Celebration Corner: U.S. Engineering Company's 125th anniversary

By Barbara Spector

The mechanical contracting firm plans a variety of celebrations for its team members.

The Business: Gustav Nottberg established Nottberg Iron and Machine Works in Kansas City, Mo., in 1893, several years after immigrating to the United States from Cologne, Germany. Nottberg had opened a one-man machine shop in his native country in 1855.

Second-generation business owners John and Henry Nottberg renamed the company U.S. Engineering Co., Nottberg Bros. in 1904. In 1914, they dropped the family name, and the business officially became U.S. Engineering Company.

At the time, the company specialized in the design and installation of ammonia refrigeration systems. After the invention of Freon, U.S. Engineering developed expertise in working with the compound. During World War II, the company installed the heating, ventilation, air conditioning and other systems in what is now known as the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in Independence, Mo.

In 1967, third-generation member Henry Nottberg Jr. took over as president, and the company started a service department to complement its construction. The following year, U.S. Engineering was awarded the Colorado State University stadium project and opened an office in Colorado. Its work in the Rocky Mountain region expanded steadily.

Cousins Gus Nottberg Jr. and Henry “Skip” Nottberg III became the fourth-generation owners when they bought the company from Skip’s father, Henry Nottberg Jr., in 1981. Skip ran the Kansas City operations, and Gus ran the Colorado business. When the company began to feel the effects of the recession, Skip bought out his cousin and became the sole owner of U.S. Engineering in 1985. At the time of the buyout, Gus was 51 and Skip was 36.

Skip, who had majored in political science in college, had joined the family business after graduation in 1971. His first jobs at the company were working on compliance with the newly passed Occupational Safety and Health Act and installing the first computer system.

Skip developed new business plans, including non-family executives in the process, and the company moved into industrial projects in addition to its commercial work. He opened up stock ownership to key executives and created an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). Then Skip was diagnosed with an aggressive form of melanoma and stepped down from the company in 1996 to battle the disease. He died the next year at age 47 and was succeeded by a non-family member, Dwight Brinkman.

Skip’s son Tyler Nottberg, 41, is now the chairman and CEO of U.S. Engineering. The company today provides mechanical construction, service, maintenance and energy solutions to hospital, data center, commercial and industrial clients. There are about 1,200 employees, known as “team members” in company parlance.

Tyler credits Tim Moormeier, U.S. Engineering’s non-family president, with helping to transform the company into a digital and data-driven organization. An emphasis on long-term strategic planning was instrumental in the company’s decision to focus on healthcare, Tyler says.

The Family: Tyler and his sister were just 20 and 18, respectively, at the time of their father’s death. As part of his succession planning, Skip established a “bridge plan” for future ownership and leadership of U.S. Engineering, as he described in a posthumously published article in the Spring 1997 issue of Family Business.

Upon Skip’s death, his children received a total of 25% of the company’s stock in a trust. The company acquired the remainder of Skip’s stake via life insurance. If Tyler or his sister wanted to join the company before they turned 30, the plan afforded them the opportunity to purchase another 26% and become majority owners.

“The key in that scenario, however, was that we would be required to meet certain criteria, such as having a college degree and gaining formal approval from the board,” says Tyler. “In addition, we would be required to finance the purchase of the stock ourselves. On the flip side, if neither of us had shown interest by age 30, the company had the ability to call our shares and remove the Nottberg family completely from ownership.”

Tyler, like his father, studied political science in college. After graduating, he worked in Washington, D.C., and on Wall Street. As he turned 28, he and his wife, Leigh, started thinking about returning to Kansas City. At the same time, Brinkman was planning to retire.

Tyler joined U.S. Engineering in 2005. After receiving board approval, he purchased blocks of shares from retiring shareholders, including Brinkman. Subsequently, he bought out his sister, Jamie Comet, who is currently completing a master’s degree in counseling.

Today Tyler and Leigh Nottberg own a little more than 51% of the company. The rest is owned by the ESOP and a group of key executives, including Moormeier, who owns about 18%.

The Celebration: Tyler says the goal of U.S. Engineering’s 125th anniversary celebration is “to honor the past and embrace the future.”

The celebrations will be internally focused. “We want this to be a celebration with — and of — our team members, more than a billboard for our customers,” Tyler says.

The highlight of the anniversary events will be dinner celebrations in the fall in the company’s Rocky Mountain and Midwest regions. Team members and spouses will be invited to these evening events.

Also in the planning stages are smaller-scale “pop-up events” throughout the year, some of which might focus on historical company trivia. Giveaway items will be presented to team members during several of the events.

“People really take pride in our brand and what it represents, so we want to give them the opportunity to showcase that pride,” Tyler says. “Our objectives are to create experiences and memories that celebrate what we’ve accomplished, as well as what is yet to come.”

U.S. Engineering is working with a Kansas City brewery to have an anniversary beer made. The company hopes to invite team members to a launch party featuring logo glassware. In a nod to the company’s German roots, the beer under consideration is a Kolsch style. Kolsch is brewed in Cologne, the birthplace of U.S. Engineering’s founder, Gustav Nottberg. Also under discussion is the creation of an anniversary coffee blend.

Other giveaway items, such as a high-quality shirt featuring the company logo or other anniversary design, are being developed. Some of the swag might also be offered for purchase, with the proceeds going to charity.

The Planning: The 125th anniversary has been on the company’s radar for about two years, but “we really started to get serious about plans during our fiscal year budgeting process in August of 2017,” Tyler says.

A companywide committee of eight people “is talking big picture and bringing continuity,” says Thomas Kepka, U.S. Engineering’s director of marketing, who’s overseeing the planning. The committee includes representatives from both the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions.

Both regions have subcommittees to plan region-specific activities. Each regional committee has about 10 members, including those who serve on the companywide committee. “We’re taking advice, recommendations and feedback from others as appropriate,” Kepka says.

Focusing the celebration on team members got the planning team energized, Tyler reports. “It gives them a little bit more license to do weird and fun things.”

The Future: Tyler and Leigh have two children, Maggie, 14, and Andrew, 11. “They love hearing stories about U.S. Engineering,” Tyler says. “Similar to the way my dad thought about it, I’m always happy to talk with them about what we do. They come down and see the office, and I try to show them the work that we’re doing and take them out for job site visits, so they understand. But neither Leigh nor I have put any pressure on them [to join the business]. They’ve got a long time to decide.”

Tyler says he’s established a “bridge plan” for his children that’s similar to the plan his father put in place for him and his sister. “If I walk out of U.S. Engineering today and get hit by a bus, they’ll have the same opportunity that my sister and I had,” he says.

The Advice: Tyler recommends that family business owners mark their milestone anniversaries with an internal celebration. “It sounds cool to say you’re 125 years old, but at the end of the day, let’s be honest, your customers don’t really care,” he says. “It matters so much more to your team members and has so much more value in that context.”  

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.

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May/June 2018

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