Four CEOs explain why they made the move

North of the Border

Last updated on May 14th, 2019 at 08:55 am

They went North: Testimonials from leaders who moved their businesses to Wisconsin

Vallie Pettersen

Vallie Pettersen

President, Paasche Airbrush Co., Kenosha

In December, Pettersen relocated the 114-year-old manufacturer of airbrushes, industrial spray guns, spray booths and air compressors – founded by her husband’s grandfather, Jens Paasche, in 1906 – from Chicago to the Business Park of Kenosha. Machinery began the move in late November so business could restart once employees arrived for their first day of work in the new 42,000-square-foot facility.

What attracted you to Wisconsin?

“Our business was located near O’Hare International Airport, on the northwest side of Chicago. My sons, who are running the company, both went to college in Wisconsin (Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison) and we have had a home on Washington Island (in Door County) for over 40 years. Kenosha is 50 miles from our factory in Chicago and although 40 percent of the employees did not follow us, the 60 percent (30 employees) that did have made the transition smooth.”

How are you and the company adjusting to Wisconsin?

“We have been here a little over a month and were closed over a week for Christmas and New Year’s, so I really can’t answer that yet. We have been so busy we haven’t had time to adjust yet. We will know better in six months. I am looking for a home in the area and looking forward to getting to know the area better.”

How do you expect your business to grow/expand now that you are north of the state line?

“We have hired three new employees so far and will be hiring more soon: CNC operators, sheetmetal workers and stockroom workers. Our average years of employment before we moved from Illinois was over 25 years. We are very proud to be a family-owned company in the fourth generation of running the business.”


Edward Polen

Edward Polen

President and CEO, EMCO Chemical Distributors Inc., Pleasant Prairie

This state-of-the-art chemical distribution company desperately needed more space to store rail cars – and found it on a 30-acre site in Wisconsin. Polen started the company out of his Highland Park, Illinois, house in 1971 and later set up offices in North Chicago and other cities, including Columbia, Illinois. In 2013, the company moved its operations to a 336,000-square-foot modernized facility in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin with room for 10 miles of stainless-steel pipe, three indoor truck scales and capacity for 26 rail cars and 1.1 million gallons of bulk storage. The same year, it opened a new waste services facility in Kenosha County.

What attracted you to Wisconsin?

“In North Chicago, (where the company still has a facility) we were storing – and continue to store – 12 rail cars at a time and rates were raised. We bought the (Pleasant Prairie) property in 2010 and three years later we moved in. We made a significant investment in our facility here.”

How are you and the company adjusting to Wisconsin?

“We’ve got a beautiful campus. The building is an upgrade from where we were. This allowed our distributor business to grow. We were sharing space with our packaging group – they have since taken over the entire North Chicago facility and are also in Columbia, Illinois.”

What unexpected lifestyle benefits have you and your employees experienced as a result of the move?

“There’s the benefit of having a beautiful campus with a pond and wild animals. It’s very Wisconsin. We’re pretty much landlocked at our old facility.”

How do you expect your business to grow now that you are north of the state line?

“We have more space to do more things for more people. Today, we have more than 500 employees combined over all our locations. We’ve got a lot more employees than we did. We’re looking for forklift drivers, machine operators, good salesmen and a chemist. We just hired a switchboard operator. We seem to be growing all the time.”


Chris Alexander

Chris Alexander

Vice president of business development, FNA Group, Pleasant Prairie

Alexander’s father started this family business, which is focused on production of pressure washers, pumps, hoses and replacement parts, in 1988. He and his brother recently stepped in with an eye on expansion. In 2015 they took a brave step in moving the company’s corporate offices and a portion of its Arkansas manufacturing to Wisconsin after 28 years in Elk Grove Village, Illinois.

What attracted you to Wisconsin?

“Back in 2014, we realized we were running out of space and started a five-state search in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and South Carolina. We knew we wanted to make a big push into technical and not just be a distributor or a manufacturer. Gateway Technical College (in Racine) helped lay the foundation. If you don’t lay a foundation, it will never grow into something bigger.”

How are you and the company adjusting to Wisconsin?

“These workers want to know there is a long-term plan. We’ve restructured our employment packages and the training. We’re a family company. Peer-to-peer influence is the most impactful. In Illinois, we felt we were fighting against the minimum-wage increase and people who did not want to be in manufacturing.”

What unexpected lifestyle benefits have you and your employees experienced as a result of the move?

“One of our employees had spent his entire life in Arkansas and another in California. I told them to spend a couple of weeks up here to see what they think. Within a couple of days, they came back to me and said, ‘We want to make the transition.’ There’s outdoor recreation. There’s Milwaukee, which has so many fantastic things and you can walk along the lakefront. It was a breath of fresh air for them. Where we are offers a very urban experience but without the headaches.”

How does being in Wisconsin enable you to do business more efficiently?

“We have some of the fastest fiber in the surrounding Midwest areas. If you don’t look at what’s in this area, as a business owner, you’re being somewhat shortsighted. You don’t have to be a Haribo, Uline or Foxconn. This Chicago-to-Milwaukee corridor is booming.”

How has the move allowed you to grow?

“We committed to employing 150 people and at the end of the first year we were at 200. We expect to be at 300 by the end of this year. We just took over another 6,000 square feet just to the north of us for our technical engineering research and development center.”


Keith Smith

Keith Smith

president, Vonco Products, Trevor

In 2017, this packaging and components company – founded in 1955 – shifted north to Wisconsin. Smith bought the company six years ago from a second-generation owner of the family-run business. Moving from Lake Villa, Illinois to Trevor, Wisconsin allowed for increased savings and enough land to build a lab “so customers can leave with samples,” Smith said. “We make highly custom products.”

What attracted you to Wisconsin?

“We knew we needed to expand and find more space. Lake County is called ‘lakes’ for a reason – it’s very wet. Halfway into it, we figured out expansion on the current site was not going to work for us. We didn’t want to lose anybody in the move so we set a small radius – Lake, McHenry and western Kenosha counties.

“Manufacturing tax credits of 7.5 percent in Wisconsin essentially bring our state income tax credits to 0.4 percent. In Illinois, it went up to 4.95 percent. It was a five percent savings in state income taxes. Kenosha Area Business Alliance got really creative with its deal. They financed the building for us and leased it back to us at a reasonable rate. We also reduced workers’ comp insurance costs by almost 60 percent.”

How does being in Wisconsin enable you to do business more efficiently?

“Wisconsin’s more open for collaboration and business. We’ve been talking to the tech schools and high schools. It’s more inclusive and we’re a lot more involved. It’s all about cash flow. With the move to Wisconsin and the state income tax credits, we’ve been able to accelerate our investments and have more cash to invest.”

What unexpected lifestyle benefits have you and your employees experienced as a result of the move?

“The building is brand new, so we were able to optimize our flow with the layout. Some of the base employees that came with us, they’re driving slightly further but we’ve got access up Highway 83 or I-94. And you can probably get a good half-mile walk in at lunchtime.”

How has the move allowed you to grow or expand?

“We are putting more focus on that consumer products division, including hiring sales employees in that division. We grew from 85 employees to 115 employees. We landed new customers in our medical fluids business. By the end of 2019, we plan to have between 120 and 130 employees, due to our continued growth in our consumer products packaging division. We’ve gone from 50,000 square feet to 80,000 square feet, with the ability to put on an additional 50,000 square feet.”

Get our email updates