The Man Behind Brennan's

"This is such a unique privilege — for me to have this lousy job where I travel all around the world, meeting fabulous people who have become my friends…" said Skip Brennan, tongue-in-cheek. At, 67, Brennan admits he is not only lucky, but very spoiled. He still lives in his birthplace of Monroe, Wis., from where he owns and manages five Brennan's Markets throughout southern Wisconsin as well as a cheese storage warehouse in New Glarus. Some might say he has the world by the tail.

But what he doesn't have is the use of his legs.

"I am a cripple in denial," he said.

Three years ago, Brennan was a healthy marathon runner and bicycling enthusiast. One summer Sunday, he and a friend were on a relatively short 40-mile bike trek from Monroe to New Diggings, Wis., when Brennan lost control on some pea gravel and hit a culvert with such force that his bike helmet cracked in half. In an instant, his life was changed forever.

After spending the next year in hospitals, Brennan is now permanently disabled, a paraplegic "from the nipples down," he said. It is a story that might break another person, but for Brennan, life goes on, albeit a bit slower than before.

Male Bonding
Brennan was born in 1942, the year his father, Frank, opened a small Monroe fruit stand. After graduating with a degree in economics from Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, he returned to the family business, which had evolved into a small Monroe grocery store.

But in 1965, a tornado destroyed the family business. "In those days, insurance wasn't really there," Brennan said, "so my dad was way underinsured. We put up a 24- by 48-foot plywood shack in a parking lot with no running water just to keep the business going." They also rigged up a pipe that borrowed water from a tavern next door. The "temporary" solution lasted eight years until the family finally built a new store. "My God, those were glorious days," Brennan recalled. "My dad and I had so much fun!"

The father-son bond was extremely close. Son Skip said his father, who passed away in 1976, taught him three important lessons about business: Go directly to the grower; be able to look them straight in the eye; and don't go through the middle man. That business acumen, which Skip has maintained for years, has helped make Brennan's unique among today's grocery giants.

For years, the company purchased its fruits and vegetables directly from suppliers. Finding cheese, in the heart of cheese country, was convenient, since dozens of cheese makers were located within a few miles of the Brennan home. "My dad's theory was to go and see every location. 'Never set up a meeting,' he would say, 'always go unannounced, because if you set an appointment, they could set you up!'"

In his younger years, Skip Brennan regularly delivered potatoes to a Madison retailer on University Avenue. In passing one day, Brennan casually suggested to the store owner that he'd be interested in purchasing the building should that owner ever decide to sell. Within a year, that opportunity presented itself.

It wasn't a slam dunk. Getting bank approval to start his first Madison store proved challenging. "I tried to borrow money from a local bank in Monroe, but they wouldn't lend me anything without my dad co-signing. So I got my goodies together and headed up to Madison. I visited the five biggest banks and was turned down at every one." Feeling dejected, Brennan trudged into one last bank, Affiliated Bank of Hilldale. "I asked to see the president," he recalled. "His first questions to me were what my name was, and where did I go to college? I told him Loras College in Dubuque, and lo and behold! Turns out he was also a graduate of Loras! That was really a break," Brennan laughed.

He got the loan.

Sniffing Opportunity
Since then, Brennan has added an additional store in Madison, stores in Brookfield and Oconomowoc, the cheese warehouse in New Glarus, and the company now employs nearly 200 workers. About 20 years ago, Brennan decided to add micro-brew beers and wines to the company portfolio, and obtained an importers license allowing him to deal directly with suppliers. "I personally have been in every winery and micro brewery that we buy from," he said. "I buy wine by smell." That's because Brennan said he learned early-on that visiting 40 different vineyards, three to four per a day over a period of two weeks, required more than just a sense of taste. "Your tongue would go numb," he said. "So by necessity, I found out I was lucky to have a good sniffer."

The 2007 accident may have left Brennan down, but far from out. He can tolerate about six hours a day in a power wheelchair, and when he's up, he's working. "I'm lucky to still have my hands," he said, so a typical day involves working on a computer, talking to managers and keeping in touch with the business. But when he's not in his chair, he's lying flat on his back in bed. Two of his seven children are also involved in the business. "It is such an honor to be able to work with your own children," he said.

"I am so blessed," he repeated. "I enjoy the business. I'm seeing the world now — from a wheelchair — in a different manner. My life has slowed way down. Now I notice a lot of things I may not have before. I have more time to listen to the birds. I have a huge window next to my bed and I watch all the critters. I've named them all."

Any regrets? "I regret that I got old so God-danged fast!" he said, apologizing for the language. "But as for the business, we're always looking to tomorrow and what more we can do for our customers.

"Business," he went on, "is a never-ending dream. I have so many more dreams for Brennan's. There's never really an end. You're so busy chasing the dreams. I've been so lucky and very spoiled, but many of my dreams have come true. Of course, I wish my dad could be here to see what he spawned. That would be very special. When you go into our store and are treated properly, that's a reflection of how my father treated his customers. I miss him every day."

Brennan gets around with the help of a round-the-clock assistant, but looks forward to obtaining his own specially equipped vehicle very soon. He's already taken 20 of the required 30 hours of state-required driver training in anticipation of obtaining his new license. After all, much needs to be done.

"I've got to get back to Spain," Brennan said. "They will be our next direct wine country."

Want to hear more from Skip Brennan? He and Craig Culver, co-founder of the Culver Franchising System, will be the featured presenters at IB's Seminar Series on Wednesday, May 5, from 8 to 10 a.m., at the Alliant Energy Center's Exhibition Hall in Madison. For more information, go to

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