members stayed engaged with AEM. The board meetings were well attended. Nobody was absent. For our manufacturers, to have to lay off anyone, is tough. When you go to some of these towns where these factories are the main employers for the community, it’s an awesome responsibility for our business leaders to provide direct and indirect jobs. I think going back to our first I Make America video, Coffee Joe, it was at a plant outside a John Deere factory, you look at all the indirect jobs, the stores, and the vendors, are dependent on our companies being successful. So when the recession hit, they struggled to find ways to keep their workers employed. It makes me proud to know that I worked for an industry like that.

Q: Who are you going to miss most?

Yaksich: Interaction with CEOs. That they’ve opened up their offices, their companies, and their factories to us. They’ve given up their time. I realize they didn’t do it because Nick Yaksich called, they were doing it for the industry and AEM. To have that opportunity to see inside their thinking, about the economy or about politics, that was a real gift. Seeing someone like AEM Chair Rich Goldsbury square off with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross about tariffs and China trade was special.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge that’s taken place in 20 years?

Yaksich: It’s workforce. To continue to get good people. During the good times, the competition for people is tough because other people are hiring away. But then also when times are good, you have certain skilled jobs you need. Now with production up and strong demand, to get people to do the two or three shifts is tough. I think in today’s economy, there’s a heightened awareness that workforce is an increasing challenge.

Q: What will your first day of retirement be like?

Yaksich: My first day of retirement will be interesting because it’ll be the first day in my life that I don’t have to be somewhere or do something. Whether it’s school or having a job. I’ll have time. I’ll have family and friend trips planned. I talked to (AEM President) Dennis (Slater) about leading up to my retirement, and told him I wanted to go 110 miles per hour and then stop. I didn’t want to phase out. I am also looking forward to a long midday walk with my wife, Melanie.

Q: Who do you think will be the first person to call about something work related after you retire? What will it be about?

Yaksich: It’ll be someone from Milwaukee just checking in. Over the years I’ve worked hard to maintain those relationships. We have a great staff there. So it’ll be someone from Milwaukee who is used to check in with me. They’re used to finding out what’s going on and checking in, but then realizing, “Oh yeah, Nick’s gone.”

Q: Name one thing you won’t miss after you retire.

Yaksich: It’s got to be my commute. My combined commute, coming to work and going home, is three hours. With our jobs in Washington, we go to receptions, we go to dinners, so it makes for an extra-long day. Over the years, I’ve told my wife on Monday, “I’ll see you on Friday.” Because there’s so much going on during the week. I won’t miss the three hours in the car.

Q: What’s at the top of your list to do in 2019?

Yaksich: Spend more time with family and friends. Whether younger cousins, nephews, being able to travel to see them. My Dad is 89 years old this year, my in-laws are in their eighties. They live in the Outer Banks. So instead of a long weekend in the Outer Banks, North Carolina, I can spend a whole week giving them attention and helping them with their later years in life. 

Q: What experience made you laugh the most in your time with AEM?

Yaksich: It’ll never cease to amaze me, I chuckle at it, the creativity that Al Cervero brings to the AEM Annual Meeting. One year reflecting a global market theme he had the current AEM Chairman arrive to the meeting from a trip in Africa by riding in on an elephant with a lion by its side. On a serious note, Abe Lincoln appeared at one of our annual meetings reciting the Gettysburg Address and talking about leadership. Or doing a hologram last year. It’s always amazed me, the creativity Al brought.

Another funny memory was when AEM Chairman Rusty Fowler from Krone followed the tradition of introducing a speaker at the TCC, a construction D.C. fly-in. That night Rusty attended a fundraiser for Speaker (of the House John) Boehner and after meeting five highway contractors, Rusty introduced himself as an agriculture equipment manufacturing and Speaker Boehner jokingly said, “What the hell are you doing here?” It was great to see the ag side of our business support the construction side.

Q: You traveled a lot in your career here, favorite airport?

Yaksich: It’s got to be Baltimore, because it’s home. You know looking back too, knowing that AEM is a global player, it’s given me an opportunity to travel the world. I’ve been to Beijing twice, Paris, Santiago, Brussels, Prague, representing the industry. That’s something I never dreamed would happen. That’s certainly one of the highlights of my career.

Q: What’s one thing people don’t understand about advocacy?

Yaksich: People don’t understand that each individual can make a difference. Every one of us in a sense is a lobbyist and has the freedom to advocate for your belief. All it takes is to be engaged and involved. Just like any business, you’re developing a relationship. That member of Congress, he or she is elected. They should care, you need to make them care. It’s very simple to do that. It just takes one, coming in on a fly-in or hosting a member at your plant. It just takes simple things to build those relationships.

Q: Who’s going to win its next/first World Series – Nationals or Brewers? Why?

Yaksich: I think it’ll be the Nationals. My hope is that Dennis and I will attend the National League Championship Series when the Nats beat the Milwaukee Brewers on the way to beating the New York Yankees.

Q: How many times have you visited AEM headquarters in Milwaukee?

Yaksich: I’ve been to Milwaukee 110 times over 20 years. The one year I went the most was when AEM went through a merger, I probably went 10 times in 2010 alone. Milwaukee is a great city, and I will miss the frozen custard and Spotted Cow (beer), but not have to worry if (Green Bay Packers quarterback) Aaron Rodgers is healthy or not.

Q: You were at AEM during 9/11, what was that experience like for you?

Yaksich: I was one of two people traveling for AEM on that day. I only had an assistant in D.C., and she could see the smoke from the Pentagon, and like most people was afraid and not sure what to do. She got home safely, and by Thursday, I was able to fly to Columbus, Ohio and drive eight hours home. I will never forget seeing people’s faces and hearing their stories of being in D.C. on 9/11.

Q: What accomplishment(s) are you most proud of?

Yaksich: Building a great team in D.C. and getting to help people advance their careers. When I started here there were two people in the office. I had to cover it all: State government affairs, trade, infrastructure, workforce, you name it, everything. Now building a team with people being experts in their areas and the communications function in D.C. has positioned us to be a recognizable voice in advocacy. In addition, I have received some unexpected notes from colleagues I impacted along the way without realizing it.

Q: What piece of advice would you give young people just entering the industry?

Yaksich: It’s simple. When you go to an event or conference, sit with people you don’t know. The tendency is to sit with people you know. If you see a table with people you know and a table with people you don’t know, go to the latter. You’ll be amazed what you learn or who you’ll meet. I’ve met people that way and then have relationships for life. I’ve always told my kids, my job is like LinkedIn in real life.

Q: What’s one thing people still don’t know about you after 20 years?

Yaksich: I’m an open book. I don’t think there’s really anything at this point. It’s a challenge in today’s world, because for young people, how you develop relationships has changed due to social media and the internet. You need to be able to embrace the whole person, not just who shows up to work from 9 to 5. It was always important for me to show I respected and cared about staff as individuals.

Q: How many (estimate) rounds of golf did you play during your 20 years at AEM?

Yaksich: I never played golf before I got to AEM. Late one night several years ago at a reception, I met Gary Godberson of Gomaco, and Gary asked, “Do you play golf?” I said, “No, I played football, basketball, tennis, but never golf.” So at 2 a.m. in the morning he showed me how to swing a club. And said, “Watch your mailbox, there’s an invitation coming.” He sent me an invite to the Gomaco Invitational, now I’ve been to the tournament over a dozen years. It’s changed my life. Golf, for me, it’s always been about the three other people I’m with. So hopefully, moving forward, I’ll be able to play more so that I can keep having good relationships with people.

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