University of Wisconsin-River Falls
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Winter 2010

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Alma Matters

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2009 Distinguished Alumnus Mark Lacek:

‘Happiness is What Matters’

by Kevin Harter

Lacek with his family
Distinguished Alum Mark Lacek with wife Susan, and daughters Ally and Emmy.

Driving snow pelted his face as wind howled through the pine forest. Mark Lacek adjusted his deer rifle, sat on a stump and pulled a candy bar from his blaze-orange coat pocket.

“It was six o’clock in the morning, a blizzard was raging and I started laughing. What a great life!” Lacek recalled.

Less than 24 hours earlier, Lacek had been sitting in a high-backed leather chair along a mirror-polished walnut conference table while Wall Street investment bankers shot down his $25 million offer to buy a Twin Cities-based airline.

There was no time to ponder the deal gone bust. Lacek glanced at his watch to see it was noon and peered out from the Manhattan skyscraper at the glass and cement canyons below. He needed to catch a flight out of New York that afternoon for an appointment that was just as important, if not more so. Wisconsin deer season was about to start, and he and his dad had never missed opening day.

After crossing 1,200 miles of open skies to Minneapolis and driving five hours on country roads up north, Lacek finally arrived at his favorite deer-hunting stump. Forty-five minutes later he had shot an eight-point buck. “I never did get my airline, but I did get my buck. I have no regrets—none.”

Lacek is a self-described small-town “Sconnie boy” who is as comfortable in a duck blind as he is in the boardroom. He grew up in Mercer, a wide spot in the road in northern Wisconsin. It boasts “one grocery store, two gas stations and 12 bars,” says Lacek.

Surrounded by rivers, lakes and farms, Lacek was an entrepreneurial thinker from the start. He even says he wondered what the cows thought as they grazed in the fields and pondered how he could add little pontoons to his shoes so that he could walk on water.

A Distinguished Path

Named the 2009 Distinguished Alumnus at UW-River Falls, Lacek and his dreams arrived in River Falls in the fall of 1975. While working toward his bachelor’s degree in economics at UWRF, his business ideas and entrepreneurial skills took shape.

Ever the entrepreneur, Lacek started a pizza delivery business on campus and even thought about starting a restaurant with his roommate Ron, called McRonald’s—to compete with McDonald’s.

UWRF College of Business and Economics Dean Glenn Potts said Lacek made a good impression as an undergraduate and continues to impress.

“Mark was always an interesting student who made things happen. Since that time, he has been an exceptional entrepreneur who has turned good ideas and hard work into great professional success. The fact that he has not changed his basic value system is a tribute to him as a person,” Potts said.

Lacek is grateful for his UWRF education. “An education is one of the few things in life that no one can take away from you,” Lacek said. “It was one of the best times of my life, and I met some of my best friends while at college.”

After graduating from UWRF in 1979 with a degree in economics, Lacek landed a job in strategic planning at Republic Airlines, which later merged with Northwest Airlines. Lacek’s career took off after he was named marketing director and developed the WorldPerks frequent flyer program.

As the first of many awards to follow, Advertising Age magazine hailed Lacek as “one of America’s best and brightest in advertising and marketing.”

In 1993 Lacek co-founded Lacek Group Worldwide. Under his leadership, they re-launched the Delta Sky Miles program and established loyalty programs for a host of global brands, including National Car Rental, Starwood Hotels and Singapore Airlines. In 1998 Lacek was honored as Ernst and Young’s “Entrepreneur of the Year-Midwest Region.”

Lacek’s list of companies is impressive, if not varied. He served as CEO and president of Milepoint, an Internet loyalty application and technology company. He then co-founded BidPal Technologies, which specializes in wireless devices for charitable and silent auctions, and Bonfire Partners, a full service loyalty and brand-marketing agency. Lacek is currently managing partner of Denali Marketing and is about to launch another enterprise.

But none of these successes have been as rewarding to him, he says, as a nonprofit organization that he and his wife, Susan, founded as a tribute to their late daughter to help parents and grieving families.

Named for their first child, Faith, who died at birth, Faith’s Lodge was born in response to the grief the couple endured. They raised $3 million and donated 80 acres to establish the lodge as a retreat for parents who have suffered the loss of a child or for those who have chronically ill children.

Faith’s Lodge has been featured in local and national newspapers and on TV shows including NBC’s “Today” show.

“Faith’s Lodge is a great example of him turning great personal sorrow into support for others in need. Potts said “Susan and Mark are to be commended for their contribution. It is a privilege to know them.”

Lacek has a long-running relationship with his alma mater as well. He’s served as executive in-residence for the College of Business and Economics and on its advisory board for a number of years.

Last spring Lacek, as the 2009 Distinguished Alumnus, delivered the UWRF commencement address to more than 700 students using both humor and warmth. Lacek recommended each student should strive to live a life of few regrets. He explained, “We don’t really regret the chances we take–our failures or dead ends in life–but ultimately, we do regret the chances and the risks never taken.” Lacek went on to receive a standing ovation.

His life philosophy is simple, he told the graduates. “It’s not about the stuff and the prestige,” he said. “Believe in your higher power, as we are just passing through this life. Love your mom and your dad for they are the true lighthouses in your life. Be good to your sisters and your brothers as they are your true blood and from them comes your soul. Treasure your true friends as they are the real gold in your life and never let them go. … Every day matters.”

He continued “Don’t focus on money, and don’t let anyone steal your dreams and tell you can’t do it. Happiness is what matters.”

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