Family-Owned Business of the Year: Coakley Brothers Co.

BizTimes Best in Business

Peggy Coakley at the Coakley Brothers water tower installation.

Since July, Coakley Brothers Co. has been renovating its headquarters in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood.

Once the $6 million project is complete in spring 2018, the 175,000-square-foot building at 400 S. Fifth St. will have major façade updates on its exterior, while its original wood beams, trusses, Cream City brick and concrete floors are exposed.

Peggy Coakley at the Coakley Brothers water tower installation.
Credit: Lila Aryan

The project reaffirms the 129-year-old family business’ commitment to the neighborhood.

It is also a symbol of the success of Coakley’s Brothers Business Interiors division, launched in 2012.

But despite the project’s significance, Coakley Brothers garnered even more attention this fall when chief executive officer Peggy Coakley commissioned an artist from Brooklyn to install a 20-foot-tall piece of art on top of the company’s building.

Coakley was driving to a conference on a dreary day in New York City in November 2016. She rounded the corner and saw a piece of stained-glass art in the shape of a water tower tank on the top of Brooklyn artist Tom Fruin’s studio.

“I was captivated,” Coakley said. “It was very striking and very beautiful and I thought to myself, ‘My goodness, I have a 40-foot water tower base on the top of my building with nothing on top. What if I could bring that to Milwaukee?’”

For its commitment to growing its business and providing community artwork in Milwaukee, Coakley Brothers is the BizTimes Best in Business 2017 Family-Owned Business of the Year.

Coakley contacted Fruin and described the Coakley Brothers headquarters. The two began working together and in less than a year, Fruin had built the pieces in his studio and was bringing them to Milwaukee. It took a week to assemble the artwork, like Lego pieces, in the Coakley Brothers parking lot.

“The response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive,” Coakley said. “There is a lot of joy here and it is something that almost has become a gift to the neighborhood and a gift to the city. When I look at it I feel like the day is still so full of promise.”

Johanna Coakley emigrated from County Cork, Ireland in the belly of a lumber boat with her eight children the 1830s and settled in Milwaukee.

In 1888, her grandsons would go by horse and buggy to the railroad stations and shipyards and pick up trunks and other products being delivered and take them to people all over the community, launching the Coakley Brothers business.

“We still do the same today,” Coakley said. “A little bit of hard work and care never go out of style. We have our eye on the future to be pertinent to our clients, but are still very rooted in our history.”

Coakley Brothers has evolved from delivering packages by horse and buggy into the largest commercial moving and storage company
in Milwaukee.

Initially, Peggy Coakley’s primary goal was never to work for the family business. After school, she moved to Atlanta, where she worked for two years. But then she came home to Milwaukee and joined the company in 1986.

Peggy was the first woman to run the business when she became president in 1999, and the first woman to own the business when she succeeded her father, Neil Coakley, in 2003, becoming the fourth-generation CEO.

Under Peggy Coakley’s leadership, the company began selling office furniture, and since the launch of the Brothers Business Interiors division, Coakley Brothers has worked with clients from pre-construction or renovation through interior design.

The expansion was a byproduct of the post-Great Recession climate, when clients were looking for ways to be more creative with their space and Coakley Brothers wanted to make sure it was staying relevant.

With the renovation of Coakley Brothers’ own headquarters, Peggy Coakley said the company is able to experience for itself what it does for its clients.

“We’ve really cherished our location in this city. We love this city and we are very committed to Milwaukee,” she said. “That is why we chose to stay here and do the renovation, and why I wanted to bring this public art here. The community has been very good to Coakley Brothers and we want to continue to support the community that supports us.”

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