When your company has been in business going on 150 years and through five generations of family, you know a little something about being resilient.
The Reinders Headquarters, Sussex, Wis., above contrasts sharply from this Reinders storefront (below, circa 1887) in nearby Elm Grove, Wis.
Mary Ritter, the great, great-grandmother of Craig Reinders, Reinders, Inc. president, might even be surprised at how her general store has been transformed into a regional wholesale powerhouse for such items as commercial lawn maintenance supplies, golf course equipment and irrigation supplies.
Reinders attributes much of the present look of the company to his father and uncle, who recognized the growing urbanization of the area just west of Milwaukee.
Not that Reinders' own contributions are modest. His latest decision was to move the company into a new headquarters building despite, or perhaps because of, the recession.
All the right moves
That relocation a few miles from Reinders' long-time home in Elm Grove, Wis., is probably just the latest bit of serendipity for a company that has a long history of making the right moves.
Reinders explains that the company began when Mary Ritter, the Elm Grove postmistress, opened a general store in 1866.
"Over the years, the family distributed lumber, fuel oil, coal and, after the turn of the 20th century, we became more and more involved in the grain business," he says.
The business changed its name to Reinders Co., when John Reinders, Reinders' great-grandfather, married Ritter's daughter. However, it fell to Reinders' father Richard and his uncle Robert to give the company much of the direction it still has today.
President Craig Reinders, left, Executive VP Mary Reinders and CFO John Shurtleff.
"We were in some form of the distribution and supply business through the early 20th century," Reinders says. "By the 1950s, many of the farms in the western Milwaukee area had been slowly converted into subdivisions, and my uncle Robert recognized that. We opened a garden center and started selling power equipment to service the suburban market."
By the early 1960s, when Reinders' father joined the business, the irrigation business was in its infancy. Reinders bought enough parts to become a Rain Bird irrigation equipment distributor, and later that same decade added Jacobsen lawn equipment, as well.
Then, in the 1970s, the company had the opportunity to acquire a Toro commercial franchise, which included the eastern half of Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan.
Over time, the company became a master distributor for several different types of products, a move that set it apart from many of its smaller competitors.
"We continued building our own store locations as one-stop sources for contractor supplies, and that's been our model from the '90s on," Reinders says.
Today, there are six Reinders, Inc. stores in Wisconsin, three in Illinois, two in Minnesota and one in Kansas.
Space to grow
The company's solid history of growth did create one major problem, however. Having enough space to handle Reinders' products and services became a major issue that required, in its president's words, "a lot of band-aids" to accommodate.
The headquarters sat on a 9-acre site in Elm Grove that included buildings from the 1800s to the 1990s, as well as a rail line and a river. The primary building was only 45,000 square feet.
"It was a pretty challenging site," says Reinders. "As the business grew, we started leasing other warehouse locations to handle our distribution function to the point that our primary distribution site was about 6 miles away. We were also leasing flex space at another location. It was incredibly inefficient."
The company was well into master planning for a move to a more suitable site in 2007-2008. Then, the economy took its downward turn.
"Our focus became managing expenses, cash flow and excess inventories," Reinders says. "However, one of the benefits of the downturn was the collapse of the commercial real estate market. There was a surplus plastics plant here in Sussex that had been sitting empty, and we were able to acquire this facility, renovate it and move in in December 2011."
The most obvious advantage to the new headquarters building is it offers 136,000 square feet of space. That's meant literally everything, from PVC pipe to equipment in for repair, is now under roof. However, that's only one positive that Reinders sees.
"It's allowed us to drastically reduce our facilities costs, just from a straight lease cost," he says. "But, we've even saved on material handling. For instance, we had 24 forklifts on three sites; with the new facility we run nine. There are a lot of built-in efficiencies that we've seen immediately, and there are probably more available as we get used to the facility here."
However, more room doesn't necessarily translate into other changes. As early as the 1990s, Reinders says an effort was made to focus on what the company did best. That meant getting rid of some things, such as much of its retail trade, and construction and manufacturing areas it was in.
"We sold, closed or divested ourselves of areas that were not directly related to our core business, which is wholesale distribution," he says. "In effect, we got rid of a third of the revenue of the company, focused on wholesale distribution and the business thrived."
While Reinders has developed niches within its core business, such as holiday lighting, having a diverse product base and good customer service has helped the company weather the current economy.
With a current employee base of slightly more than 200 people, including five family members, the company president says part of his role is recruiting the best people possible, giving them good tools to work with and then getting out of their way.
The company also puts a lot of effort into career and sector training. Reinders says a recent training session on customer service involved some 90 employees over two days.
"One of the core messages is that no matter how good a relationship a sales rep has with a particular customer, if the person delivering the product isn't properly trained or doesn't have the right attitude or doesn't understand the impact they can have on that relationship, they can ruin it just by being that final contact," he explains.
Reinders adds that good relationships are key to the business' success. Among his roles is maintaining those relationships with many of the company's customers. And, he's particularly proud of the long-term relationship Reinders, Inc. has had with the Milwaukee Brewers baseball club, which goes back some 30 years.
However, that length pales with some others the company enjoys.
"Many of our customers have been customers of ours for 40 and 50 years, sometimes more," Reinders says. "Unlike a retail setting where you see a customer walk in the door and you may never see them again, we enjoy great tenure with our customers and our vendors and that gives us a tremendous sense of accomplishment and joy."
Of course, Reinders also takes a great deal of pride in being the fifth generation of his family to helm the business, but he admits he may be the last. In the mid-2000s, Reinders, Inc. established a board of directors with fiduciary duties, a rarity for a closely held corporation.
"Given the size of the business now, we're relying more and more on professional management," Reinders explains. "We have a responsibility to the shareholders to grow and do the best we can on their behalf, and that may include family members in management in the future and it may not."
However, he is confident the business will continue to go forward.
"When things are going well, it's easy to have a good group," Reinders concludes. "When things aren't going well, you find out what you're made of. We were able to keep our staff intact through the downturn and that's paying off now. We're able to operate and thrive in this new environment."
K. Schipper is a writer and editor specializing in B2B publishing. She is a partner in Word Mechanics, based in Palm Springs, Calif. Contact her at email@example.com.