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Alumni couple urge grads to move forward with vision, optimism

| Julie Poquette

It all comes down to vision and optimism.

John and Carolyn Sonnentag delivered those key messages Dec. 19, nearly 50 years after their own University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire graduations, as they addressed the university’s newest graduating class in Zorn Arena.

John, a 1966 UW-Eau Claire business administration and history graduate, and Carolyn, who earned her UW-Eau Claire degree in medical technology in 1967, have been a professional team since the early 1970s, building and managing the success of their third-generation family-owned business. Founded in 1946, Sonnentag Concrete and Gravel employed four seasonal workers at one location in 1971. Under the John and Carolyn’s leadership, the business grew into County Materials Corp., a manufacturer and distributor of concrete and related construction products that today has more than 50 U.S. locations and, at times, more than 2,000 employees.

Vision is a trait all successful people possess and can be achieved by looking to the future and asking three questions: “What do you want to become, what legacy do you want to build, and what kind of life do you want to have?” John said.

While as graduates they leave the university with the knowledge necessary to succeed in their chosen fields, “all that knowledge will get you nowhere if you do not have the vision to use it,” John said to the newest UW-Eau Claire alumni.

John shared several examples from his own life of the importance of vision, including the time he accepted the opportunity some years ago to lead County Materials into new territory. At that time, the company put in a bid and was selected to build the concrete components for a tunnel that would be part of the light rail linking Minneapolis International Airport and the Mall of America to downtown Minneapolis. It was necessary to envision the equipment needed to build the tunnel segments, the facility where they would do the production, and how they would meet their deadline in spite of a very cold winter.

Through all of the challenges of the tunnel project, having vision in advance helped his company succeed.

“I am happy to report that we delivered the tunnel segments on time and the rail is still running on time today,” John said. ”The tunnel production site is now our County Materials plant on I-94 west of Eau Claire.”

A trip down Menomonie Street in Eau Claire several years ago helped John create another vision, one that would lead to a 2014 gift of approximately $10 million in money and land from the Sonnentags and County Materials Corp. to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation for the development of an event and recreation complex on the County Materials site in Eau Claire.

“As I stand here today that vision for an events center is beginning to take shape, and Carolyn and I are going to help make it happen,” John said.

In preparing for her part of the Sonnentags’ co-delivered commencement speech, a look back over nearly 50 years led to a realization that optimism was another important reason for the couple’s success, Carolyn said.

After working for six years as a medical technologist following her UW-Eau Claire graduation, Carolyn decided to join the family business and took a night accounting class to better perform her role in helping with the company’s bookwork.

There were “no computers to add up all the columns, just long hours into the night to get the assignments done,” Carolyn said. “That was stressful, but I had a goal and was optimistic that I would succeed and eventually be an asset to the family business. John and I became a team.”

It was important not to let pessimism creep in while running the family company, Carolyn said.

“We could never have built the business if we spent all our time worrying about all the risks we had to take,” Carolyn said. “And our education at this university was an excellent baseline for problem solving.”

Carolyn encouraged graduates to choose optimism as they move forward in life.

“From this day forward you have a choice,” Carolyn said. “You can either be a passive victim of circumstance or you can be an active hero of your own life. But it all leads to the fact that you will want to continue to learn and follow that optimistic path that will bring you great rewards.”

Photo caption: John and Carolyn Sonnentag at UW-Eau Claire commencement ceremonies Dec. 19.