Visitors at Wixon Inc. are usually treated to a sensory barrage when they come to the St. Francis factory, packaging and distribution center. Cinnamon, spice blends, herbs and other aromas permeate throughout the plant. However, another sweet aroma has been drifting about Wixon’s facility in recent months – satisfaction blended with a bit of relief.
After more than one year of negotiations, the Wixon management team of Peter Gottsacker, Chuck Ehemann and Pete Caputa have pooled their interests and purchased the company from Fontarome S.A., a French holding company.
Fontarome S.A. had owned Wixon since the early 1980’s.
With the acquisition, the new owners have changed the company’s name from Wixon Fontarome Inc. to Wixon Inc.
Wixon specializes in making spices, sauces, concentrates and flavor enhancers for a variety of restaurants, food manufacturers and vendors.
Gottsacker is Wixon’s president, Ehemann is the executive vice president and Caputa is the chief financial officer.
"We were very fortunate to work for the previous owners that treated us with a professional and understanding manner," Caputa said. "There was a strong responsibility and caring for the people who made Wixon what it is and helped them become successful."
However, Wixon’s employees are thrilled that the company is now owned by local managers who have been working at the firm for years, rather than a foreign company, Gottsacker said.
"There was significant relief of the employees to return (the company) to local hands," Gottsacker said. "Food companies are hot properties. There are big consolidations and multiples that are crazy. Closings and everything else had been on everyone’s mind. And returning to local hands, I believe, meant a lot. It eliminated a lot of uncertainties."
Gottsacker said he had been thinking about purchasing the company since he started working there.
Caputa said he had been discussing a purchase of Wixon with the other members of the management team since he started at Wixon.
During his eight years as company president, Gottsacker said, he was able to closely watch as Wixon’s revenues increased and its value grew. However, Wixon was Fontarome S.A.’s only U.S. holding, and the French company began to consider selling it.
During the summer of 2003, Gottsacker boarded a flight to Europe with one purpose in mind.
He and the "powers that be" sat
in a room at Fontarome S.A.’s headquarters, talking for nearly two hours about the worth of the company. At the end of that talk, Gottsacker gave the board of directors a range of what he thought the company was worth.
One board member who had a slip of paper with him the whole time flipped it over, revealing a number exactly in the middle of that range, Gottsacker said.
Gottsacker declined to reveal that dollar figure, but he still keeps the slip in his office.
Appraisers, accountants and lawyers from both Fontarome and the three interested buyers went back and forth between August 2003 and September 2004. While the numbers and the eventual understanding of the purchase changed greatly over time, the dollar amount of the deal didn’t change much at all, Gottsacker said.
"Through the ups and downs of the negotiations, both sides were almost frustrated to the point of walking away," he said. "But it was kind of funny – we ended up on the number on that piece of paper."
The three partners leveraged the purchase with a combination of their own finances and financing from M&I Bank, which the company had existing relations with for many years, Gottsacker said.
The new owners said they felt no sense of political satisfaction in returning the company to American ownership from more than two decades of French ownership, even as tensions between the two countries grew over the war in Iraq.
"Politics is politics, and business is business," Gottsacker said. "These were men of honor, carrying out a business agreement on a handshake and a look in your eyes."
Now that the final hurdles of the purchase have been cleared, the new owners are moving ahead toward expanding Wixon’s operations.
The company’s revenue has increased 8 percent this year, approaching $50 million in sales for 2004. Its revenues increased 10 percent from 2002 to 2003.
At the same time, Wixon has added 10 full-time and 40 seasonal employees, and the firm is continuing to launch about 20 new products each year.
Gottsacker said Wixon also is considering acquiring another company within its field on the East Coast, and that purchase could be finalized within weeks. Both he and Caputa said that type of acquisition is indicative of their commitment to Wixon over the long-term.
"When you get together in a partnership, one of the most important questions is what your plans are for the organization," Caputa said. "It’s a long-term investment for the three of us, not only as investors, but also long-term employees."
The new owners say they feel a sense of responsibility and gratitude for the company’s employees, who have fueled Wixon’s growth.
"One of the differences now is that you clearly have more of a paternal responsibility," Caputa said. "You have a lot of responsibility for the different partners in Wixon. Because of that, you come to work with more enthusiasm. We all had a strong vested interest in it before. It’s just added to the excitement with what we think we can do with the organization."
Ehemann said the pride that many of Wixon’s long-term employees take in the company’s success and growth over the years continues to be a source of motivation for him and the other owners to make the right decisions for the company.
"They have a great pride in the growth the company has had, and they have been very key in it happening," he said.
For Ehemann, who is in his 30th year of employment at Wixon, the chance to become a part owner is almost like a dream come true.
"I never had an idea it would head this way. It just happened," he said. "It’s an absolute passion I have, and I love doing it."
Ehemann likened the experience of buying the company to one he had a few years earlier, when he bought $50 worth of lottery tickets and was fantasizing about what he would do with the money.
"I have two daughters to protect, and then past that, I thought I would look for a company like this to buy, and it would be my business," he said. "As it evolved, it’s like I won the lottery."
Wixon’s new owners
Peter Gottsacker
Title: President and co-owner
Background: Former president of Schwartz Pharma from 1986 to 1996; president of Wixon Inc.
Chuck Ehemann
Title: Executive vice president, overseeing sales, marketing and customer service, and co-owner.
Background: 30-year employee of Wixon, working in sales.
Pete Caputa
Title: Chief financial officer and co-owner
Background: Worked at Deloitte Touche, a public accounting firm, for 11 years, then for four years as chief financial officer and senior vice president at Stokely Inc., before coming to Wixon six years ago.
Ocober 15, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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