The Test of Time: Anniversary companies put the 'long' in longevity

The gift of business longevity isn’t simply presented, it’s earned with smart decisions — strategic or otherwise — at several key intervals in the life of a business. In this, our annual toast to Dane County businesses that will celebrate milestone anniversaries ending in a 0 or 5 in the new year, we’ll reintroduce you to several longstanding companies that have continually adapted to changing times and customer needs.

Standing the test of time isn’t easy for any business. If you survive the first five years, you have to continually keep your eye on trends that bring changes in the way customers want to engage. Anyone who has tried to run a business in the Internet age understands that, so in addition to running profiles of companies launched more than 100 years ago, we talked to a few prominent employers that began in the formative years of the dot-com age. — Joe Vanden Plas

(Click here for a full list of Dane County companies celebrating major anniversaries.)

Gallagher Tent and Awning | est. 1880

One of Gallagher Tent and Awning's first locations, on South Bedford Street.

For more than 100 years, the sight of Gallagher’s awnings has been commonplace in areas such as State Street and the Capitol Square. The awnings also are fondly remembered on former businesses such as Manchester’s Department Store, which had the area’s first electrically operated awnings. At least, they were the first electronic awnings put up by Gallagher Tent and Awning, which after 135 years has outlived many of the businesses it once served.

The fourth-generation, family-run company is still the go-to vendor for car dealer tent sales and tents for community festivals, county fairs, and residential parties. It has occasionally provided tents for the governor’s residence since Warren Knowles’ time, and its modern awnings, now considered an extension of a company’s brand, adorn places like the Hilton Madison Monona Terrace, Karen & Company/Sassafras on State Street, and Rubin’s Contemporary Furniture on Wilson Street.

And to think the business would have never been launched if founder John Gallagher, the great-grandfather of current owner John Gallagher, had continued to operate as a shoemaker. “He had to stop making shoes because it became an automated industry, and he was not able to afford the equipment,” explained the founder’s namesake. “He ended up painting for a while, and then someone asked him to make an awning. That’s kind of how it started because he still had some equipment from his shoemaking business, and he was able to manufacture an awning with it.”

Business longevity hasn’t always been a foregone conclusion. Gallagher’s products were once made of 100% cotton, not the canvas, more durable synthetic fiber material or the more flexible vinyl of today. That wasn’t much of an issue until 1907, when the business sustained extensive fire-related damage and lost most of its stock. “What they didn’t lose from the fire, they lost from water damage because cotton absorbs moisture and then starts rotting when any heat is applied to it,” Gallagher noted.

Based on the recollections of Gallagher’s father, the Great Depression made the 1930s a particularly challenging time, and the recession of 2008-09 “put a knife into the construction trade,” which also cut into Gallagher’s ability to provide awnings to new shopping centers and other new commercial buildings. With four children in college at the same time and not as much business coming in, there were weeks that Gallagher did not pay himself so that he could pay his employees.

Now, three of the four children are working for their father, and things are looking up. “We’re still feeling that a little bit, but things have turned around the past two years or so,” Gallagher said. “We’re enjoying a little bit more of what we were experiencing prior to that recession.”

To Gallagher, the key to longevity is having the courage to try new things, and now he’s leveraging technology to customize products. “We have a lot of things that come across our desk that we can design and build here in our facility as opposed to going to some other medium,” he noted. “The overall design of awnings has changed, too, and we can bend and shape things like we never could before.”



Axley Brynelson | est. 1885

Axley Brynelson founders Burr Jones and Francis Lamb

In many respects, the history of the Axley Brynelson law firm tracks the history of Madison (and Wisconsin) business and law. The firm began when the Civil War was still fresh in people’s minds, the nation was being “electrified,” and a young attorney named Burr W. Jones returned from serving in Congress and opened a private law practice with another young lawyer, Francis Lamb.

In time, the firm would become known for business and trial law, and Jones himself would become one of the state’s greatest trial lawyers. He would also teach law for 30 years (a practice the firm’s attorneys still engage in at UW-Madison) and write what some consider the definitive book on the rules of evidence. Perhaps his most enduring business legacy, one that still guides the Axley law firm, was his insistence on recruiting only the best law graduates and lawyers.

In addition to looking for legal talent and ethical principles, today that means recruiting for personal qualities like a certain fire in the belly. People with that quality aren’t easy to find, in part because of the dwindling percentage of attorneys who go into private law practice. “The good firms are all zeroing in on a smaller group of people and finding those people that really do have the drive to make it and succeed in private practice; that’s the test and that’s the challenge,” says Partner John Walsh, the latest of three Axley Brynelson attorneys to serve as president of the Wisconsin Bar Association.

In its 130 years of existence, the firm has been challenged in 168 cases before the Wisconsin Supreme Court (403 cases combined before the state high court and the Wisconsin Courts of Appeal) and more than 260 cases combined in the U.S. Federal Court system of District Courts, U.S. Courts of Appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

One case Burr Jones argued before the nation’s high court settled a dispute between his client, the Southern Wisconsin Railway, and the City of Madison over who should pay for paving sections of road between rails. In a decision by legendary Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jones prevailed but was so impressed with the legal work of Bill Ryan, the city’s attorney on that case, he recruited Ryan to join the firm.

The firm’s early team of lawyers was a business-oriented group that helped incorporate Madison General Hospital, now Meriter. Later, its counselors helped shape public utilities and dam projects that electrified Wisconsin cities and spurred the growth of tourism in Wisconsin Dells. Its attorneys would also play instrumental roles in the founding of banks and the direction of business development and law in industries like telecommunications and insurance.

The change and churn that has been evident throughout Axley’s history continues, as John Mitby’s tenure as managing partner has ended and Patricia Gibeault’s has begun. Gibeault oversees a firm of 62 attorneys that operates in a profession of growing specialization. “Just like the medical profession, law becomes more and more specialized all the time,” said Walsh, a trial attorney who specializes in personal injury cases. “I wouldn’t go near drafting a will or an estate, but I’ve got five law partners who are superb at it.”



J.H. Findorff & Son | est. 1890

J.H. Findorff & Son’s one-time planing mill and lumberyard

When you’ve worked on projects that parallel the history of Madison, including several landmark buildings, you’re not only part of local history, you’ve also helped shape it. But representing the evolution of Madison is only part of the legacy of J.H. Findorff & Son, a commercial contractor that will celebrate its 125th anniversary this year.

Part and parcel of building a community is being part of its fabric. President Dave Beck-Engel notes that company founder John H. Findorff, a one-time Madison alder, was a prominent corporate citizen who was actively involved in both business and community. John H. also founded what became the local United Way, and he joined some of the early causes that moved the citizenry. “As a company, that’s something we still strive to do — to be part of the fabric of Madison as it continues to grow and evolve as a city,” Beck-Engel said.

Findorff specializes in commercial, health care, civic, education, and religious projects. Of all the highly visible structures the company has been involved in building, two that stand out are the Overture Center, which just observed its own 10th anniversary, and the historic Red Gym on the UW-Madison campus. The national landmark, with its distinctive Romanesque arches, was one of

J.H. Findorff’s first projects as a contractor, and the company was privileged to be part of its late-1990s renovation. “It was pretty exciting for us to be part of the evolution of that building, which changed uses and changed looks,” noted Beck-Engel.

For Findorff, the key to longevity lies with its founding family, which stressed the perpetuation of the company to the point of making it a core value. When John R. Findorff, the grandson of John H., was contemplating retirement, nobody in the family was interested in an ownership responsibility, so in 1981 he sold it to three employees — Ken Kruska, Gerd Zoller, and Curt Hastings.

“If the decision were solely financial, he probably would’ve made more money just having an asset sale and liquidating the company, but he wanted to keep this company going,” Beck-Engel recalled. “At that time, there were three employees within the company who were interested and wanted to keep the company going as well, and so they made a transition. They became the first owners of Findorff who were outside the family.”

In the past 125 years, Findorff has survived everything from great recessions to even greater depressions, but during his 35-year tenure with the company, Beck-Engel has never seen a time when things were so bleak that management worried about survival. The most recent recession brought its challenges, and like every other business, Findorff found ways to cut costs. “We also made sure to hang on to employees in leadership positions such as project managers, superintendents, and foremen,” he said. “Our field forces became pretty thin, unfortunately, but we had work and we managed it smartly and made sure we kept the company going forward.”



Demco | est. 1905

Demco began as part of the Democrat Printing Co.

Any business that survives for more than a century has to balance consistency with evolution, and that’s been the approach Demco has taken in navigating its 110-year business voyage. The need to change rears its head on a periodic basis, but some things must never change, according to Demco President Nedra Sadorf.

A portfolio company of the Wall Family Enterprise, Demco is a direct marketer of supplies, books, and furniture to libraries and schools. If you think libraries haven’t changed much in the past century, or even the past quarter-century, you’re either a fully immersed consumer of e-readers or you haven’t been paying close attention. But with change comes the temptation to abandon wise business practices, something Demco has resisted.

There are some things you want to be consistent in, such as your purpose and your values, Sadorf noted. At the same time, you have to evolve. “It’s all about evolution and how education has changed, and how business has changed, and even how the population has changed,” she said.

Conceived in 1905, when the old Democrat Printing Company established a department to advance the mission of libraries, Demco has served a customer base that has undergone constant change. Past owners such as Norman Bassett and John Wall made it a practice to regularly communicate with libraries to determine their needs and quickly respond.

During the Great Depression, recognizing that it served a publicly funded market, Demco responded by offering product savings and began Demcourier, a free publication that provided business and career information to librarians. That focus on delivering real value, sometimes enabled by the acquisition of complementary brands, is part of Demco’s recipe for surviving the hard times.

Thanks to modern communication tools, that response time is a lot faster. In the past 25 years, Demco has gone from publishing a 16-page catalog to catalogs of more than 1,000 pages, and technology has also changed the way it serves libraries. Like many companies, instead of products, Demco now offers software “solutions” designed to help libraries serve customers and solve problems. Among them are room-booking and reservation software as well as security products incorporating RFID technology to protect collections.

This evolution has come about through the help of an intense customer focus, which Sadorf identified as the key to longevity. She’s the first to admit that sounds hackneyed, but it’s how a business adapts. “If you’re going to survive 110 years, your customer needs are going to change,” she noted. “So in order to just stay relevant, the way in which you choose to adapt needs to be based on an intensive focus and understanding of the ways your customer has evolved.”

The latest perceived threat, the popularity of ebooks, is actually another change driver because libraries are moving to serve this format (this time, by listening to patrons). “Libraries are undergoing a huge transformation, but that’s nothing new to libraries,” Sadorf reiterated. “They have reinvented themselves multiple times.”



Former Dot-Com Upstarts Are Now Established Players

They were either launched or came of age during the dot-com era, and already they feel like they’ve gone through a century’s worth of change. The same technological revolution that has challenged (and felled) established businesses has also challenged these newcomers. The main takeaway from their comparatively young existence is that change will be a constant companion, and strategic planning must be adaptable enough to respond.

Mark Meloy, CEO of First Business Bank (established 1990), noted that one of the bank’s differentiators when it launched was its courier service. While the pickup of deposits will likely be provided for quite some time, that service has a Pony Express feel in light of remote deposit, mobile services, and other new ways the bank’s customers choose to engage. Those new channels of engagement are only going to become more prevalent, which could make the old five-year strategic plan a relic of the past. Given the pace of change, could a five-year plan result in planning yourself right into obsolescence? Not if you’re flexible, Meloy says.

“Businesses are still able to make five-year goals and objectives, but frankly how they get to that five-year point from today is certainly less and less a straight path,” he said.

Pat Capanna, president of Management Recruiters Madison (established in 1995), says her mindset has changed from viewing technology as a necessary evil to considering the competitive advantages that can be derived through investments in modern systems like PCRecruiter. Since the benefits also include the streamlining of tasks, expedient retrieval of information, and reduction in labor costs, she considers technology to be a partner in driving long-term success.

Given the pace of change, she feels that a five-year business plan would undoubtedly result in any business sliding into irrelevancy, so plans must be updated weekly, monthly, semi-annually, or annually. Some of the considerations that need to be kept in mind are new competition, the expectations of clients, and systemic changes in your industry, Capanna explained.

Angie Heim, CEO of The Employer Group (established 1995), noted how much her business was paper-based when it started, but paper payroll checks have been replaced by direct deposit, Web-based timecards, and paycheck stubs that are viewed online. She characterizes the pace of technological change as rapid but controllable.  “I came from the paper world, so when I had a younger staff, it was really driven more toward having new ideas and the younger generation saying there are more efficient ways to do things.”

Who says youth is wasted on the young?



2015 Anniversaries

Our congratulatory list of employers either headquartered in Dane County or with a physical office and significant presence here.


  • MWH America Inc.


  • Madison Turners Inc.


  • Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters


  • Gallagher Tent & Awning
  • J.F. Ahern Co.
  • Kehl School of Dance


  • Axley Brynelson LLP
  • Johnson Controls Inc.


  • J.H. Findorff & Son Inc.


  • Home Savings Bank
  • Lichtfeld Plumbing


  • Mead & Hunt
  • Wisconsin Grocers Association


  • DEMCO Inc.
  • Nickles Electric


  • American Red Cross Badger & South Central Region
  • Suttle-Straus Inc.
  • Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association


  • Capital Cartage Moving & Storage
  • Gannett Fleming Inc.


  • Badger Tour & Travel/Badger Coaches
  • CG Schmidt Inc.


  • Kayser Automotive Group
  • Stoughton Lumber Co.
  • Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF)


  • Carl F. Statz & Sons Inc.
  • Certco Inc.
  • Madison Metro Sewerage District
  • Sergenian’s Floor Coverings
  • Wipfli LLP


  • Comstock Tire Inc.
  • CUNA Mutual Group
  • Dane County Credit Union
  • Frontier Communications
  • McGovern’s Motel & Suites/Supper Club
  • Merrill Lynch Wealth Management
  • Morgan Stanley
  • Plunkett Raysich Architects LLP
  • Strang Inc.
  • Summit Credit Union


  • Emmons Business Interiors


  • Brooks Tractor Inc.
  • C.L. Swanson Corp.
  • Coyle Carpet One Floor & Home
  • Kelsch Machine Corp.
  • Rhyme
  • Soderberg Optical Service Inc.
  • TRICOR Inc.


  • Keller Real Estate Group
  • Midwest Alarm
  • O’Mara Moving Systems Inc.
  • Paisan’s Restaurant Inc.
  • Watts Landscape Service LLC
  • The Douglas Stewart Co.


  • Vitense Golfland
  • Xer-lith Printing & Copying LLC
  • Yahara Materials Inc.


  • Brunke Glass & Window Co.
  • CliftonLarsonAllen LLP
  • Dane County Cytology Center Inc.
  • Gray Bahl Auto Body Inc.
  • Keller Inc.
  • Monson Construction LLC
  • Verona Area Chamber of Commerce


  • Blackhawk Community Credit Union
  • Executive Management Inc.
  • Frank Productions
  • Herzing University
  • National Electrostatics Corp.
  • Remedy Intelligent Staffing
  • Tuttle Lithography Inc.
  • Zorn Compressor & Equipment


  • Acker Builders
  • Avenue Bar
  • Clean Wisconsin
  • Jewelers Workshop
  • Lake City Glass Inc.
  • WEA Trust


  • A Room of One’s Own Bookstore
  • Bubrick’s Complete Office
  • Buffalo Promotional Advertising
  • Capitol Lakes Retirement Community
  • Capitol Travel Service
  • Central Ceiling Systems Inc.
  • Corporate Construction Ltd.
  • ETC (Electronic Theatre Controls Inc.)
  • Flad Development & Investment Corp.
  • Foley & Lardner LLP
  • Hartung Brothers Inc.
  • KARD Recycling Service Inc.
  • Mohs, MacDonald, Widder & Paradise
  • Newcomb Construction Co. Inc.
  • North/Eastside Senior Coalition Inc.
  • Orange Tree Imports
  • Orion Progressive Lens Laboratory
  • TASC (Total Administrative Services Corp.)
  • West Madison Senior Coalition
  • Zeier’s Siding & Home Improvement


  • Allen Kitchen & Bath Center
  • AlphaGraphics
  • American Health & Safety Inc. (a division of LabSource)
  • Audio Visual of Madison
  • Concentre Communications Inc.
  • Gallina Cos.
  • General Communications Inc.
  • Heartland Litho
  • Hull Transport
  • Isthmus Engineering & Manufacturing
  • Madison Children’s Museum
  • pc/nametag
  • Remis Power Systems Inc.
  • SBA Management Services
  • Shared Medical Services LLC
  • Spruce Tree Music & Repair Inc.
  • Steve Brown Apartments
  • UW Small Business Development Center
  • WPPI Energy


  • ABD Printing
  • Avant Gardening & Landscaping Inc.
  • Cost Cutters of Madison
  • Dieck Executive Search
  • Esker Inc.
  • Farin & Associates Inc.
  • Hi-Techniques Inc.
  • High Tech Heating & Air Conditioning Inc.
  • Johnson Block & Co.
  • Kerry Ingredients and Flavours
  • Laurel and Associates Ltd.
  • Madison Forms
  • Maintenance Services of Madison
  • Mansion Hill Inn
  • Meigs Inc.
  • PPD
  • UC Management Services
  • VSA Wisconsin
  • Wisconsin Partnership for Housing Development
  • Yellow Page Control Ltd.


  • Alliance Trailer Service Inc.
  • B & B Laminates
  • Boldtronics Inc.
  • Buttonwood Partners Inc.
  • First Business Financial Services Inc.  
  • Gates Auto Body
  • Innovation Technologies Worldwide Inc., a division of TigerTMS
  • Insty Prints (Park Street)
  • Jackson Office Supplies
  • JBM Patrol & Protection Corp.
  • JG Development Inc.
  • Marriott Madison West
  • Monona Chamber of Commerce
  • ProAdSpec Inc.
  • Raven Software
  • SAFC Inc.
  • Silver Leaf Interiors Inc.
  • St. Mary’s Care Center
  • The Alliance
  • The Murphy Insurance Group


  • 1st Contact
  • Baker Tilly Search & Staffing LLC
  • Capitol Bank
  • Central Place Real Estate
  • Comfort Inn & Suites Madison Airport
  • Comfort Suites Madison West/Middleton
  • Crystal Cleaners Inc.
  • Devesys Technologies Inc.
  • ElderSpan Management LLC
  • Experis
  • Fainting Goat
  • Flexion
  • Hawks Quindel, S.C.
  • Hometown Buffet
  • IMS (Interactive Media Solutions)
  • Karate America Verona
  • Luminex Corp.
  • Management Recruiters of Madison
  • Middleton Community Bank
  • Neider & Boucher, S.C.
  • Pierce Engineers Inc.
  • Roche NimbleGen
  • Siegel-Gallagher Madison LLC
  • Star One Staffing of Madison LLC
  • The Employer Group
  • Villard & Associates Inc.
  • Wessel Lehker & Fumelle Inc.
  • Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
  • Zeitgeist Consulting


  • Advanced Health & Safety
  • AmericInn Lodge & Suites
  • Ameritas
  • Arboretum Office Park
  • Badger Business Park
  • Benavides Enterprises Inc.
  • Destree Design Architects Inc.
  • Dorschner Associates Inc.
  • eflexgroup Inc. (a TASC division)
  • Forte Research Systems Inc.
  • Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites — Madison West
  • Huffman Facility Development Inc.
  • ioGenetics LLC
  • JD Byrider
  • KBS Construction Inc.
  • Law Office of Elizabeth T. Russell LLC
  • Mackesey and Associates LLC
  • Mendota Boat Works
  • Moses Altsech Consulting
  • Oak Bank
  • Office Supplies 2 U
  • Platypus Technologies LLC
  • Quintessence Biosciences Inc.
  • Shred-it, Madison
  • Stratatech Corp.


  • AhR Pharmaceuticals Inc.
  • Astuteo LLC
  • BBI Detection LLC
  • BioIonix Inc.
  • BioSentinel Pharmaceuticals Inc.
  • Brandgarten Inc.
  • C. Coakley Relocation System
  • CORE Athletic LLC
  • Dane County TimeBank
  • Dane Solutions
  • Energy Tech Solutions
  • Global Recruiters of Madison
  • KSW Construction Corp.
  • LTC Financial Partners
  • Medical Engineering Innovations
  • Mendota Financial Group LLC
  • PLH & Associates
  • Pump It Up of Dane County
  • Qonsort LLC
  • The Peoples Community Bank
  • totAlly wirEd
  • TransformPOS
  • Willy Tech Shop


  • Accede CPA
  • AcTiF Solutions LLC
  • Affiliated Communications
  • Be Inspired Salon Inc.
  • Express Employment Professionals
  • Fringe Salon Spa
  • Jody Schilling DDS, S.C.
  • Lake, Luxury & Historic Homes
  • Lakeside International Trucks Inc.
  • Momentum Insurance Plans Inc.
  • Nordic Consulting Partners
  • NovaONE Networks
  • Propeller Health
  • Sector67
  • Shine Medical Technologies Inc.
  • Shoutlet Inc.
  • Thompson Kane & Co. LLC
  • Town Center at the Discovery Building
  • Wisco Investment Management

Not on the list? Update or submit your company profile at

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