Spreading Family Value

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New regional awards spotlight family business commitment to help grow their communities

Story by Cheryl Hentz

Family businesses are the backbone of northeast Wisconsin’s workforce and economy.

Many have a proven track record of success in terms of sales, innovation, economic impact, profits and employment. Plus, due to the nature of being a family business, many believe strongly in and have a generous history of giving back to the communities they serve. It was to help highlight and give proper recognition to these important businesses that the Family Business First Awards of Northeast Wisconsin were created. The inaugural awards were presented in early May during Wisconsin Family Business Forum’s annual dinner event.

“We hear a lot about the public companies in our backyard, but there was really no award that rewards family businesses for the efforts that they make and the contributions to the economy and local community that they make,” said Mickey Noone, regional president of First Business Bank’s Northeast Wisconsin region. The bank helped develop and sponsor the award along with Wisconsin Family Business Forum and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh College of Business.

Of the 16 businesses nominated, three were selected as winners for 2013: The Boldt Company of Appleton, Menasha-based McClone Insurance Agency and Wisconsin Spice of Berlin.

“We really used year one to pick out what we thought were the three best companies in northeast Wisconsin, each bringing a little something different to the table (and the three being small, medium and large in size),” Noone explained. “We had phenomenal nominees – really great companies – but they all couldn’t win.”

Nominees were evaluated based on several factors, including how they’ve dealt with challenges over the years, the role the family plays in the business, why the business is a great place to work and how it gives back to the community – a characteristic each company does in numerous and varied ways – and encourages its employees to get involved and give back, too.

Here’s a profile of the winners from the inaugural Family Business First Awards of Northeast Wisconsin.

The Boldt Company

The Boldt Company is a fourth-generation, family-owned professional construction services firm that has been in operation since Tom Boldt’s great-grandfather, Martin Boldt, opened a carpentry shop in Appleton in 1889. While the company has evolved and grown tremendously through the decades, it’s remained under the family’s leadership and control.

Tom’s grandfather, Oscar J. Boldt, became the second-generation president and CEO of the company, leading it through the Great Depression of the 1930s.

“If you could keep a business going through the Depression, it was considered quite an achievement,” said Tom Boldt.

When Tom’s father, Oscar C. Boldt, returned home from World War II, he took over the company. Today Tom serves as CEO, though his father, Oscar – who recently celebrated his 89th birthday – still serves as chairman of the board and goes into the office most every day. Boldt said his father remains a tremendous resource for them to bounce ideas off of and give them perspective, when needed.

“I think the evolution of the company itself is interesting in that my great-grandfather did wood specialties: doors, cabinets and other things that would be used in homes. And then my grandfather, for a lot of his time with the company, continued with the homebuilding aspect, but also got into some industrial and commercial opportunities,” said Tom Boldt. “When my dad took over, he completely left the housing market and got into the commercial, industrial and institutional type work, which is really the platform we have today.”

Today, about 35 percent of Boldt’s business is in the healthcare field, while nearly 30 percent of its work is with power/utility facilities. Another 20 percent of its work is for industrial facilities, while the remaining 15 percent is institutional, Boldt said. Under his father’s leadership, the construction services company expanded into different parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Oklahoma, and most recently to California and Canada.

Tom Boldt attributes its success to great people working for them – between 1,600 to 2,000 at any given time – who understand the importance of serving the customers.

“We’ve also been fortunate to be hired by some wonderful businesses and companies, so our customers have been very helpful. We also can’t do what we do without a very long list of suppliers and sub-contractors. So our success is due to a combination of many wonderful people,” he said. “The foundation of our business is also having a strong core of ethics, fairness and honesty. Those are elements of a winning strategy for longevity.”

The McClone Agency

Ralph “Cyclone” McClone founded the McClone Agency in 1949 to supplement his teaching and coaching income and better support his family, which would expand to include 10 children. Initially McClone sold life insurance out of his living room, but the company soon grew too large, due to the strength of his work ethic, personality and the many personal relationships he had formed through teaching and coaching at St. Mary’s Central High School in Menasha. Before long, McClone was able to move the company out of his home and at the same time began branching into other lines of insurance.

After years of success and expansion in the Fox Valley, Ralph’s son, Mike, purchased the agency in 1987 and was then joined by brothers Dan, Pat and Brian. The second generation, along with Pat’s wife, Diane, and Brian’s wife, Joann, continued Ralph’s focus on long-lasting partnerships.

Through their efforts to expand the business and several acquisitions, McClone has become one of the larger independent agencies in Wisconsin – with seven locations and more than 100 employees.

Today, with the third generation, there are a total of 11 family members involved in the business. In addition to all lines of insurance, McClone offers risk management services to further protect its clients.

Wisconsin Spice 

Founded in 1973 by current president Phillip J. Sass, Wisconsin Spice, Inc. in Berlin has become one of the largest processors in the mustard industry.

A former quality manager at French’s Foods, Sass saw an opportunity to mill mustard seed into ground mustard for the sausage industry, and acquired an abandoned 19th-century feed mill in Berlin.

During the first decade of the company’s existence Wisconsin Spice specialized in milling ground mustard and mustard flour. In 1975, Sass added the ability to mill prepared mustard, competing with world-renown brands such as Grey Poupon and French’s.

In 1985, the company moved to a 100,000-sq. ft. facility in Berlin’s industrial park. It’s one of only two manufacturers in the United States who process both dry and liquid mustard in the same facility. The other is French’s.

“But opposite of French’s, the reason we are not a household name is because about 86 percent of our business is selling mustard as an ingredient to food manufacturers who use the dry and prepared mustard in food applications,” said Allan Sass, director of business development and Phillip’s son. “Most of our customers are within the sauce and dressing industry.”

Today, Wisconsin Spice processes more than 32 million pounds of mustard seed annually, shipping products to customers in the food industry on all continents. About 13 percent of its mustard business is in wholesale food service –  where it sells to broadline distributors like Sysco – but it also sells directly to restaurants, which represents the fastest growing piece of Wisconsin Spice’s business. Some of its more highly regarded accounts include Burger King, Outback Steakhouse and Whataburger.

“But that is just a fraction of our business. In finished product we sell roughly 55 million pounds of mustard to the food service and food manufacturing communities,” explained Sass.

Having a trusted network of employees is important to one’s success, whether a family-owned business or not.

“It’s a critical piece to any business to have management and employees throughout the organization that you can entrust with maintaining everything you worked so hard for while you search for new opportunities. We really do have that and that may be the most important part of our business,” said Allan Sass, adding they maintain 60 to 65 employees at any given time.

Sass’ mother, Beth, works in the business, as does his older sister, Caroline Sass-Blustin, who handles finance and accounting. His other older sister, Christie Organ, serves as an adviser and is on the board of directors, but not involved with the day-to-day aspects of the business.

Cheryl Hentz writes from Oshkosh.