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Tom Flesch

'No replacement for hard work'

Succeeding in business and seeking a cure

By Kate Hartsel

When it comes to challenges, business or personal, Tom Flesch has a simple philosophy: Work hard.

It's a principle he applies in his work as president and CEO of the Gordon Flesch Co. Inc., the largest independent office equipment dealership in the United States.

And it's what motivates him as he works on behalf of a foundation that is seeking a cure for polycystic kidney disease — a disorder that shortened the lives of his father and paternal grandmother and led to his kidney transplant and that of his brother John.

"PKD is somewhat of a hidden disease," said Flesch, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 1974 with degrees in business administration and economics."Although you have it all your life, the symptoms usually don't show up until later in life when something like high blood pressure reveals the disease."

The most common genetic disease in the world, PKD affects more than 600,000 Americans and an estimated 12.45 million people worldwide — more people than those with cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, hemophilia, Down syndrome and sickle cell anemia, combined. The disease causes multiple cysts to form on the kidneys. The cysts grow and multiply until the kidneys shut down, causing end-stage renal disease for which dialysis and transplants are the only treatments.

A member of the PKD Foundation for 14 years, Flesch served as its chairman of the board and was co-chair of the foundation's first End PKD campaign, an effort that raised $5.5 million to fund research on and raise public awareness about the disease.

PKD is hereditary, so Flesch knew he was at risk. His paternal grandmother died at 50 of complications from PKD, before dialysis and kidney transplants were treatment options. And his father, Gordon Flesch, died at age 72, also from complications related to PKD and its treatment.

Flesch said his father was one of the early leaders in the PKD Foundation.

"It all started with a $100 donation Dad made to the foundation after seeing a brochure," Flesch said.

After the donation, Gordon Flesch received a call from Dr. Jared Grantham, one of the PKD Foundation's founders. Gordon Flesch became a member of the PKD Foundation's board of directors and soon became a friend and adviser to Grantham.

"There are so many encouraging trials going on now on treating PKD as a result of the research dollars the PKD Foundation has raised," Flesch said. "I feel a need to continue to work to raise money and awareness so we can find better treatments and ultimately a cure."

Flesch does his work from Columbus, Ohio, where he and his wife, Jeannie, a 1973 UW-Eau Claire education graduate, live.

Gordon Flesch established the family's office equipment business in 1956 in Madison . He ran the company — which now has more than 700 employees and annual sales of $150 million — until the time of his death in 1995.

"Dad was a terrific guy in so many ways," Flesch said. "A good businessman, he hired quality people who were dedicated to what they did, and, in turn, he ran a company that treated people well. We have been very fortunate to have so many people stay with us long term, especially in this industry."

Flesch said he and his two brothers have continued the family business's tradition of caring about its employees, noting the company provides employees with good benefits and awards education scholarships to employees' children. This year the Gordon Flesch Scholarship Fund will award 16 $4,000 renewable scholarships to students who continue their education at an accredited institution, he said.

The company also provides more than $100,000 in charitable gifts from the Gordon Flesch Charitable Foundation, a foundation the company started after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, Flesch said.

The company, which has seven branch offices and a dozen smaller offices in Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio, was planning its annual recognition dinners for employees when the terrorist act occurred. Fancy dinners and a party atmosphere didn't seem appropriate in light of the tragedy, he said.

The company instead donated the money earmarked for the dinners to the families of those who died in the attacks, Flesch said. The company decided to continue the charitable gifts each year and established an employee-run foundation to select the charities to be funded.

"It's an opportunity to help people in need and for the company to give back to the communities that support us,” Flesch said. “And the employees get to decide what's worthy of funding."

Flesch said giving back comes easily for him because so much has been given to him. Those gifts include a college education, a successful career, a supportive family and, seven years ago, a kidney from his sister Lucy Flesch Svee, a 1978 UW-Eau Claire graduate. (His brother John received a kidney from their sister Sally. Their brother Bill does not have PKD.)

In that spirit of giving, Tom and Jeannie Flesch made a $50,000 gift to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation in 2002 to establish the university's first endowed Blugold Fellowship and to continue the couple's longtime support of a Wisconsin Academic Excellence Scholarship.

Blugold Fellowships provide tuition support and stipends to outstanding first- and second-year students who collaborate with faculty members on their research and scholarly activities. Wisconsin Academic Excellence Scholarships go to the top graduating students in Wisconsin 's high schools who enroll at a UW System school, state technical college or participating independent college.

"When you've had the opportunity to go to school and learn and then have gone on to be productive in society, giving back is just what you do," Flesch said. "Today, with the state budget so tight and with less money coming to the universities, the private sector has to step up — giving where the state drops off.

"If we are going to keep a viable, healthy state economy, we need to fund our educational institutions so we can keep the brains in Wisconsin. If we don't keep up the quality of educational opportunities, the bright students are going to leave the state."

In addition to their financial contributions to the university, Flesch and his wife also serve as members of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation board of directors.

Flesch said hard work earned him a college degree, helped him succeed as a businessman, helped him raise millions of research dollars for the PKD Foundation and helped him survive a kidney transplant.

"There's no replacement for hard work," Flesch said. "You can have the brain power, you can have the talent, but the most important thing is to do your job, whatever it is, as hard as you can. That's how you'll succeed."

Kate Hartsel is a writer for the UW-Eau Claire News Bureau.

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Blugolds to the rescue

When Tom Flesch's kidneys were failing, he had no energy, he looked haggard and his skin was sallow.

“I felt just terrible,” Flesch said. “My best option was a transplant from a living donor, a family member if possible. I was lucky my sister was a perfect match and offered her kidney to me.”

Lucy Flesch Svee, a special education teacher who lives in Minneapolis, graduated in 1978 from UW-Eau Claire.

Flesch also had the support of another UW-Eau Claire alumnus, Dr. Robert Kirkpatrick, who graduated in 1970 and is a liver transplant specialist at The Ohio State University Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, where Flesch had his surgery.

By pure chance, Flesch and Kirkpatrick moved to the same neighborhood in Columbus, and the two became good friends. When Flesch needed the kidney transplant, Kirkpatrick helped Flesch select a surgeon and checked on his progress at the hospital after the surgery almost as often as his kidney specialist.

“Bob is a good friend,” Flesch said. “It was reassuring to have him arranging to have the top staff on my case. It helped a lot.

“I really appreciate my sister Lucy, my wife, Jeannie, Bob and others who helped me regain my health,” Flesch said. “When you go through a major surgical procedure like a kidney transplant, it changes your outlook on life. You stop taking your health, your life, for granted. Afterward, you feel so much better. You feel like a different person — it's wonderful.”

 

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