Lifetime Achievement Executive of the Year: Don Wahlin, founder; past president and CEO, Stoughton Trailers
Don Wahlin founded Stoughton Trailers in 1961.
The Stoughton company has grown to be a top-10 international supplier of semitruck trailers, the fifth-largest semitrailer manufacturer in the nation, and the second largest manufacturer in Dane County. It makes semitruck trailers for over-the-road trucking, as well as agricultural trailers and other specialty equipment.
Yet Wahlin’s lifelong dream was to become a commercial airline pilot.
He graduated from flight school in 1956 and earned an engineering degree from UW–Madison in 1960. That same year he married the love of his life, Carol, and was hired by Moe, Parley & Moe (MPM Corp.) to design truck bodies. By November, MPM was bankrupt.
“Those were the days when everyone was poor, but nobody knew it,” Wahlin recounts. “The country was in a recession and nobody was buying bankrupt companies.” Out of a job and with no prospects in sight, he found a few investors and purchased MPM Corp. for $28,500.
Wahlin served in the Air National Guard for 23 years while he and Carol raised eight children — several of whom remain involved in the company today — and Stoughton Trailers grew to become a one-stop resource for the nation’s trucking industry.
There were speed bumps along the way, however. In 1967, a fire burned the Stoughton plant to the ground, and Wahlin faced a dilemma: take an insurance settlement and pursue his dream job with the airlines or rebuild. Tax ramifications made that decision easier, he reports, noting that personal income tax at the time was 90%, and the corporate tax rate was 70%, versus 21% today.
Through the years Wahlin rejected multiple offers to sell the company but considered going public in 1999. “I knew we were headed for a deep recession because this industry leads and lags the national economy, so I canceled the deal and never considered it again.”
The company rolled on, with employees and revenues growing six-fold between 2008 and 2018. “Historically we enter into a trailer recession ever four to six years,” Wahlin explains. “COVID-19 knocked it down for the first time since 2008.” The company temporarily closed its Evansville plant and was operating at 50% capacity in both Brodhead and Stoughton.
True to form, a surge late last year in trailer orders from the likes of Amazon, Target, and UPS had Stoughton Trailers looking for hundreds of workers again. To sweeten the deal, the company announced an increase in its hourly base pay for some entry level and skilled positions to at least $16.
Wahlin’s leadership and ability to carry very little debt allowed the family business to thrive when some competitors struggled during the volatile industry’s ebbs and flows.
It was never easy, he insists. “It took about 30 years before I stopped worrying about how to meet a Friday payroll, but in hindsight it worked out very well.”
An understatement, perhaps. Stoughton Trailers is now approaching a half-billion dollars in sales, and the family’s second generation has been running the company for 20 years, with Wahlin’s son, Bob, currently at the helm as president and CEO. In 2014, Wahlin transferred the ownership to a family limited partnership and established a family council to manage it.
Meanwhile, the company’s 501(c)(3) Wahlin Foundation continues reinvesting in the local community, providing more than $2.5 million in charitable grants and scholarships thus far, as well as corporate sponsorships of area events.
Wahlin says he’s honored to receive the 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award, but it was never an end goal. “I don’t think of the business as an achievement. It is what it is. I didn’t do it myself and I’ve always recognized that, but I’ve always had a knack for picking good people, and that’s why Stoughton Trailers is a success.”
Decades ago, when he first acquired MPM Corp. for pennies on the dollar, he was simply looking to provide for his family and “hire a few Norwegians” when many were out of work.
With nearly 900 employees currently and orders surging, he’s done that and so much more.
Now in his 80s, Wahlin still yearns for the sky every time he sees a plane flying above. He’s owned several, including a corporate jet, but the fuel costs proved unsustainable.
“Flying was my escape,” he states. “I stayed in business because of the tax laws, otherwise I would have been a retired airline pilot years ago!”
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