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No regrets: Blugold alum gives new grads pointers for leading 'a life well lived’

| Julie Poquette

University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire graduates were given a three-step roadmap during commencement ceremonies May 21 to leading “a life well lived.”

Charles Szews, who was honored at a midday awards event as a recipient of the UW-Eau Claire Alumni Association’s Lifetime Excellence Award, delivered the Charge to the Class to a packed Zorn Arena.

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Charles Szews

Szews retired last December after 20 years in leadership roles at Oshkosh Corporation, a global manufacturer of specialty vehicles. Szews served over time in the positions of executive vice president, chief financial officer, chief operating officer, company president and chief executive officer. He had served as Oshkosh’s CEO for five years at the time of his retirement.

Szews, a 1978 UW-Eau Claire accounting alumnus, described himself to graduates as “a fellow graduate, from a blue-collar family who hopped the Greyhound bus in Hatley, Wisconsin, on Highway 29 to attend classes at UWEC.”

From his days on the bus between Hatley and Eau Claire, Szews would go on to lead the growth of Oshkosh Corporation from an unprofitable company with $400 million in sales and under $75 million in market equity in 1996 to a global industrial company with sales over $6 billion, strong margins and $3 billion in market equity in 2015. The evolution of the Oshkosh Corporation culture under Szews’ leadership resulted in the company being one of only 131 companies across 21 countries named by the Ethisphere Institute as a World’s Most Ethical Company.

Szews told graduates their UW-Eau Claire degrees can help them achieve similar successes in their fields.

“With each passing year, you will more and more appreciate this outstanding university and the education you received,” Szews said. “From UW-Eau Claire, you are prepared to compete toe to toe with graduates from any university. That is my experience.”

Szews went on to give graduates three “life principles” to ensure they most effectively use their talents.

“First, seek to create a legacy in every part of your life,” Szews said. “Second, be brave in doing so; and third, give a complete effort each day with good intentions.”

Creating a legacy involves giving of yourself and initiating in a positive way, Szews said, citing two of his heroes, Jackie Robinson, the first black player in major league baseball, and President Abraham Lincoln, as people who exemplified creating a legacy.

“In your work life, if you seek to improve a process, initiate something positive, or mentor a colleague, then you are creating a legacy,” Szews said. “This provides both personal satisfaction and it will get you noticed for a raise or promotion. Conversely, if you just do your job as instructed or are excessively ambitious and are more concerned about advancement than making a contribution in your work, then you will be disappointed with your progress at work.”

Szews also urged graduates not to let fear of naysayers and obstacles stop them from using their talents to the fullest. As CEO of Oshkosh Corporation, he recalled when his senior leadership disagreed with him on moving forward in 2009 with competing for the contract to produce the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected All-Terrain Vehicle.

“Instead, I listened to our engineers,” Szews said. “We competed and won the program, leading to over 10,000 soldiers and Marines returning safely from Afghanistan after hitting mines in our vehicles. Be brave.”

Szews’ final advice to graduates was to put forth a complete effort in all aspects of their lives.

“Despite a complete effort and good intentions, we all fail sometimes,” Szews said. “But then, you will be able to stand tall because you did the best you could with your talent. Someone else may have been able to do more, but you can be content as long as you had good intentions for your efforts.”