Wiedenbeck and the art of generational reinvention

When your company has been around since the Grover Cleveland administration, and you began by selling horse shoes and wool fat, change is inevitable and the ability to adapt must be part of your organizational skill set. For Wiedenbeck Inc., now a metals supply and fabrication business, the capacity for reinvention is among the reasons it continues to build a legacy.

The business, which began in 1894 as a wagon maker and blacksmith service, has demonstrated quite a bit of steely resolve on its way to celebrating 125 years in business. That resolve is a key reason that Wiedenbeck Inc. was named the legacy winner in the 2019 Dane County Small Business Award program. Wiedenbeck and five other Dane County Small Business Award winners will be honored during the annual Dane County Small Business awards celebration on Tuesday, July 16, starting at 4 p.m. in the Overture Center’s upstairs Promenade Hall and Lobby.

Anniversary year

Considering all the economic shocks that have taken place since 1894, surviving in business for 125 years qualifies as a miracle, and it’s due to more than just a willingness to adapt. Wiedenbeck Inc. is a family-owned business, and four generations of the Wiedenbeck family have banded together to keep it going. When you consider the dynamics of families, and the potential for splits and sibling rivalries, this fact alone adds to the miraculous nature of the Wiedenbeck’s business longevity.

So, it goes without saying that over the years, the business has been required to change in order to successfully carry on, and change it has. Wiedenbeck has changed and added lines of business, it has changed how it sells to and services its customers, and it has changed its location and expanded its building. As a company, management is very proud of the fact that with each change, the organization has not only become stronger, but it also has strengthened its family values, enhanced its reputation with customers, and become more dedicated to the welfare of its employees.

“It really is hard to believe that we’ve been here since 1894, and we’re celebrating our 125th anniversary this year,” notes co-owner Jane Wiedenbeck. “That alone is just amazing. As every business does, we’ve had our challenges along the way, and it absolutely has been a combination of things that has allowed us to be successful for so long. We started in 1894 as wagon makers and blacksmiths, selling things like horse shoes and wool fat. That wouldn’t be a real recipe for success these days.”

Wiedenbeck Inc. has grown strong enough to appeal to a fifth generation of leadership in the person of Bennett Wiedenbeck, the son and nephew, respectively, of current co-owners Jane and brother Jim Wiedenbeck Jr. Bennett, who is jokingly called “Jane’s retirement plan,” will have tough acts to follow, but he’s eager manage “grandpa’s company.”

“Ben and my dad [Jim Wiedenbeck Sr.] were best of friends; they did everything together,” explains Jane. “Ben called me one day and he said, ‘Mom, I need to talk to you. I’ve decided that I want to run grandpa’s company.’ I laughed out loud. Not my mom’s company. Not my uncle’s company. My grandpa’s company.”

For this, Jane forgives Bennett, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater, because he and his grandfather, who retired in 2002 and later passed away, were good buddies. Jane also forgives Bennett because she loves teaching him about the business. “Ben has been here a few years now, and I love working with him every day,” Jane states. “I love teaching him what I know and learning from him along the way, too. He’s brought us some really youthful energy and new ideas to help us in this continuous growth process, and I’m thankful every day for that.

“On top of that, my brother Jim has two sons. One is in college and one is grade school, so we’ve got some time yet to see if they’re interested in joining us.”

If they do, they will have some good operational role models. The Wiedenbecks provide a safe-harbor 401(k) in which the company contributes 3 percent of each employee’s pay, whether or not the employee contributes. “When Jim and I took over, we had a 401(k) match in place, which is a fabulous benefit that many companies offer, but that assumes that the people working here actually can contribute something that the employer can match,” Jane notes. “Not everybody here did, and so we felt it was important to help everybody in the company with their retirement, not just the ones who had the ability to put something away.”

For the Wiedenbecks, establishing a safe harbor wasn’t about being competitive with the benefit packages of competitors, it was about doing what management thought was right for employees. “For us, safe harbor was an easy decision,” Jane adds. “We’re a family business, and our employees are our family. Every single day, they show up here and prove how much they care about us by working hard and showing how much they are invested in the success of our company. Saving money for retirement isn’t an easy thing. There are everyday financial commitments, and not everyone has the ability to put something away for the future.”

The company also provides interest-free loans for those times when employees have a personal need, and those needs range from small to large. If somebody needs $10 for lunch and doesn’t have any cash, they go to the cash register, sign a slip, take $10 out, and the company simply takes it out of their next paycheck. “Another example is that we had somebody come to me and ask for $2,500 to put a down payment on a new car because his car died,” Jane recounts. “So, we gave him the money interest free, and we take a little bit out of his paycheck — whatever he can afford — every other week until it’s paid off. We just believe that’s what you do for family.”

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Then there are a lot of little things Wiedenbeck Inc. does that show its appreciation and build a sense of loyalty. Allowing some time to watch the Badgers in the NCAA basketball tournament, even to the point of bringing in a television set and tailgate-style food so that employees could take breaks and watch the games. (Yes, they also do brackets, and if they beat Ben, they get $5). About once each month, the company brings in lunches for employees, and Jane likes to cook for them. Each little thing might not sound like much but add them up and you build a sense of family.

“So, it was little things like that to make people feel like they’re part of a community,” Jane notes. “I don’t know that you would call those benefits, but they are little things that we like to do to show appreciation to our people.”

Is Bennett enough of a basketball expert to save the company some loot? “No, we paid out a lot of money,” his mother admits.

Wiedenbeck Inc. and five other Dane County Small Business Award winners will be honored during the annual Dane County Small Business awards celebration on Tuesday, July 16, starting at 4 p.m. in the Overture Center’s upstairs Promenade Hall and Lobby.

In the community, Wiedenbeck Inc. makes in-kind donations to programs like BadgerBOTS Robotics to inspire budding young scientists and technicians, but the company’s proudest contribution is to Skills USA, a competition showcasing the skills of technical college students. Jane serves on the Metal Fabrication Advisory Board at Madison College and is the Wisconsin State Chairperson for Skills USA, so she plays an active role in the metal fabrication part of the annual state competition.

So active, in fact, that she works with Madison College to decide what the project is, create the scoring, and line up volunteers. Wiedenbeck Inc. donates all of the steel being used for the competition, which not only tests the students’ knowledge and ability, it also prepares them for the job search by having them submit resumes and then volunteers review them and provide feedback. Jane calls it the best non-paying job she’s ever had, especially when you realize that many young people still like to work with their hands and so a four-year college track, and the enormous debt that can come with it, isn’t really in their best interests.

“It’s kind of an all-around involvement,” Jane explains. “Is there the potential that somebody who comes out of that program could be an employee for me? Sure, there is, but much more than that, it’s about developing people to be good citizens, good employees, and giving them the skills they need to be successful. So, I’m really proud of that and really excited to be part of it.”

All-consuming honor

Given that her business peers, including past Dane County Small Business Award winners, were involved in choosing the 2019 winners, the award is very meaningful. “When you’re part of a small business, it really consumes a big part of your life,” Jane notes. “That’s especially true when you’re a family business. You work hard every day to earn the respect of your customers, your employees, and your community. So, for us, there is a great deal of satisfaction and pride that comes with this award. The fact that our business peers value our contributions enough to recognize us in this fashion is really an incredible honor.”

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