Fully Vested in Wick’s Comeback

The rebirth of Wick Buildings was not, by any means, meant to be, but it became a fait accompli thanks to employees who invested more than sweat equity.

When Wick Building Systems announced its intent to reorganize under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last November, it wanted to maintain the Wick Buildings division, saving about 200 of the 350 jobs it had in Mazomanie. As the organization emerged from the bankruptcy process and re-launched as Wick Buildings, LLC, it was able to save 180 of those jobs in an original division that was consistently profitable.

An investment group led by company founder John Wick, who over the years had been providing shares of the corporation to family members, outbid a determined competitor at an auction that was part of the bankruptcy process. The investors, a small group comprised of a few family members and employees, had some anxious moments at auction, but they have secured a line of credit from a local bank and hope to gradually restore the jobs that were lost.

While Wick Buildings is not an employee-owned company, non-family employees that are part of the investment group had little hesitation when asked to be part of the investment group. Tom Wick, president and general manager of Wick Buildings, has been with Wick since 1966, starting as a crew member. Despite having the same surname, he is not related to company founders, but he did have 43 years of his life invested in the business.

"If you’re talking about time and commitment, I was definitely invested," Wick said.

The same is true for Vicki Buss, vice president of engineering, who is approaching her 24th anniversary with Wick. She started as a computer programmer and eventually became chief information officer. Even though she doesn’t have an engineering degree, her knowledge of process improvement will be the focus of her new role as an engineering manager. She came back to the corporate office as the recession was gaining steam, and it was not easy to keep her emotions under wraps last November, when the company announced its Chapter 11 filing.

"Obviously, it was a little nerve-wracking, but I’ve been here long enough to see that this division was always profitable," she said. "I also knew the people that were left here, and I knew they could make things happen."

That’s not to say it was a lead-pipe cinch. As part of the bankruptcy process, the cash and assets of Wick Buildings were marketed not only to competitors, but to financial institutions that would take part in an auction.

Nothing was assured, especially when it became apparent that the most determined bidder, aside from the Wick group, was a competitor that had been qualified to bid through the bankruptcy court.

When it was over, the division was acquired for cash and assets totaling $8.2 million. Going into the auction, there was a definite number the Wick group knew it would not exceed, but the other bidder blinked first.

"The bid would go up, the groups would caucus and then come back, and the bids would go up and we’d caucus a little further," Wick said of the tense 90-minute period that determined the owner. "It finally got to the point where John Wick made the last bid, and the competitor determined they weren’t going to go any higher."

Given that his livelihood was impacted, Wick was hardly a casual observer. "It was very stressful in the sense that you didn’t know what was going to happen to the organization," he said. "We had a feeling from the competitor that it would probably be operated as a [business] entity if they were the successful bidder, but we had no assurances or conversations to that point."

Wicked Strategy

Two housing divisions that closed as part of the reorganization — the Marshfield division, which produced manufactured housing, and John Wick Homes, which produced panelized housing — were casualties of the housing market collapse. The lone survivor, Wick Buildings, serves independent Midwestern builders in various market segments as a manufacturer of pre-engineered, wood-frame buildings for commercial, light industrial, equine stables, riding arenas, and various agricultural uses.

The company, winner of two recent "Building of the Year Awards" at the National Frame Builders Association Conference, has rolled out a new product line, American Classic, which is tied to the agricultural and suburban markets. American Classic was produced with streamlined processes that removed various engineering, manufacturing, and construction costs. Wick believes the new processes have made the product line more price competitive without sacrificing quality.

"The consumer today is a little shaken by what’s taken place over the past couple of years with the economy, so they are looking for more quality at a better price," Wick noted. "They are more cost-conscious than they were two or three years ago, so companies like ours have to continue to provide that quality and cost-competitiveness."

Even with forecasts of a tighter credit market, Wick does not anticipate financing problems. The purchase arrangement includes a provision for a line of credit through People’s Community Bank in Mazomanie.

Bank President Gary Harrop, who disputes the notion that credit is tight, especially for credit-worthy customers and for sound loans, said the decision to extend the credit to Wick Buildings was not a difficult one.

Harrop, who also serves as chairman of the Mazomanie Community Development Corp., noted that Wick Buildings had been a profitable division of Wick Building Systems since it was founded in 1954. "We had a high level of comfort with the principals and the management of the new company," Harrop explained. "We were also aware that our involvement would assist in retaining an estimated 200 jobs during a time of high unemployment."

Builders for Hire

According to Tom Wick, neither John Wick Homes nor the Marshfield Division will re-emerge as part of Wick Buildings. Their disposition in the bankruptcy court depends on whether willing buyers emerge.

Jeff Wick, who had served as CEO of Wick Building Systems, elected not to be involved in the investment group. He has decided to pursue other interests.

For Buss, it wasn’t a hard decision to join the investment group. "The only difficulty was that I was newly divorced, and so my financial situation was a little interesting, but I figured out a way to make it work by talking to my banker, who was more than willing to help," she said. "I consider it much more an opportunity than a risk."

The opportunity to be part of Wick Buildings may soon be open to former employees. "We’ve made some major cutbacks over the past 12 months in our organization as the economy turned down," Wick noted. "We’ve hired back a bunch of those people already. As the business keeps going, we’ll continue to bring back the people that were let go earlier."

Sign up for the free IB Update — your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices and the names you need to know. Click here.