Celebration Corner: Crescent Electric Supply's 100th anniversary

By Barbara Spector

The East Dubuque, Ill., company’s yearlong celebration featured historical vignettes, a gala, and plenty of food and fun.

The Business: The Schmid family’s first business venture was the Schmid Brewery in Dubuque, Iowa, founded in 1855 by Titus Schmid, an immigrant from Bavaria, Germany, according to a blog posted on Crescent Electric Supply’s website to commemorate the company’s centennial.

The blog, researched and written by Mary Schmid Daugherty, a third-generation Crescent shareholder, notes that after Titus’s death in 1867, his business partners took over the brewery. Titus’s three sons bought the other owners’ interests in 1877 and ran the business, renamed the Iowa Brewery, through 1892. Amid intense competition in 1893, the brewery and three others consolidated to form the Dubuque Brewing and Malting Company. When Iowa enacted prohibition in 1916, the family ended its brewing venture.

Titus’s grandson, Titus B. Schmid, started investing in real estate at a young age. In 1916, at 24, the younger Titus became partners with an electrical contractor named Joe Lowe in a business they called the Schmid-Lowe Electric Company.

Electricity was coming into widespread use in commercial and residential properties. Many of the breweries that closed because of prohibition owned taverns that they remodeled and repurposed when beer was outlawed. The Schmid-Lowe Electric Company’s services were in high demand.

In 1917, the company received a large order from an important customer who needed it the next day. Titus’s Chicago-based electrical wholesale supplier did not come through with the order in time. That inspired Titus to start his own electrical wholesaling business.

He spent a year planning his new venture. In late 1918, he sold his interest in the Schmid-Lowe Company and hired a sales manager for his new business, Crescent Electric Supply. That first employee, Tom Kelley, had been a salesman for the Chicago supplier who failed to deliver the important order on time.

“Doing all this research on our hundred years, I was just blown away with how our grandfather connected with people,” Mary says. “He really understood how important relationships were.

“It wasn’t the salesman’s fault” that the order hadn’t come through, she explains. Titus turned a difficult situation into an opportunity to recruit a professional he respected who was willing to risk leaving an established business to join a startup.

Crescent opened on April 15, 1919. By 1924, the company had expanded to three branches, a concept that had not yet fully caught on in the United States. In 1925, Titus was introduced to executives from the General Electric Company, beginning the company’s long distribution relationship with GE.

Titus was able to find financing not only to sustain his business during the Great Depression, but also to expand. To boost morale in 1931, he took his managers on a weeklong trip to Miami.

As Titus’s business grew, his family was also growing. He and his wife, Josephine (nicknamed Doden), had seven children: four sons and three daughters. In the mid-1940s, he invited his sons to join him in the business.

The oldest son, Tom, was named president in 1966, and Titus became chairman of the board. By the time of its 50th anniversary in 1969, Crescent had 26 branches.

Tom Schmid died of cancer in 1974. His brother Jim succeeded him as president and held that post until his death in 2001. By then, the company had grown to 117 branches.

Many articles written about the company during the years the second generation was in charge quoted the brothers praising their team. “That’s how, I think, Crescent has survived for 100 years — building relationships,” Mary says.

A non-family member became Jim’s successor, and non-family members have led the company ever since. Today Crescent, based in East Dubuque, Ill., has 140 distribution facilities in 28 states and employs 1,750 people.

The Family: At Doden’s insistence, all seven of the G2s owned the company equally. The family is now in its fifth generation, with 128 family members in the seven branches. Four G3s work or have worked at Crescent, and one G4 has joined the company. Three family directors serve along with six independent directors on the company’s board.

Fourteen family members — two from each branch — serve on the Schmid Family Council.

The Celebration: The yearlong festivities began April 16, 2018. The kickoff centered on Crescent’s employees, who arrived at work to find banners, balloons and letterhead with the new centennial logo.

The family prepared a video, shared on Crescent’s intranet, thanking employees for their service. A thank-you note from the Schmid family was mailed to each employee’s home.

Beginning on May 15, 2018, and every 15th of the month thereafter until the anniversary date of April 15, 2019, a new historical vignette — written by Mary and including photos and videos — was posted on the anniversary blog on Crescent’s website.

Materials promoting the company’s travel award program for customers, called “Catch the Current,” featured the 100th anniversary logo and highlighted the centennial.

On the evening of Saturday, April 13, 2019, Crescent held a gala celebration in Dubuque for more than 650 people at the Grand River Conference Center in Dubuque. Attendees included the 100 longest-tenured employees and their guests. Also invited were key customers, some suppliers, Crescent management and Dubuque civic leaders.

Thirty-two family members were at the gala. “We made it quite clear that it was a working event. Our job was to host,” Mary says. “So we asked for volunteers.

“We specifically were looking for family members who  would be comfortable at a business function where they could meet and greet.”

Schmid family members staffed eight “history stations,” where guests could view photos and artifacts and ask questions about the family and business. The idea arose out of an observation by Crescent staffers who served on the planning committee.

“They said, ‘Employees are really interested in talking to family members, and they want to know the history, but they’re not likely just to go up and talk to them at a party,’ ” Mary recalls. “So we brainstormed and came up with history stations.”

CEO Martin Burbridge offered welcoming remarks, and the family foundation announced a gift of $100,000 to the Crescent Community Health Center in Dubuque. Guests viewed a video highlighting the company history, including photos and interviews with family members, employees, suppliers and customers.

An after-party, held at the Mississippi Moon Bar in the nearby Diamond Jo Casino, featured a band from Nashville.
“It was fantastic,” Mary says. “It turned out really well.”

“All of us in the family were high-fiving each other and dancing,” says G3 member Kathy Munson, who chairs the family council.

The afternoon before the gala, G2 sisters-in-law Mary Schmid and Janet Rhomberg, both in their 80s, hosted a lunch at a Dubuque country club for family members and employees who had arrived in town early. The family rented a trolley to take them on a two-and-a-half-hour tour of the area after lunch.

Longtime customers unable to attend the gala were sent a box of caramels made by Trappistine sisters from Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey in Dubuque. The Schmid family’s support for the sisters’ candymaking dates from the ’60s or ’70s. In those days Crescent mailed boxes of caramels to the families of customers and suppliers who were away on Crescent-sponsored trips. “They’d send them home to the wives and children so that they would be happy while Daddy was away,” Mary says.

On Monday, April 15, family members traveled to Crescent’s branches, bearing sweets and snacks in containers featuring the 100th anniversary logo. The purpose of the branch visits was “just to say hi and thank you,” Mary says.

“As many locations as we could touch got a visit personally from a family member,” says Mary, who dropped in at four branches in Missouri that day along with her husband. “Several of the branches had lunches or brunches or open houses, and we just kind of inserted ourselves there for a little bit — not being intrusive at all, just trying to be part of that.”

The final historical vignette, posted on Crescent’s blog on the centennial date, thanked employees and customers.

Materials from the gala’s history stations were brought to the Schmid family reunion in June 2019 so the full family had a chance to see them.

The Planning: Four years before the centennial, the board began discussing ways to celebrate. “We knew we wanted to do something big, but we didn’t know what,” says Mary, a board member at the time.

A committee was formed to plan the activities. Mary, the board representative on the committee, worked alongside three people from Crescent’s marketing team and several family council members. Mary oversaw the efforts and coordinated projects with the board and top management.

The committee researched how other families celebrated their business milestones. Mary, who is a director on the board of a company that marked its centennial in 2017, got some ideas from that firm’s events.

“How do you have a celebration for 1,750 people — that’s just the employees — and all the customers, and all of our key suppliers, and our huge family? You don’t,” Mary says. The committee decided the best way to meet this challenge was to develop a variety of “touch points” to ensure all stakeholder groups were reached.

“The camaraderie between the family and management and the employees while this was being planned was very prideful and very fun,” Kathy says. “It got you excited about what was coming along, and you really wanted to be part of it.”

Committee members debated whether to produce a hardcover history book and ultimately opted for the online vignettes instead.

“Mary put hours and hours and hours of joy and love and sweat and tears into those vignettes,” says Kathy, who is Mary’s cousin. “And it really shows in the end.”

“I loved every minute of it, because it was amazing what I learned, and who I met,” Mary says.

It wasn’t always easy. “I have to admit that our family is not good at capturing our history,” Mary says. “So we just started pulling data from everywhere.”

A major resource was a book Titus had written about Crescent’s first 50 years. A fortuitous finding was “this scrapbook that appeared out of nowhere, by some miracle, in one of my aunts’ closets,” Mary recalls.

A treasure trove of archival material was found in a section of Crescent’s warehouse.

“It was mind-blowing how much was there,” Mary says. “We gathered stuff, but we had never analyzed it or used it.”

The Advice: “It’s really key to have one person identified to champion the ‘Big Idea’ and encourage others to complete parts of the whole in order to attain success,” Kathy says.

“Mary was our champion from the beginning of planning through complete execution. She was able to straddle working with the board (as a board member), family (as a family shareholder) and management (through her board work with them). All these entities were crucial to getting such a large endeavor off the ground and through to successful completion, and she was the needed engine to keep it moving forward.

“I suspect it could take several individuals like Mary in other families to realize all that she accomplished.”

“Remember to have fun with it,” Mary advises celebration planners.

“It’s so worth it to learn about your family history and the values system, and how they lived it.”                

Copyright 2019 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

Article categories: 
Issue: 
November/December 2019

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