“It’s not how many restaurants you have, but how many good ones.”
That was the philosophy of the late George Culver, co-founder of the Prairie du Sac-based Culver Franchising System. That mindset has served as a catalyst for growth over the years. Starting off with one Culver’s restaurant in Sauk City in 1984, Culver’s now has 627 restaurants in 24 states. And it all began with the butterburger and frozen custard.
Branding is perhaps one of the most critical components of any business. It can help set the stage for success. It can be as simple as a sign or slogan, or as complex as a perception of many elements. As such, the ultimate goal of any business is to become a household name, such as Kleenex. It could be a little known family named Ringling or a battery with the word Rayovac on it.
These nationally-recognized brands had humble beginnings, much like the small towns they originated from.
Big top branding
With roots firmly entwined in the history of Baraboo, one of the most recognized names in the circus world got its start there in the mid-1800s. Born in McGregor, Iowa, papa Ringling, a harness-maker by trade, moved his family to Baraboo. As fate would have it, a circus came to the area. The Ringling family attended, and the future was sealed.
“They got the circus bug,” said Joe Colossa of the Al. Ringling Mansion in Baraboo. “They decided to put on a small circus of their own back in McGregor. They charged money for it and they did pretty good.”
When Al. Ringling was about 16, he decided to go off with other circuses and learn the trade. He returned later much more knowledgeable about the business, deciding to drag the older five of his seven brothers into the mix.
“Back in Baraboo they didn’t have the money to put on a full-fledged circus,” Colossa said.
In winters the brothers did variety shows with small animals and a juggling act. They worked out of trucks, doing whatever they could to make money. “Finally they had enough money, and they opened their circus in Baraboo on May 19, 1884,” Colossa said. “And the rest is history.”
Another business with ties to Wisconsin, now produces a billion batteries annually. Although headquartered in Middleton, Rayovac, a division of Spectrum brands, is a global leader in the manufacturing of hearing aid batteries, and it does this out of a converted dairy plant in Portage.
With about 220 employees, Rayovac began producing the batteries in Portage in 1963. It started in 1906 in an attic in Chicago, producing batteries for telephones. A Wisconsin man got involved, moved the company to Madison and renamed it the French Battery Company. It was later changed to Rayovac in 1934.
“There are plants all over the world, but we’ve always been headquartered in the Madison area,” said Michele Woolever, senior product marketing manager for the company’s alkaline division. “Rayovac is a Wisconsin brand, and we are committed to being that.”
Some company names are synonymous with the place they inhabit.
“We started in Wisconsin Dells, as did the majority of indoor water parks,” said Travis Nelson, spokesperson for Kalahari Resorts. Although one of the newer local brands gone national, Kalahari has quickly become one the Dells’ top attractions. There are Kalahari resorts in Sandusky, Ohio, one in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania and one soon-to-be nestled into the community of Round Rock, Texas.
“The idea for the Kalahari started with my parents,” Nelson said. “They grew up in the Dells, they graduated from the same high school I did. Wisconsin Dells is a great Midwestern destination. People have been driving here for years and years.”
Nelson’s parents started a pizza restaurant and night club in the Dells, as people came to the community in droves to experience the area’s natural beauty. The Nelsons, as did many local families, saw the opportunity to get in on the area’s growth by opening a small indoor water park in a hotel called the Raintree Resort.
“We wanted to make it bigger but we were landlocked,” Nelson said. “So in the year 2000 we opened what is now the Kalahari.”
Slightly more specialized, but also widely known in particular markets are the Reedsburg-based Seats Inc. and Walker Stainless out of New Lisbon.
Anyone who has driven a military vehicle in recent years, or ridden in a semi-truck, likely knows about Seats, a manufacturing company that produces a variety of commercial seating products. Founded in Reedsburg in 1952 by a single owner and two investors, the company started out as contract-based seating manufacturer, selling to just about anybody, according to Ann Dietrich, human resource manager for the company.
The focus changed in 1970 when W.R. Sauey, one of the original investors, purchased the majority of the company’s stock. Seats has evolved from a company with just eight employees to more than 500.
“It has grown tremendously over the past 65 years,” Dietrich said. “I’ve been with the business for 30 years. Since I have been here, it’s more than doubled in size.”
Walker Engineered Products got its start as a welding repair shop based out of a garage in New Lisbon, with four original employees. Known then as Walker Welding and Machine, the business began in 1943.
“It started out as a welding repair shop for the dairy industry,” said Jim Miller, vice president of sales and marketing for Walker. “Then it built its first milk truck in 1953 during the beginning of the transportation industry. Walker really grew from there.”
Now with more than 500 employees, Walker Stainless has manufacturing has facilities in New Lisbon in addition to Elroy and Tavares, Florida. It manufactures stainless steel process tanks and storage vessels for a variety of industries from personal care to food and beverage.
Miller said Walker’s growth began in the 1950s, with its foray into the transportation industry, going from truck-mounted tanks to trailorized equipment.
“That’s where we really have expanded, not only in milk and dairy but also in pharmaceutical, chemical, nuclear — really world-wide,” he said. Archer Daniels Midland, Kraft, Dairy Farmers of America and Pepsico are among its biggest customers. Walker’s trailorized products haul food and dairy products and factory and storage vessels like silos and blend tanks are also used in the food and dairy industry.
For Rayovac, creating dry-cell batteries for flashlights and radios were two of the company’s inventions — along with the first portable vacuum-tube hearing aid.
“Rayovac was successful in creating things to drive its sale of batteries,” Wollever said. It also didn’t hurt that Rayovac products were used heavily in World War II, supplying the military with more than 500 million batteries for use in hand-held radios.
For the Culver’s Franchise, success was built slowly on the premise that every guest who chooses Culvers leaves happy. When they opened their first Culvers 33 years ago, co-founders George and Ruth Culver and Craig Culver and Lea Culver spent more than 25 years in the restaurant business before converting a small A&W Root Beer stand into the first Culver’s in Sauk City, serving butterburgers and fresh frozen custard, according to Craig Culver. Homemade burgers were a specialty of Ruth Culver and frozen custard was a favorite treat of Craig Culver in his youth.
Culver’s knew it was onto something after the success of its first franchise in Baraboo in 1991.
“We opened our first restaurant outside of Wisconsin in 1995 in Buffalo, Minnesota,” Craig Culver said. “By 2000 we hit the 100 restaurant mark and there have been other milestones since then. There was never this grand plan to build X number of restaurants.”
Barnum and Bailey were already on the circus scene when the Ringling family got into the business. But while the Ringling brothers were getting their circus up and running in Baraboo, Barnum and Bailey decided to take its act internationally.
“Now a big circus was missing in the U.S., and Ringling seized the opportunity and took the country over,” Colossa said. By the time Barnum and Bailey came back to the U.S. in 1903, they began to realize they now had serious competition.
The two enterprises worked together on tour routes, so as not to go into the same places.
“It created a bond between them,” Colossa said. So much so that when James Bailey fell ill and died, Ringling brothers stepped in to run the Barnum and Bailey circus for a year for Bailey’s widow.
“In the end, the Ringling Brothers bought the Barnum and Bailey Circus for $410,000 in cash,” Colossa said. “It recouped its money within the first year.”
Ringling brothers ran the two circus behemoths separately until 1918, when only three of the Ringling brothers were still alive.
“They decided they couldn’t run two big circuses, so they combined them,” Colossa said. “Because Baraboo was such a small town, they couldn’t bring the whole thing to Baraboo. They moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where Barnum and Bailey was based. The circus was a huge business for Baraboo. Its leaving was a big hit to the town.”
The 1980s were a big time for Seats, Inc. With less than $4 million in sales in 1980, the company exploded to $9 million by 1984.
“It doubled its sales in four years,” Dietrich said.
Dietrich said Seats products are an option owners can choose as an upgrade before dealer seats are installed in semis and other heavy duty trucks.
Another factor in its growth was a contract it secured in the 1980s with Oshkosh Truck. Now called the Oshkosh Corporation, the company designs and builds specialty trucks, military vehicles, truck bodies and airport fire apparatus and access equipment.
“Oshkosh is a major supplier to the military. We received the contract for major truck military use and we still make them today,” Dietrich said. Seats also manufactures seating for postal vehicles. “We got the contract to make the original seats and also the replacement seats for those vehicles,” she said.
Nelson said the success of the Kalahari is directly related to the corresponding recreational growth the community of Wisconsin Dells has experienced.
“In 2000 Wisconsin dells was booming, largely due to local leadership taking advantage of the location as a natural tourist destination,” he said. “In the 1980s through 2000 leadership in the Dells offered incentive money for businesses to grow. And we followed along with that growth.”
The Kalahari has been so successful it has undergone 11 expansions in just as many years.
“We rode the wave of the Dells as a community,” Nelson said. “It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.”
Tom Eggert, a UW-Madison-based expert on sustainability, corporate responsibility and environmental leadership programs, said many of these large businesses that start out small are sustained in part by the communities they begin in.
“Part of that sustainability is people,” Eggert said. “Having said that, you look at the companies who engage in their communities, that offer good wages and employment and support. I know Culvers has been very engaged in the Prairie du Sac area, as has Epic invested extensively in Verona.”
Eggert said historically these businesses become so important to the communities they are located in and call home that they play a critical role in the development of those communities.
Eggert said brand-building for these nationally-known companies is all about building a consistent message that resonates with the customer.
“The Culvers brand started with the butterburger and it was a consistent message,” he said. “It all really started with a consistent message focused around its main product. For Oscar Mayer, another Wisconsin brand, that message has always been about baloney.”
Eggert said while the product is an important piece of a company’s brand, so too is its message.
“Today branding is becoming much more about what customers are valuing about those companies,” he said. “Are they committed to the community they are in? Are they making a difference? Are they doing the right thing from an environmental perspective – and are they being efficient with their energy use?”
That commitment to community is often a rallying point for a small business’s growth. Tom Rodak of Walker Stainless said the company has an entrepreneurial spirit and is very close-knit.
“We are active in the community,” he said. “We just held a fundraiser for the Freedom Honor Flight.” Walker also supports the New Lisbon community’s homeless vets and veterans distance program as well as outdoor adventure for the physically challenged.
Reedsburg’s Relay for Life, an event that raises funds for cancer awareness, has been fortunate to have the help of Seats as a corporation, but also find many of its employees choose to get involved in community events.
“We work every month to have a fundraiser with the employees for Relay,” Dietrich said. That’s done through 50-50 raffles, bake sales, a bowling tournament and more. Seats has also held fundraisers for the UW Carbon Cancer Center, and Grace Group, a grassroots cancer support group in Richland Center, where Seats has another small facility.
“We are also involved as a business, partnering with local schools,” Dietrich said. “In the past Seats employees have served on advisory councils for high school and supported the youth apprenticeship program.”
Nelson said the Kalahari has a part in the Wisconsin Dells Education Foundation, which endows scholarships for high school students. The Kalahari holds a fundraiser every August with the sole purpose of raising funds for youth scholarships.
“In its five-year existence, we have given millions of dollars in scholarships for the local high school,” Nelson said. “The goal is that every child that chooses to go to college will receive a scholarship.”
In Portage, many residents have benefited from a donated smoke detector battery.
“The Portage plant hosts events throughout the year toward community donations,” Woolever said. Rayovac is also involved with the local Chamber of Commerce, and provides teddy bears to the Portage Police Department to give to youth.
Not surprisingly, Culvers is heavily involved in the country’s farming community.
“Sauk Prairie is home to Culver’s, I was raised here,” Craig Culver said. “We enjoy giving back to groups in the community that make the Sauk Prairie area strong.”
Craig Culver said it’s not unusual for residents to pass a Culver’s marquee promoting any number of local fundraisers. But, he said, he is most proud of the Culver’s Thank You Farmers program, which gives back to farm families through its support of the National FFA organization.
“We also support young people who wish to pursue a career in agriculture through our partnership with the FFA and other agricultural groups,” he said.
The future outlook
Although Baraboo hasn’t been home to the circus for many years, Colossa said the city is committed to keeping the Ringling family legacy alive.
With Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus officially held its last show May 21, Colossa said what they do in Baraboo is more important than ever.
“This is where it started, where they lived,” he said. “This is where you come when you want to see them.”
Culver’s, Walker Stainless, Rayovac, Kalahari and Seats along with the Ringling Franchise all appear to be in good shape.
In addition to its projected expansion into Texas, Nelson reported the Kalahari Resort in the Dells will more than double the size of its 100,000 square-foot convention center, with plans to increase it another 130,000 square feet.
“Convention groups have started to outgrow us,” Nelson said.
Dietrich said the future of Seats is very promising. “Everything is based on the good people we have,” she said. “They take whatever we throw at them and make it a success.” Moving forward, the challenge lies in finding people who want to work in manufacturing.
“It’s a rewarding place to work,” Dietrich said of Seats. “It’s a good challenge to have a lot of business and to be trying to keep up with it.”
For its part, Walker Stainless is looking to expand its product line, Miller said. And they recently added a facility on the West Coast. Rayovac is currently ranked as the number three battery brand; its goal is to get to number two, Woolever said.
“We have plans to continue to grow,” she said. “And to continue to remind people we offer a great value for a better product at a better price.”
Culver’s, it seems, will continue to grow one successful restaurant at a time.