Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 10:56 am
In 1959, almost 60 years ago, Dale Michels went into business as a gas pipeline contractor, building and installing natural gas distribution systems for Wisconsin utilities.
Michels had two business partners, but he was the majority owner of the company, then known as Michels Pipeline Construction. In the beginning, the company had four employees. Michels was the foreman and his wife, Ruth, drove the dump truck.
Today, the company remains headquartered in Michels’ hometown of Brownsville, a small village about 40 miles northwest of Milwaukee. But it has grown considerably since its humble beginnings. Now known as Michels Corp., it has 8,000 employees and is expected to bring in nearly $3 billion in revenue this year. Over the years, the heavy civil infrastructure construction company has branched out and now does about 65 percent of its business on energy infrastructure projects (pipelines, transmission lines, electric substations, renewable energy projects), about 20 percent on transportation infrastructure (roads, bridges and tunnels) and additional business in communications infrastructure (including fiber optic lines).
Dale Michels died 20 years ago and the company’s day-to-day business is now run by his sons Pat, Kevin and Tim. Their mother, Ruth, is chief executive officer. With the second generation of family ownership running the company, members of the third generation are joining the business. Philip, Pat’s oldest son, is a senior project manager and has been with the company for 10 years. Kevin’s oldest son, Matt, recently graduated from college and is working on a gas pipeline project in Minnesota. Kevin’s daughter, Elizabeth, is a marketing intern for the company.
“We all start at the bottom with a shovel in our hands and work our way up the ranks,” said Tim Michels, co-owner, vice president and treasurer.
Despite the impressive growth Michels Corp. has achieved, “we still operate the business as a small, family business in a rural farm town,” Tim said. “That’s our culture: hard work, honesty, integrity.”
Michels Corp. made big news in Milwaukee this year when it announced plans for a $100 million mixed-use development at the former Horny Goat Hideaway property in the city’s Bay View neighborhood. The five-building campus will be located along the Kinnickinnic River, northwest of South First Street and West Becher Street. The development plans include three office buildings, one anchored by a regional office for Michels Corp.
The company wants to consolidate its Milwaukee-area operations and create an office in a dynamic urban setting that will help attract young talent, including attorneys and engineers, Tim said.
While its headquarters will remain in Brownsville, the Milwaukee office for Michels Corp. will be significant. It will have 400 employees initially, occupying just under half of an eight-story, 220,000-square-foot office building.
That building will be part of the first phase of the project, which also includes pads for the other buildings and an underground parking structure. Foundation work will start soon and the first phase is expected to be complete in the summer of 2020. The second and third phases will add more office buildings, a residential building (with first floor restaurant and retail space), and could include a hotel. Depending on demand, the second and third phases could be built shortly after the first, Michels said.
The Michels project, called R1ver, will provide a major boost to the Harbor District development area, located south of Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward. For making such a major investment in Milwaukee, Michels Corp. is the BizTimes Best in Business 2018 Family Business of the Year.
“We saw a great opportunity to be pioneers in the area,” Michels said. “We see tremendous opportunity. By nature, in our business we are risk-takers. We wanted to be pioneers and jump-start the Harbor District area. There is a lot of buzz in that area now.