Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:22 pm
In 1991, Estelle Walgreen saw an opportunity to put her investment banking experience and degree in economics to work by buying a very small Racine machine shop.
"My husband and I wanted to build something for our family," recalls Walgreen, president and CEO of Converse Industries, a component manufacturing company with seven divisions serving numerous industries. "We were looking in the Wisconsin and Illinois area for a business with a low risk, and not a high learning curve. Converse Industries had a 15-year history, so it was a good investment opportunity for me. Only later did I find out that it’s not a typical industry for women."
It’s worked out very well for Walgreen – so well that she has been named the Business Leader of the Year by the Kenosha Area Business Alliance (KABA).
Walgreen will be honored by KABA at the Oct. 30 Johnson Bank/KABA Small Business Person of the Year breakfast at the Radisson Hotel & Conference Center.
The award focuses on businesses that have grown, developed their work force, and are involved in the community, and on leaders who take personal responsibility for outcomes.
Walgreen has led Converse Industries, which moved to the Kenosha Business Park in 1995, to more than a 300% growth curve since 1991. "We’ve accomplished that through internal growth and acquisitions," she says. "We’ve even grown in the past two years when the general market hasn’t, and we’re very please with that. We’re also proud that, in my time here, we’ve never had a layoff."
She attributes the success to her employees and to reinvesting in the business. "We’ve always run a lean operation, so we’re prepared for hard times," Walgreen explains. "That makes our employees critical to our success. Technology also plays a role. We hire the best people who are able to multitask, then we give them the best technology and equipment we can so they can do great work. I really like the people here in Kenosha. They’re very trusting and have a good work ethic. When you’re growing a business, loyalty is key, and we’ve found that here."
She adds, "I was quite stunned and thrilled to win this award. When I found out it was our employees that nominated me, it was a very pleasant surprise. I also would like to thank KABA. We were the second building in the industrial park and KABA brought in more companies as promised. KABA has always been part of who we are, offering classes for employees, helping with loans, and promoting Kenosha. This partnership is good for us and brings in potential customers."
Ray Arbet, Converse Industries vice president who nominated Walgreen for the award, says, "Estelle aggressively looks in new directions for the company. Her foresight and vision is a good blend with my more conservative, operations viewpoint. It’s that vision and risk-taking that has enabled us to achieve an average of 30% growth annually for the past three years when others in the industry have been bleeding red ink. For a company our size, we’re heavily invested in technology because she saw that applying technology where it makes sense could help us serve existing customers and attract new ones."
Walgreen predicts Converse Industries will continue to grow. "We’ve moved from being a machine shop to more of a component manufacturer and a full-service supplier," she says. "Our acquisitions have helped, and they will continue. Although these acquisitions are not always in the Kenosha area, we’ll continue to keep our headquarters here. We’ve found a great group of employees, Kenosha is close to transportation and airports; we really like it and feel at home here."
Walgreen currently serves on the board of several local charities and philanthropic organizations. "Personally, I focus on groups that support conservation and promote Latin American issues, especially in Mexico," she says. "I want to expend efforts that serve the greater good, such as recent trips which tracked rare birds in the Amazon and provided humanitarian support in Cuba."
The KABA/Johnson Bank Community Leader of the Year is Stanley Torstenson, owner and CEO of Stan’s Lumber. He founded the family business in 1982 with a strong commitment to give back to the community through civic activities in Twin Lakes. Torstenson supports organizations that improve the quality of life in the greater Kenosha area, such as KABA, the Twin Lakes Lion’s Club, Chamber, Development Corporation and Planning Commission. Two areas of focus are education and baseball coaching.
Estelle G. Walgreen
– Born and raised in Chicago
– Married to Charles; two children, 6-year-old Ricky and 4-year-old Agatha
– Holds a BA degree in economics from Northwestern University
– Main hobby is tending 10 animals: five pigs, two rabbits, two dogs and a lizard
– Favorite recreational activity is family travel to exotic places
Oct. 25, 2002 Small Business Times, Milwaukee