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Nebraska Business Master Challenges Himself Using Finance Degree as Leadership Tool

Mariska Applies Nebraska Skills as Oklahoma’s Secretary of Commerce & Workforce Development
Nebraska Business Master Uses His Finance Degree as Key Leadership Tool
Chad Mariska, ’98, returned to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln this spring as this year's College of Business Alumni Master. Formerly working in leadership at a Fortune 500 company and as CEO of a family-owned fire safety company, he currently serves as Oklahoma's Secretary of Commerce and Workforce Development and started a family foundation to help his alma mater research a vaccine for the Epstein-Barr virus, which is linked to multiple sclerosis.

Using his finance major as a leadership tool, Chad Mariska, ’98, challenged himself by working in leadership at a Fortune 500 company, serving as Oklahoma's Secretary of Commerce and Workforce Development and investing in research at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln to help find a vaccine for the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which is linked to multiple sclerosis (MS). Mariska recently returned to campus to serve as this year's College of Business Alumni Master and met with students to share his experiences and knowledge.

“The College of Business creates great leaders who can apply the tools they learned for profit, nonprofit or government,” Mariska said. “Finance is a key tool in the toolbox of a leader that works across all jobs and roles. You must know how to run a discounted cash flow model to see if it creates or destroys value. It's something I've used in entrepreneurship, Fortune 500 projects, our family foundation and now politics.”

Mariska engaged with students throughout his time on campus, speaking on his experiences and how to take advantage of the many resources around them at Nebraska Business.
Mariska engaged with students throughout his time on campus, speaking on his experiences and how to take advantage of the many resources around them at Nebraska Business.

A fifth-generation Nebraskan, Mariska first moved to Oklahoma in 2011 to lead the resurgence of APS FireCo with his wife, Amy, and their two young children, Caden and Carson. Having tackled the John Deere executive leadership program, Chad quit his position working at the Fortune 500 company with West Coast dealerships.

“My father-in-law and his business partner built APS FireCo, which at that time had 35 employees. His partner wanted to retire, and there was no succession plan,” said Chad. “We hadn’t considered leading a small fire protection company, as my wife, Amy, was very successful at IBM, and I was thinking of large companies.”

Considering it a new entrepreneurial opportunity, the Mariskas bought into the company. While the future Gov. Kevin Stitt served as CEO of Gateway Mortgage Group in Oklahoma, Chad became CEO of APS.

“We added a purpose-driven management philosophy and made sure everybody understood they were at APS to save lives, protect property and keep organizations thriving,” Chad said. “When our sprinklers, fire alarms and fire extinguishers did their job in the event of a fire and people made it out of the building and the fire service was called, we honored those on our team who did the installation, last inspection or made the sale.”

They also increased revenue and expanded the company to 180 employees. With growing interest from investors, they found a buyer with a strong national plan and sold the company in 2021. Then they formed the Mariska Family Foundation with some of the proceeds going to help others through love and opportunity.

Chad took some time off after establishing the foundation. He grew comfortable, though found himself missing something too.

“I think people can find the greatest opportunities when they have some discomfort. When you put yourself out there and take some amount of risk, but that's where you find the answers to questions like: Should I apply to this business school or leave the Fortune 500 track and buy a small business or go into government?” he said.  

Then Gov. Stitt called and asked Chad to join him in public service. Since he wasn’t a politician nor had worked in government before, Chad talked to his family and friends and prayed about taking on the new challenge.

“I shared with the governor what I thought I could offer, and he said I was right for the position. Now I'm in this whole new world of public speaking and working with the Legislature,” he said. “I'm looking forward to helping other people achieve their American dream in the private sector because I was able to do that with hard work, good decision making and good luck — as luck is always a part of it.”

Mariska met his wife, Amy, when she worked at IBM and he worked at Accenture after graduation. They moved to Oklahoma to lead APS Fire Company.
Mariska met his wife, Amy, when she worked at IBM and he worked at Accenture after graduation. They moved to Oklahoma to lead APS Fire Company.

Starting in October, Chad had little time to prepare. He said the biggest difference between business and government is efficiency.

“In business, the goals are to be efficient and productive. Government is designed for fairness and good decision-making. There are two branches to provide checks and balances, and open records so media can share with the public,” Chad explained. “The big ‘aha’ moment is that this produces the best results.”

Mariska also is hopeful of a new collaboration with his alma mater around the Epstein-Barr virus research.

“My father struggled with multiple sclerosis (MS), and new research indicates that a person had to have the Epstein-Barr virus before having MS. More than 95% of people have had Epstein-Barr, so it's in their system and just kind of awakens, sometimes in bad ways. If we can get rid of the virus, we can prevent multiple sclerosis,” Chad said.

Though past researchers “weren't able to crack the code,” Chad remains hopeful that “new companies like Moderna with mRNA technology will find a vaccination either as a prophylactic before the disease or a therapeutic after to help people with multiple sclerosis.”

After doing a Google search about MS, Chad found Luwen Zhang, professor of biological sciences at Nebraska, who is working on EBV research. Chad reached out to a friend at the University of Nebraska Foundation who connected them.

“Now we have an agreement that the Mariska Family Foundation will match the university to create a new graduate assistant position that will speed up the vaccine research for the Epstein-Barr virus,” Chad said. “Time is of the essence in this situation, and helping speed up a possible preventative measure for multiple sclerosis would be amazing and incredibly meaningful.”

Chad encourages students to take advantage of the many opportunities at the College of Business. While talking in classes, he mentioned opportunities like the Center for Sales Excellence, the Clifton Strengths Institute and Center for Entrepreneurship as well as mentorship opportunities and tutors to help in the Teaching and Learning Center.

“Clearly, there is an investment in business at the University of Nebraska. I dreamed of working at Goldman Sachs, and I didn’t think about filling an unmet need and starting a business to do it. Students at Nebraska Business get to learn the tools and find out how to do that,” he said.

When discussing what comes next after his time in government, Chad plans to return to the business world with the leadership tools he learned at Nebraska,

“Every organization needs leaders who are selling their ideas and their mission, operating something, doing things that are sustainable financially for that organization, and casting a vision and creating momentum and motivation behind it to get people moving in the same direction. ” he said. "The College of Business enables those leaders who will impact the future of business in many great ways.”

Published: April 10, 2023