Here at WhooNEW – we’re all about local, small businesses and the value they add to our community.
But let’s not forget that every business starts small – and there’s nothing wrong with dreaming big.
There are quite a few household names that got their start in Wisconsin. You’ll recognize all of the companies on this list – and we’re willing to bet that quite a few will surprise you.
Wisconsin businesses have contributed a lot to America. Some are even ingrained in our culture. Let’s take a look…
While this list is in no particular order – we had to put Harley-Davidson at the top. After all – it may be the company for which our state is best known.
Graphic designer Steve Lovelace chose Harley to illustrate Wisconsin in his viral illustration The Corporate States of America. And rightly so…
Not many companies have customers who love them so much that they’ll tattoo the logo on their bodies. But Harley-Davidson definitely does. People all over the U.S., and even around the world, are devoted to this brand’s motorcycles and anything with the Harley name on it.
In 1901, a 20 year-old William S. Harley put together plans for a small engine that could be used on a bicycle. Harley and his childhood buddy, Arthur Davidson, would work on their motor-bicycle inside a Milwaukee machine shop for two years.
The first version couldn’t make it up a hill unless you used the pedals. But the young men didn’t give up.
Now Harley-Davidson can boast yearly revenue of more than $5 billion. Not bad for a couple of kids who liked to tinker with engines.
2. Trek Bicycle Corporation
Of course, one of the most well-known brands of good old-fashioned pedal bikes come from Wisconsin too.
Dick Burke and Bevil Hogg started manufacturing steel frames for touring bikes in Waterloo, Wisconsin during the mid 1970s. Today, Treks are some of the most popular bikes in the world for racing and recreation.
Trek Bicycles even makes bike riding sound just as cool as jumping on a motorcycle. The company’s website explains why they “believe in bikes.”
“The bicycle is the most efficient form of human transportation. It can combat climate change, ease urban congestion, and build human fitness. It brings us together, yet allows us to escape. And it takes us places we would never see any other way.”
Tarnished bicyclist Lance Armstrong rode Trek bikes at the height of his career. In 1999 Armstrong became the first American to win the Tour de France while riding an American-Made bike.
Of course, Lance Armstrong’s victories were rescinded because of doping violations. But his bike never took any performance enhancing drugs whatsoever!
3. Schneider National
But folks in Green Bay should have some pride in the fact that the country’s largest privately-owned trucking company calls the city home. Schneider National is also the fifth largest overall trucking organization in the nation.
The USA isn’t the only place you’ll run in to those orange trucks. Schneider now has a presence in China too. They are the only American trucking company given permission to do so.
It all started in 1935 when AJ Schneider sold his family’s car so he could buy his first truck.
But one Wisconsin-based restaurant chain is taking butter burgers and other Wisconsin favorites (like our cheese) all over America.
Culver’s is mainly found in the Midwest, but it’s rapidly expanding with dozens of new stores opening every year. You can now dine at Culver’s in many mountain states like Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.
The Culver family opened their first restaurant in Sauk City, Wisconsin in 1984 inside an old A&W. Patriarch George Culver, was the son of a cheesemaker who once worked as an inspector on dairy farms and owned various restaurants.
It was his son Craig who had the idea of combining his mom Lea’s homestyle burgers with frozen custard. Not on the burger – I mean as a concept for a restaurant. Culver’s also has it’s own brand of root beer.
- Read about other Wisconsin Root Beers here on WhooNEW
5. Cousins Subs
Another recognizable restaurant founded in Wisconsin is Cousins Subs. But the sandwich shop actually came about because of something that was missing in Milwaukee.
Bill Sprecht moved to the Brew City from Atlantic City, New Jersey in the sixties. He found himself missing the kind of sandwiches he’d eat in his former home.
Since he hated his job anyway, Bill called up his cousin, Jim Sheppard, and the two brought East Coast-style submarine sandwiches to Milwaukee.
The cousins found a local baker to help them make high-quality bread for their subs, and that’s been Cousins’ recipe since 1972.
6. Erbert & Gerbert’s
Erbert & Gerbert’s opened its first store in Eau Claire, Wisconsin in 1988.
Childhood stories were the inspiration for this restaurant’s unique theme. Founder Kevin Schippers named his business after two characters his father made up. Each sandwhich is named after the adventures Erbert and Gerbert have and other characters they meet.
Another unique aspect of the food is known as “the guts.” When you order a sub, they scrape out some of the bread to fit in the meat, cheese and veggies. Then they give you the chewy bread guts on the side. The company has even turned those guts into a character. (Check out the video below).
Recently Erbert & Gerbert’s Sandwich shop also added a large selection of gluten-free items.
- Read our article about Gluten-free Restaurants in Green Bay
7. Schreiber Foods
Schreiber Foods is one of the biggest employers in Green Bay. But I still couldn’t get an interview for a marketing position. So that MUST mean that only extremely awesome people get to work there.
The food Schreiber specializes in, no surprise – is dairy – all sorts of cheeses, yogurts and other stuff. You know those slices of cheese that come on top of your favorite fast food burger? There’s a good chance it’s made be Schreiber foods. They supply processed cheese slices to 17 of the top 20 hamburger chains.
What’s more – they are the second biggest producer of cream cheese in the nation. So spread that on your bagel and eat it.
8. OshKosh ‘BGosh
So cute – but so hard to get out of when you need to pee.
OshKosh B’gosh once tried making clothes for adults – but that didn’t really work out. Ironically, the whole reason for making kids’ overalls in the first place was so that parents could dress their children to look like their blue-collar dads.
OshKosh B’gosh opened in Oshkosh, Wisconsin (surprise, surprise) in 1895 and is one of the oldest Wisconsin-founded companies on this list. But things didn’t really take off for the clothier until 1960 when its overalls appeared in a mail order catalog from Miles Kimball – another Oshkosh-based company.
Carter’s – a rival kids clothier – purchased the company in 2005 for $312 million. While OshKosh B’Gosh no longer makes its clothes in Wisconsin, it still has its corporate headquarters in Oshkosh.
9. Kohl’s Department Stores
Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin-based Kohl’s has become a pretty big deal in the world of department stores. In February of 2013, it surpassed JC Penney’s to become the chain with the largest number of stores.
Kohl’s actually began as a grocery store chain. Maxwell Kohl – father of retired Wisconsin U.S. Senator Herb Kohl – opened Kohl’s Foods in 1946. The first department store opened in 1962.
Max Kohl wanted Kohl’s stores to be somewhere in between high-end department stores and discounters. That’s pretty much what Kohl’s still is today. It’s also a Fortune 500 company with stores in every state but Hawaii.
In 1972, the British American Tobacco Company purchased a controlling interest in Kohl’s. The Kohl family stopped managing the company in 1979.
10. Shopko Stores
James Ruben, a pharmacist from Chicago, moved to Green Bay and brought with him a vision for a store that focused on quality, convenience and value. But I’ll always remember it as the place where kids shoplifted baseball cards. Other kids – not me.
The first Shopko opened on Military Avenue in Green Bay in 1962. The company was publicly traded on the NYSE for 14 years. Then Sun Capital Partners acquired it in 2005 – making it private again. In 2012, Shopko merged with Pamida and added 170 new locations. Today there are 330 Shopko stores in 21 states.
They’ve also had some good slogans over the years – but never seemed to be happy with just one. “Say Hello to a Good Buy at ShopKo” was priceless – but new marketing execs need to make their mark, I guess.
They also should have kept the spokeswoman we all called “The ShopKo Lady.” Whatever happened to her?
Unlike Shopko – Menards knows how to stick with a slogan. When you hear the words Save Big Money – you automatically think – at Menards.
The Eau Claire, Wisconsin-based home improvement store got started because founder John Menard Jr. noticed a need. In 1959, he was building post-frame buildings to finance his college education. Customers started asking about buying lumber, and the rest is history. The first Menard’s hardware store opened in 1972.
If you’re wondering what happened to “The Menard’s Guy” who appeared in the store’s commercials for many years – he retired. His name is Ray Szmanda, and a cartoon likeness of him still appears on ads.
Wisconsin musician Gary Shaw performed that tell-tale banjo music used in Menard’s commercials. Here’s what he has to say about the experience of recording it…
“I just started playing on it and they said, ‘That’s perfect; that’s exactly what we need.’ Took me a half an hour. I got $50 for a one-time fee, and I’ve had to listen to that commercial every day for 20 years.”
12. Kohler Company
Chances are – you’ve urinated and defecated all over this company’s merchandise.
Of course, that’s because top-of-the-line toilets and urinals are two of The Kohler Company‘s most well-known products. They also make other plumbing products as well as other stuff for the kitchen and bathroom.
But most importantly – Kohler is the reason why folks in Wisconsin call drinking fountains bubblers. (Read our article to find out more about Why We Call it a Bubbler – and who else does too)
Austrian immigrant, John Michael Kohler, founded the company in 1873 after purchasing the Sheboygan Union Iron and Steel Foundry.
Kohler started making stuff out of steel – like castings for furniture and decorative crosses for cemeteries. But then the company had its “aha moment”.
John Michael applied enamel to an iron horse-trough and made the company’s first bathtub. They’ve stuck with plumbing products ever since.
Another thing The Kohler Company has stuck with all these years is family. The company was led by Walter J. Kohler Sr. and Jr. Both father and son also served as governor of Wisconsin. The current Kohler Company president is the founder’s grandson – Herbert V. Kohler Jr.
- Find out more about Kohler’s History
Chapped lips and Wisconsin winter weather go hand in hand. That’s why it makes so much sense that this company was born in the Badger State.
The first batch of Carmex was mixed up in the 1930s on a Wauwatosa, Wisconsin family’s stove.
At first, inventor and entrepreneur, Alfred Woelbing was just trying to come up with something to help him with his own cold sores. But Woelbing realized he had something everyone could use.
So – he began driving around with a trunk full of Carmex in those familiar little jars with the yellow lids. Woelbing made sales calls to local pharmacies and drug stores. Then – slowly but surely – word of mouth about the product spread.
As of 2008, the company had sold more than 1 billion jars. Now you can get Carmex in squeezable tubes, the typical sticks of lip balm, and there’s even flavored varieties.
Alfred Woebling lived to be 100 years old and was still involved with Carma Labs up until his death in 2001. His grandsons now run the company.
14. American Family Insurance
American Family Insurance began as Farmers Mutual Insurance Company in 1927. That’s when an insurance salesman named Herman Wittwer opened his own company in Madison.
Wittwer started with simple car insurance made for farmers. That’s because he thought farmers would be low-risk. The name was changed to American Family Insurance in 1963.
Today the insurance company is still headquartered in Wisconsin and still involved in the state. In 2003, AmFam donated 10 million towards the construction of UW Children’s Hospital.
15. The Onion
What started as a goofy satirical newspaper has grown into a multimedia company and one of the most recognizable, as well as controversial, names on the internet. It all came from the minds of two creative UW Madison students.
The Onion jokes that it have started in 1765 – founded by an immigrant named Friedrich Siegfried Zweibel. The paper’s original moto was Tu Stultus Es, Latin for “You are Stupid”.
In reality, The Onion was the brainchild of friends and UW juniors Tim Keck and Christopher Johnson. They started publishing their satire in 1988. As the story goes, the name The Onion was suggested by Johnson’s uncle who saw the pair eating onion sandwiches. Apparently, the guys were so broke, all they had left to eat was white bread and an onion.
They sold their paper to comedy writer Scott Dikkers a year later for less than $20,000 in grocery money. Dikkers is now VP of Creative Development for the media company. Johnson and Keck went on to publish other alternative newspapers separately.
In 2001, The Onion moved its offices from Madison to New York. It now has its own feature film, various online web series and includes the non-satirical AV Club.
The newspaper ended its printed version in December of 2013.
This is Wisconsin – so a lot of breweries got started here. But Leinenkugel’s is one of the beer-makers that was at the front of what you could call the craft brew revolution in the U.S.
I would call Leine’s a gateway beer – because it’s usually your first step from typical domestics to more complex brews.
But the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. has been around for a long time. Its founder started the Chippewa Falls operation in 1867. Jacob Leinenkugel brewed the beer while his partner John Miller delivered it. They were the brewery’s only employees in the early years.
The lumberjacks in Wisconsin’s logging industry made great customers. And during the Prohibition, Leine’s stayed alive by making near beer and soda water.
Flash forward all the way to 1988 when SABMiller purchased Leinenkugel’s. But even though it’s now owned by a big corporation the brewery has remained in Wisconsin and is still family-operated. 95% of its beer is still brewed in Chippewa Falls. The rest consists of specialty brews made at a Milwaukee brewery.
17. Miller Brewing Co.
Miller Brewing Company began in 1855 when Fredrick Miller purchased the small Plank-Road Brewery in Milwaukee. As legend has it, Miller made his beer with yeast from Europe, which he carried over in his pocket.
According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, Miller learned the art of brewing from his uncle in France.
After a merger between SABMiller and Molson Coors in 2007 – the two beer rivals joined forces to form MillerCoors.
18. Pabst Brewing Co.
The original name for Pabst Brewing Company was The Empire Brewery. Legendary brewer, Jacob Best, began his Milwaukee operation in 1844. The son-in-law of one of Best’s sons, steamboat captain Frederick Pabst, became a partner in the company and it was later named after him.
Other than PBR, Pabst Brewing Company is known for brands like Colt 45, Schlitz and Old Style.
China even has its own Pabst Blue Ribbon, which is considered to be classy and expensive. If you want a PBR in China – it may cost your more than $40. Leave it to the Commies…
19. SC Johnson and Sons
Even the very biggest businesses start small. Today SC Johnson & Sons is global with operations in 72 different countries. The corporation sells its products in well over 100 nations.
It all began when Samuel Curtis Johnson, Sr. purchased a flooring business in Racine, Wisconsin and opened Johnson Wax in 1886. In the early days of radio and television, Johnson Wax sponsored programs like Fibber McGee and Molly as well as The Red Skelton Show.
Since the days of floor wax, a lot of other cleaning products and household brand names have come from SC Johnson & Sons. They include – Windex, Pledge, Raid, Drano, Glade, Ziploc and many more.
Even though it’s a huge company, SC Johnson & Sons remains privately owned and family-run.
It wasn’t that long ago that Breadsmith began baking in Milwaukee.
Dan Sterling opened up shop in 1993 – and today you can find Breadsmith products in 14 states – as its franchising operations continue to grow.
Sterling learned about the art of European style breads while studying abroad in Norway. After graduating from Harvard Business School, he started working in accounting for a local bakery.
But Sterling eventually realized he wanted to start making his dough by actually making dough and formed his own bakery. He retired from the company in 2001 to pursue his business ventures.
Breadsmith sells hand-crafted, made-from-scratch breads and other bakery items from its stores and through grocers. Every store has a gigantic, stone hearth oven that can handle up to 160 loaves.
Who Will Be Next?
WhooNEW loves small businesses and entrepreneurs. We also love to see them become successful.
If you’ve got a big idea for a new business, let these 21 companies inspire you to go for it. You can find even more support from events like Startup Weekend Green Bay.
- Read WhooNEW’s story on the first Startup Weekend in Green Bay
It’s exciting to imagine what the next success-story from our state will be. Who has the next big idea?
Tell us about your favorite local business or even your own ideas for changing the world in the comments below.
Trek Bike Image Credit Via Flickr.com