The humble origins of Epic — and 4 other iconic Dane County companies

Today, one can’t help but marvel at Epic Systems’ sprawling Verona campus, which stands as a monument — or rather a series of monuments — to hard work, innovation, and seemingly limitless success.

But Epic started as many other iconic companies do — small, and with considerably more hopeful dreams and earnest goals than receivables.

In IB’s September print edition, we listed Dane County’s top 100 employers and profiled Epic and a handful of other thriving area companies. Not surprisingly, Epic topped our list with 7,400 full-time employees, which was up from 6,500 employees last year — which was up from 5,600 the year before that. (You’re likely seeing a pattern.)

Of course, that’s a far cry from the 1.5 employees the company started out with.

In case you’re wondering whether your own startup business could ever reach 7,400 employees and find its own Epic-like success, you needn’t look far for inspiration.

Here’s a quick look at the humble origins of Epic and four other local corporate icons:

Epic Systems Corp.

Epic started its long and prosperous life in 1979 after its current CEO, Judith Faulkner, launched what was then known as Human Services Computing Corp. at 2020 University Ave. in Madison (in a fairly nondescript office building that, astonishingly enough, was also once home to American Girl). Officially, the company had one and a half employees. Early on, Epic landed some data analysis work with the UW and a few government entities, and in 1983 it launched its Cadence software, a patient-scheduling tool.

For the next decade or so, the company grew at a steady but unspectacular clip. In 1985, it hit $1 million in revenues, and by 1990, it had 29 employees.

This building at 2020 University Ave. was an early home to both Epic Systems and American Girl.

A series of new product offerings, including EpicWeb, MyChart, and Hyperspace, accelerated the company’s growth, but even as it continued to experience a rapid expansion throughout the ’90s, it was a far cry from the Epic we’ve all come to know, appreciate, and stand in awe of.

In 2003, Epic landed a massive contract with Kaiser Permanente, but according to Faulkner, the biggest spur to the company’s growth came courtesy of George W. Bush, an early proponent of electronic health records, which by 2004 had become Epic’s stock in trade.

“If I have to zero in on a single event, it would be the presidential election debates when George W. Bush, advised by Tommy Thompson, spoke about the need for EHRs,” stated Faulkner in IB’s September print story on Epic’s remarkable growth

As most everyone in Badgerland knows, Epic has continued its astounding upward trajectory since moving to its current Verona campus in 2002. By 2005, its employee count had swelled to 2,050, and just three years after that it had added roughly a thousand more employees.

And while many other companies retrenched during the Great Recession, Epic continued to soldier on, topping IB’s largest employers list for the first time in 2013 (after leapfrogging UW Hospital and Clinics) and reaching 7,400 employees this year.

(For more details, check out this timeline, which chronicles Epic’s history through 2008.)

American Family Insurance

As with many other longtime Wisconsin businesses, American Family Insurance was built on the sustained success of the state’s agricultural industry.

According to the company’s website, AmFam founder Herman Wittwer was struggling to make a living selling insurance when he hit on the idea of providing auto insurance to Wisconsin’s farmers, whom he considered a lower risk than city dwellers.

Aware that farmers “drove less often and put their cars up on blocks for the winter,” Wittwer launched Farmers Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. in Madison in October 1927. By the end of its inaugural year, it had 486 policyholders, who’d paid a total of $8,130 in premiums. More importantly, that same year it paid out a paltry $45.85 in claims, proving Wittwer’s hunch correct.

In 1930, the company began selling policies to non-farmers through the newly established National Mutual Casualty Co. By 1937, the company had 45,000 policyholders, and the next year, it collected more than $1 million in premiums.

In 1963, the company changed its name to American Family Mutual Insurance Co. to better represent its customer mix.

Today, American Family Insurance has operations across the country and a Dane County workforce of 3,587 full-time employees and 46 part-time employees. Still headquartered in Madison, its 2013 revenues topped $6.8 billion.

(For a more extensive history of American Family Insurance, click here.)

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American Girl

American Girl attained what some might consider the height of cultural relevance when it was parodied in an episode of The Simpsons. Long before that, the Middleton-based company demonstrated its commercial clout when Mattel acquired it in 1998.

But it started with an idea — and three humble dolls.

In 1986, Pleasant Rowland launched what was then known as The Pleasant Company. It was based on the simple — if somewhat radical — idea that young girls would be interested enough in Americana to seek out dolls based on discrete periods in U.S. history.

In its first year, The Pleasant Company debuted three dolls — Kristen Larson, a pioneer girl from 1854; Samantha Parkington, a Victorian girl from 1904; and Molly McIntire, a World War II-era girl from 1944.

Through the years, the company has continued to release books and accessories while expanding its line of unique dolls, all of which correspond to different periods in American history. In 1992, the company launched American Girl magazine, heightening interest in the company’s products. Today, the publication’s 450,000 circulation ranks it in the top 10 of all children’s magazines in the country.

In 2004, the company was renamed American Girl Inc. and the first American Girl TV movie, Samantha: An American Girl Holiday, was released.

Today, American Girl is both a cultural and commercial force, employing 507 full-timers and 108 part-timers in Dane County alone. According to the company’s website, it employs 2,300 workers year-round at all its locations, and nearly 5,000 during the pre-holiday season. Meanwhile, its Middleton facilities cover 560,000 square feet, and all its facilities combined — including its 19 retail locations — total more than 1.8 million square feet.

(For a more complete history of American Girl Inc., click here.)

Fiskars Brands Inc.

Fiskars didn’t start in Madison, for the simple reason that Madison didn’t exist yet (neither the city nor the Founding Father) when the company first hung out its shingle.

The origins of Fiskars Brands date back to 1649, when Fiskars ironworks was founded in Finland. For anyone keeping score, that makes Fiskars one of the oldest continuously operating companies in the world. At the time, Finland was ruled by the Swedes, who were among Europe’s biggest producers of iron ore. In 1832, the company founded Finland’s first cutlery mill, which produced knives, forks, and scissors.

Fast-forward (quite a long way) to 1967, when a machinist creating Fiskars’ plastic-handled scissors stumbled upon the orange-colored contraption that would become the company’s unofficial trademark.

According to Fiskars’ website, “when the first basic models were about to be manufactured the designer wanted the scissors to be black, red or green. As the prototype went into production, the machinist decided to finish off the orange color he had in his machine. This meant prototypes were made in four different colors, of which the orange and black were most popular. A choice had to be made. An internal vote was taken at Fiskars, and the result gave birth to Fiskars’ orange-handled scissors.”

Today, Fiskars Brands Inc., a subsidiary of Fiskars Oyj, is headquartered in Madison. It employs 210 full-timers and 10 part-timers in Dane County.

(For more on Fiskars’ history, click here.)

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Schoep’s Ice Cream

Schoep’s started in 1928 when Madison’s E.J. Schoephoester began making ice cream in the back of his community grocery store. The company’s website doesn’t say exactly how much ice cream Schoephoester manufactured in those early days, but it’s a good bet it wasn’t close to the millions of gallons per year it currently churns out.

Schoep’s ice cream was popular from the beginning, but its fortunes skyrocketed 12 years later when P.B. Thomsen, an area butter manufacturer, bought a stake in the company. Thomsen soon began wholesaling Schoep’s ice cream, introducing it to a much wider customer base.

The rest is history.

(For more on the history of Schoep’s Ice Cream, click here.)

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