Celebration Corner: Galland Henning Nopak's 130th anniversary

By Barbara Spector

The Wisconsin manufacturing company, which skipped a 125th anniversary celebration, marked its 130th with a party.

The Business: Jakob Nunnemacher (1819-1876), a master butcher, emigrated from Switzerland to the United States in 1841 and arrived in Milwaukee in 1843. He opened a meat market and prospered by selling specialty cuts of meat to Swiss and German immigrants. In 1854, he used his profits to buy land and began raising his own cattle. Eventually, he got the idea to use the slops from his feeding operation to start a distillery and liquor distribution business.

The third of Jakob’s four sons, Robert Nunnemacher (1854-1912), became an executive in Milwaukee’s grain malting industry. In the course of his business dealings, he saw the potential of pneumatically powered rotational malting equipment that was being used in Europe. In 1887, Nunnemacher acquired the North American rights to produce the equipment from the patent holders, Nicholas Galland of France and Julius Henning of Germany. He dubbed his venture the Galland Henning Pneumatic Malting Drum Manufacturing Company.

Nunnemacher’s company made pneumatic malting equipment for Milwaukee brewers, including Pabst, Schlitz and Miller. The business was very successful through the turn of the century — until Prohibition was enacted. By this time, Robert’s son, Henry J. (1887-1975), was serving as the company president.

The company survived Prohibition by leveraging its engineering expertise to come up with different products — cider presses, concrete mixing equipment, gravel shaker rigs and the scrap-metal baling press, which remains one of its core product lines.

After the repeal of Prohibition, the business resumed making Galland Henning malting products while continuing to manufacture baling presses. It developed an automated “car crusher” baler, which could compress entire auto bodies. Pneumatic pilot circuits were used in the larger baler — a further innovation — which led to the creation of the Nopak line of fluid-power products, valves and cylinders. The company eventually changed its name to Galland Henning Nopak Inc. (GHN) to reflect the new product line and consolidated its operations in West Milwaukee, Wis.

Third-generation member Hermann Nunnemacher (1914-2008) started working for the family business in 1933. In 1942, Hermann was promoted to general manager of the Nopak division. Following his father’s retirement in 1960, Hermann was promoted to president and CEO of GHN, while his father remained chairman. Hermann became chairman upon the death of his father in 1975 and held the titles of chairman and CEO until 2005, when he was named chairman emeritus. Various non-family members have held the role of president from about 1975 until the present.

In 2015, GHN moved to a new facility in Franklin, Wis. The new headquarters, on six acres of land, enabled the company to expand its capabilities and increase capacity. Today, GHN has about 75 employees and manufactures high-density balers and hydraulic and pneumatic valves and cylinders.

“Your typical consumer is not going to know our products, they’re not going to know the Galland Henning Nopak name, but we sell products to a lot of big businesses,” says Heath A. Nunnemacher, 31, an owner and a director of the company. For example, Heath says, GHN sells manufacturing equipment to Crown Holdings and Ball Corporation, two of the world’s largest makers of aluminum beverage cans.

On the fluid-power side, Nopak cylinders are used to actuate some of the Mississippi River locks. The company’s cylinders also helped open the gates of Jurassic Park in the 1993 film and are involved in the operation of some animatronics and amusement rides at Disney resorts.

No family members currently work at GHN. President and CEO Brian Sternberg joined the company in 2014 as vice president of sales and marketing and was named to his current post in January 2017. The appointment of chief engineer Sudarshan Sharma was also announced at the start of the company’s 130th year.

GHN’s majority-independent board consists of three independent directors and two family directors: Heath Nunnemacher and his mother, Heidi E. Nunnemacher, 58.

Heath works at Milwaukee Electric Tool Corporation, where he directs new product development in the accessories business. Previously, he managed global quality operations at Apple’s desktop division; prior to that, he worked in the automotive industry. His mother is a dually licensed mental health and addictions therapist who also holds a Ph.D. in organizational leadership. She worked at GHN in various accounting, managerial and executive functions from 1984 to 2005.

Heath’s wife, Amy Nunnemacher, 32, global director of communications for Silver Spring Networks, a tech business, provides assistance with GHN’s communications on a volunteer basis.

The Family: Four members of the Nunnemacher family have an ownership stake in GHN: Heath and his mother; his sister, Heidi A. Nunnemacher, 32; and the siblings’ half-brother, Harry A. Nunnemacher, 59.

The Nunnemachers have an unconventional family dynamic, not only because of the considerable age difference between Heidi E. and Hermann Nunnemacher when they married, but also because Heidi E. remained a shareholder of the company after she and Hermann divorced. The family “pruned the tree” through two shareholder buyouts that consolidated ownership.

Over the past seven years, the family has worked to create a strong family and business governance structure.
“We take the governance piece pretty seriously, I’d say,” Heath comments. “I think it’s a product of the fact that, frankly, my dad [ran the business until he] was really, really old, and I personally disagreed with a lot of the things that he did. He just came from a different generation. There was an aversion to things like investing in high technology.”

Although no family members work in the business, the Nunnemachers have established a family employment policy. Heath says that although he has a background in global engineering and supply-chain operations, “I have yet to find the crossover point at which I [feel] like I’ve accomplished everything outside the family business and am ready” to join the company.

He adds, “I have a nice balance between being able to work for other businesses and enjoying that work, while serving on the [GHN] board and still setting the strategic direction. I sit with the management team at the very least two, if not three, times per month, going through metrics and really keeping focus on the business that way.”
There currently is no fifth generation waiting in the wings. “From a transitions perspective, it’s really more about retention planning for key members of the management team — having things in place like phantom equity and good performance-based compensation plans,” Heath says.

The Celebration: The company marked its 130th anniversary on Aug. 18 with a party at its headquarters that featured a pig roast, an open bar and music. Local government officials were in attendance, but the celebration focused on GHN’s employees.

Al Weil, who has worked at GHN for 43 years, had the honor of cutting the anniversary cake. The event “was really quite fun,” Heath says. “It was a nice balance between celebrating the old and recognizing where we’ve been, but also [being] focused on the future and where we have yet to go.”

The city of Franklin and the county of Milwaukee presented GHN with proclamations recognizing the 130th anniversary.

Employees received shirts embroidered with the 130th anniversary logo. The company hired an audiovisual marketing firm to produce a video timeline, which GHN brought to a major industry trade show.

The Planning: Part of the motivation for the 130th anniversary party was that the company did not celebrate its 125th. At the time, the company was preoccupied with management turnover and planning to buy a new headquarters building. “There were too many other moving parts, so we elected at that time to skip the 125th,” Heath says.

Planning for the event “started at the shareholder level,” Heath says. The shareholders decided at their July 2016 annual meeting to direct company management to explore the idea of a 130th anniversary celebration. Management convened a committee to plan the event.

“In lieu of having what we’ll call a heavy-handed family oversight, the employees set up a committee by themselves, and really ran with it,” Heath says. “I think everyone really understood the significance of the milestone.”

Management set the budget for the event. “It wasn’t an overly extravagant affair, but it was well put together,” Heath says.

One point of debate was whether to schedule the celebration on the weekend, which would enable employees’ spouses and children to join in the fun. Heath says his mother opposed that plan because it would detract from employees’ personal time. In the end, the decision was made to hold the party on a Friday afternoon; the company shut down operations at noon. Heath estimates that about 100 people attended, including some employees’ family members.

The Response: “I’ve always been very engaged in the business, from the time of being 4 and 5 years old, running around out in the manufacturing operation,” Heath says. “We have some long-tenured employees, and they remember when my mom was pregnant, when I was born, and me coming to work with my dad.

“So I think the neatest part is just being able to say, ‘Guys, we have such a history together.’ It feels not so much like an ownership/employee relationship — it’s really more of a family from that perspective. A lot of these guys I’ve known a really, really long time. So it was really quite nice.”

The Secret Sauce: The key to GHN’s longevity, Heath says, is “the perseverance of the business to always try to offer new, innovative solutions for industrial customers. The business has always had a track record, starting in the Prohibition years, of engineering innovation and always being very applications engineering focused.” The emphasis on innovation also helped the company endure through challenges such as steel shortages and the energy crisis of the 1970s, Heath notes.

He also cites “the appropriate balance” between the family’s vision and oversight and the presence of professional, non-family managers. “We are no different than a lot of family businesses that have struggled with the right balance,” Heath says. “We’ve gotten ourselves — particularly, I would say, over the last 10 years — really to a point of a well-executed corporate governance system. It’s really the balancing act of making sure that you’ve got the right people in the business, but you still have the family involved to a higher degree to make sure that the vision of the family is aligned to the strategy of the operation.”

The Advice: Heath points out that sustaining a family business for a century or more is a rare accomplishment. “So embrace it, celebrate it,” he says.

“My biggest suggestion would be to get somebody to really professionally capture those old pictures, and maybe sales brochures or original product literature. And if you get it done well, then you can set up a special section on your website.”

He adds, “We did a lot with different press releases” announcing the anniversary to the media.

However, it’s important to look ahead, Heath says. “My key messaging is: One hundred thirty years is a great milestone, but family businesses need to keep focused on the future,” he comments. “It’s good governance, it’s regular shareholder meetings, and it starts with the vision. Get your family constitution in place, have the family vision, let the family vision drive the management strategy and the management drive the operations and the execution. You’ve got to do this stuff. Get it in place.”                            

Copyright 2018 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: 
January/February 2018

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