Best in Business 2016

Toasting business growth!

The Knapp family: Birdie, Miles, Shannon, Zoey, Kent and Ozzie. (Kat Schleicher Photography)

As 2016 winds down, we take an opportunity to reflect on the change-makers who have driven the biggest business news in the Milwaukee area over the past year and honor them with the fourth annual BizTimes Best in Business Awards.

This section honors staff selections for southeastern Wisconsin’s corporation, small business, family-owned business, CEO and community leader of the year.

Past winners include: Milwaukee Bucks president Peter Feigin, WEC Energy Group, Gehl Foods, Steinhafels Inc., the Ramirez family of HUSCO International, Allen Edmonds CEO Paul Grangaard, Badger Meter Inc. CEO Rich Meeusen, Roadrunner Transportation Systems CEO Mark DiBlasi, MMAC president Tim Sheehy, Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., Generac Power Systems, Uline, Bartolotta Restaurant Group, Colectivo and Super Steel.

This year’s winners are: Milwaukee Blacksmith, a family business that was the subject of a national television show; Tim Sullivan, chief executive officer of Rev Group Inc., for moving two corporate headquarters to Milwaukee and for his ongoing civic and business leadership; Rinka Chung Architecture, which has done design work on numerous buildings making a major impact on Milwaukee’s skyline; Direct Supply, for its significant growth and commitment to its employees and its hometown; and the Baumgartners, for their commitment to the city and the future of the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Read all about what these companies and leaders accomplished in 2016 in this special report.

The Knapp family: Birdie, Miles, Shannon, Zoey, Kent and Ozzie. (Kat Schleicher Photography)
The Knapp family: Birdie, Miles, Shannon, Zoey, Kent and Ozzie. (Kat Schleicher Photography)

Family-owned Business of the Year:
Milwaukee Blacksmith

Kent Knapp started his ironworking business, Milwaukee Blacksmith, 11 years ago. Back then, his workshop was his sanctuary. Most of the hours he spent working with iron were spent alone. He enjoyed the solitude.

In the months since a national television show about his small, family-owned and -operated business aired on the History channel earlier this year, however, much has changed.

Tucked away in a quiet section of Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward and surrounded by a patch of vacant lots and buildings lingering in the trendy neighborhood’s southern tip, the workshop is loud and buzzing with several employees at any given time – many of them Knapp’s own children.

Their tools clanked, hummed and ground as Knapp sat on a leather couch in a lounge area set up against the southeast wall of the workshop on an afternoon in late November and described how appearing on national TV has affected his business.

“Business has definitely increased,” Knapp said. “I’d say correspondence has increased the most; emails, phone calls, Facebook messages, all kinds of well-wishers. And we really love to hear all that positive stuff, but at the same time, at the end of the day, it takes time. So it can be a little frustrating sometimes.”

Birdie and Ozzie (Kat Schleicher Photography)
Birdie and Ozzie (Kat Schleicher Photography)

Over the past year, Knapp has received national attention for his blacksmith business, located at 518 E. Erie St., by getting something few small businesses have ever had: a reality show. He’s been able to expand his operations and put a national spotlight on Milwaukee in the process. For that, Milwaukee Blacksmith has been named the BizTimes Best in Business Family-Owned Business of the Year for 2016.

In fact, business has picked up so much for Milwaukee Blacksmith since the show aired, Knapp said he needs more space to keep production on pace with demand.

“We’re looking at moving into a bigger shop,” he said.

Milwaukee Blacksmith has seen a sharp increase in demand from businesses and private buyers for art pieces and other commissioned iron works, as well as a notable increase in the number of people signing up for its ironworking classes.

“Historically, we’ve had six to 12 people per class,” Knapp said. “Now we have 12 to 24 people per class, so we need a bigger space for that. This whole summer, this whole fall, has been nuts. Ever since the show aired, it’s morning, noon and night. Everything is just coming at us full speed. It’s not unlikely for three or four people to walk in every day who just wanted to pop in and say hello. Buy a T-shirt.”

Zoey (Kat Schleicher Photography)
Zoey (Kat Schleicher Photography)

Knapp would not disclose the specific space he’s looking at, but said it is within walking distance of his current location and it’s across the Milwaukee River in Walker’s Point. It’s roughly 15,000 square feet – about three times larger than his current space. It has 4,000 to 5,000 square feet of space he could use specifically to host ironworking classes, more offices and twice as much space (and ceiling height) for production. It’s also located in an area with more daily pedestrian foot traffic.

“I also think it may be a little more suited to us,” Knapp said. “It’s more blue collar. The last five years here in the Third Ward have been great, but I think this building and all the vacant land around us is probably slated to become condominiums or new structures, and I get that. It’s a great location for it. Especially with the new Harbor (District) neighborhood they’re proposing and all the things that could happen there. I’d love to see that happen for Milwaukee, I think that would be huge.”

Knapp says he hasn’t yet heard from History channel representatives about whether the show will be renewed for a second season, but he’d be willing to give it another go despite how challenging and demanding the filming schedule was for his business. The show focused on the family dynamics among Kent, working to run his business, and his children who work there for him: his sons Miles, Birdie and Ozzie, and his daughter, Zoey. Shannon Knapp, Kent’s wife and the operations manager for Milwaukee Blacksmith, also was part of the show.

Kent said he gave his entire staff a month off to recuperate after filming ended.

“The show was really tough to make,” he said. “We did a year’s worth of work in four months. We were all physically and emotionally exhausted and drained. If they come back to us and want a second season, we’ll figure it out, but it’s going to be tough. If and when we get the new shop, that would be helpful.”

Ben Stanley

CEO of the Year:
Tim Sullivan


Talk to Rev Group Inc. chief executive officer Tim Sullivan about running a business and he continually returns to the stories that have helped shape his career.

There’s the one about Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce president Tim Sheehy telling Sullivan how the loss of the Bucyrus headquarters would be a gut blow to the city. Or the one about the young boy named Robert on a tour of Bucyrus asking the chief executive officer (Sullivan) how much he made.

Then there’s the one about a sermon Sullivan heard in the early 2000s involving a survey of people in their 90s. The respondents, who had lived through multiple wars and the Great Depression, said their biggest regrets were not taking more risks and not doing more to help their fellow man.

“It changed me as far as how I looked at the world,” Sullivan said. “Those two things hit me like a two-by-four.”

It was at a point when Bucyrus was struggling, and inspired him to take actions to help save the company. It also pushed him to be more involved in the community.

Fifteen years later, Sullivan hopes it’s his actions that inspire people. With Sheehy’s message about losing a headquarters echoing in his mind, Sullivan has brought the headquarters of Gardner Denver (in 2014) and now specialty vehicle maker Rev Group to Milwaukee.

Not long after Rev Group made the headquarters move earlier this year, Sullivan publicly declared if the company could land a key contract with the U.S. Postal Service, he would put a manufacturing facility at the Century City complex in Milwaukee. The company’s partner made the short list for the project and Rev Group will be doing final assembly where Tower Automotive once operated. There’s minimal employment tied to the decision, but if the company lands the whole contract, there could be jobs for thousands.

By moving two company headquarters to Milwaukee, his public vote of confidence in the Century City project and his combination of both civic and business leadership have earned Tim Sullivan the title of BizTimes Best in Business 2016 CEO of the Year.

Rev Group is a fairly young company, having assumed the name just last year. It was previously known as Allied Specialty Vehicles and served as an umbrella for a number of vehicle brands.

Together with Karsan, its Turkish partner, Rev Group faces stiff competition from companies with decades of experience, including Oshkosh Corp., in trying to land the U.S. Postal Service contract.

Sullivan acknowledged some concern about raising hopes for bringing work to the area without it being a sure thing, but he also said it is important for people to be considering the possibility.

“You don’t start getting people thinking unless you’re talking about the subject,” he said. “The fact that we’re talking about it, does it have other people thinking about, ‘Hmm, maybe we should consider that.’”

“Maybe there’s one or two and before you know it, you’ve got Century City starting to build out to be a real industrial park,” he said.

It’s also not just about sending a message. Sullivan said the reality is manufacturers need to go where there is labor available. He said he should have done that by building a weld shop on the north side of Milwaukee while at Bucyrus.

At Rev Group, Sullivan also is discovering the importance of meeting the needs of his workforce in other ways. At the company’s rural factories, that means structuring schedules and incentives to allow employees to come in early, get their work done and then spend the afternoon working on farms. In other cases, it means running multiple shifts, but not doing it back-to-back.

“You have to adapt to their schedule and their desires,” he said.

Even if Rev Group doesn’t get the full Postal Service contract, Sullivan may bring a factory to Milwaukee as the company grows.

“The hat trick isn’t in my future,” Sullivan joked about the possibility of bringing Milwaukee another headquarters, “because (Rev Group) is something that’s like a startup.”

It may be like a startup, but it already has 6,000 employees and plans to grow. The company will go public next year, providing an exit for its private equity ownership and the capital to expand.

The move of the Rev Group headquarters to Milwaukee was intended to help facilitate that growth. While the management team in place when the company was based in Orlando was strong in individual disciplines like tax or accounting, they came from a variety of industries. Milwaukee has more professionals with manufacturing industry experience who can anticipate the company’s needs.

“You get ahead of the curve, rather than just being reactionary,” Sullivan said.

Arthur Thomas

Corporation of the Year:
Direct Supply

A rendering of Direct Supply’s planned $60 million campus expansion along North Industrial Road on Milwaukee’s northwest side.
A rendering of Direct Supply’s planned $60 million campus expansion along North Industrial Road on Milwaukee’s northwest side. (Continuum Architects + Planners)

Employee-owned Direct Supply Inc. is a quiet giant in the senior living industry that has recently doubled down on its commitment to Milwaukee.

The 31-year-old senior living community supplier, which employs roughly 1,100 people at its 10-building headquarters campus along North Industrial Road on the city’s northwest side and another 100 at its technology center on the Milwaukee School of Engineering campus, announced plans in March to expand its headquarters and add as many as 800 employees over the next seven years.

Plans call for a $60 million, 280,000-square-foot building to be constructed in place of an existing single-story building on its campus.

The company also is in the process of expanding its technology center in the four-story German-English Academy Building at 1020 N. Broadway at MSOE’s downtown campus. Direct Supply opened the center in 9,000 square feet of space on the building’s top floor in 2012 as a way to connect MSOE computer engineering and business students with internships and work experience, while also serving as a talent pipeline for the company.

Now, Direct Supply is planning to lease the entire 48,000-square-foot building from MSOE. It already has begun recruiting technology startups and entrepreneurs who are developing ideas or technologies related to the industry to participate in an incubator program it is running at the center.

In recognition of the company’s growth, its commitment to its employees and its home town, and its ability to recognize and capitalize on market opportunities, Direct Supply is the BizTimes Best in Business Corporation of the Year for 2016.

The company’s moves are coming at a time when U.S. demographic trends indicate Direct Supply may be positioned for rapid growth.

Direct Supply’s technology center on MSOE’s campus is located at 1020 N. Broadway in downtown Milwaukee.
Direct Supply’s technology center on MSOE’s campus is located at 1020 N. Broadway in downtown Milwaukee.

By 2029, every member of the baby boomer generation will be 65 or older and together will account for roughly 20 percent of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

And that bodes well for Direct Supply. That sector of the population – those ages 65 or older – is the backbone of its business.

Bob Klein, senior vice president and chief administrative officer of Direct Supply, told BizTimes in an email he credits the company’s success to three things: maintaining a “single-minded focus” on senior care and living, providing “outrageous” customer service, and hiring excellent employees.

When chief executive officer Bob Hillis founded the company in 1985, the oldest baby boomers were only 39 years old. But over the past 31 years, the company he built has become so integrated in the senior living market, Direct Supply director of development and innovation Tom Paprocki estimates that the company sells to roughly 39,500 of the nation’s 43,000 senior communities.

That puts Direct Supply in a dominant position right as its core customre demographic is expected to grow dramatically.

“We want to continue to be an innovative partner with our customers as we help them care for seniors; to be a great neighbor to our Havenwoods neighbors; and to be a great citizen of Milwaukee and Wisconsin,” Klein wrote. “We’re very proud of our Innovation & Technology Center at MSOE, and are committed to using it as a centerpiece in Milwaukee as we continue to help bring innovative ways for seniors to have fulfilling lives and get the care that they need, want and deserve.”

Ben Stanley

Small Business of the Year:
Rinka Chung Architecture

A rendering of the Milwaukee Bucks’ planned Live Block.
A rendering of the Milwaukee Bucks’ planned Live Block.

If a catalytic project is underway in the city of Milwaukee, odds are good that Matt Rinka and his firm have touched it.

Rinka’s firm, Rinka Chung Architecture, is part of the design team for the Live Block of the Milwaukee Bucks arena development, which will transform Fourth Street into a mixed-use development that will include a year-round beer garden, outdoor media wall and covered pedestrian link from the sports venue to Old World Third Street.

Rinka Chung also is working on The Couture and the Lakefront Gateway project, both in downtown Milwaukee, and mixed-use projects in the suburbs, including Oak Creek’s Drexel Town Square, White Stone Station in Menomonee Falls and 84South in Greenfield.

And that’s not including the dozens of bars, restaurants and businesses Rinka has helped design in the 11 years since he launched his firm.

“I think part of the success is we try to think larger and pursue projects that are not only going to be the most successful for us, but for the business involved and the community at large,” Rinka said. “We really want to take a look at the big picture and try to exceed expectations of what the project will be.”

Rinka, 43, was born in Seoul, South Korea. Chung was his birth name, which he incorporated into the name of his company. When he was five years old, he was adopted by Jon and Michele Rinka, who raised him in Oconomowoc.


Rinka attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and graduated in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in architectural studies. He worked for Kahler Slater for about two years and then moved to Seattle to attend graduate school. He received a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Washington in 2000.

Joel Lee, president of Milwaukee-based Van Buren Management Inc., one of the largest commercial property owners in downtown Milwaukee, was Rinka’s first client when he started his own firm in 2006. Lee hired Rinka to design Washington Square, an office tower in the middle of the central business district in the vacant lot just east of the Pfister Hotel. Lee has not yet developed the tower.

“It goes without saying he is a talented architect, but there are a lot of talented architects around town that I have worked with in 50 years,” Lee said. “What sets him apart is the personal attention. When you meet some people they have a sense of unique sincerity in your interests, that they are listening and that they are going to put their talents toward accomplishing what you are telling them. That is what Matt does.”

For its impact on Milwaukee’s skyline, Rinka Chung Architecture has earned the BizTimes Best in Business Small Business of the Year award for 2016.

Despite his accomplishments, Rinka is very modest. He credits the staff of 35 for the work.

His favorite project to date is The Moderne, a 30-story residential building at the southwest corner of Old World Third Street and Juneau Avenue downtown, because the project was able to keep people working after the recession.

The Moderne was the first major project Rinka completed with developer Rick Barrett after leaving Kahler Slater Inc. to launch Rinka Chung.

“It’s really one of the most gratifying things we do,” Rinka said. “Our projects touch a lot of lives, sometimes an entire community, and I’m very proud of that.”

Corrinne Hess

Community Leader of the Year:
The Baumgartner Family

Donald, Donna and John Baumgartner.
Donald, Donna and John Baumgartner.

Donald and John Baumgartner explored the possibility of finding a strategic buyer for Milwaukee-based Paper Machinery Corp., but the father-son team never really gave the idea serious consideration before they turned the company over to employees.

“It’s not always about making the last buck,” said John. “If we’re giving back to the community, a good place to start is giving back to the employees that helped build the business.”

The Baumgartners sold the company through an employee stock ownership plan in May, citing a desire to ensure the business stayed in Milwaukee. Just a few weeks later, Donald and his wife, Donna, announced an $8 million donation to the Milwaukee Art Museum’s endowment fund to help pay the salary of future museum directors.

The couple has long supported the arts, but this year’s commitment to the city and the future of MAM combined to earn the Baumgartner family the BizTimes Best in Business 2016 Community Leader of the Year award.

“We gave what we could give and gave of our time and our energy as well, because we’re strong believers that the arts help make a community,” Donald said.

The couple’s involvement in the arts dates back to the 1980s. Donald is a past president of the Milwaukee Art Museum, chaired the building committee during the construction of the Calatrava addition and was on the committee that selected the addition’s architect.

He’s also a life director at Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera Company.

Donna is on the board of the Milwaukee Ballet and has been involved for decades.

Together, the couple also serves on the board of the Milwaukee Film Festival.

The organizations the Baumgartners support are on good footing and looking to grow, Donna said.

“It’s not just about donor money, you have to have the audience, you have to build that,” she said.

But even as they look to grow, Donna said those organizations also need more involvement from the wider community. She noted many arts organizations don’t have the same development staff as other nonprofits and it can be a struggle to attract support.

“The companies and businesses have backed off the arts a lot and they’re all focused on social services and education, so you can get support through your education means, but just to support, it’s a big struggle,” she said.
“One of the reasons we support the arts is because so few others do. I mean, they really need it; they need that support,” Donald added.

“We weren’t planning on being at the top of the list, but we find ourselves there,” Donna said.

Donald said young business people should get involved in local organizations, whether it’s the arts or something else.

“They should be volunteering their time and energy to some cause that they believe in,” he said. “Their time is extremely valuable to these organizations.”

John noted his father had brought a United Performing Arts Fund campaign to Paper Machinery Corp. a number of years ago. While the company’s blue collar manufacturing workers likely wouldn’t have thought of writing a check to UPAF or attending the ballet, it encouraged them to get involved.

“These guys probably wouldn’t have thought of doing it without a little push,” John said.

Arthur Thomas

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