Long winter gives Wisconsin economy the chills

The long, cold, wet winter that spilled well into spring also had a chilling effect on Wisconsin’s economy.

Some of the pain was obvious. Farmers could not get into their fields to plant their crops. Shoppers were delayed from going to retail stores to buy summer clothes, outdoor equipment and foliage.

In northern Wisconsin, the opening day of fishing was literally put on ice, hurting the state’s tourism industry.

The pain also was acute for many of Wisconsin’s publicly traded companies.

Harley-Davidson Inc. reported that its first quarter worldwide motorcycle sales were only 54,254, down from 59,677 a year ago. U.S. dealers sold 12.7 percent fewer new motorcycles in the first quarter than in 2012.

Likewise, Kohl’s Corp. certainly felt the sting as shoppers delayed updating their seasonal wardrobes.

Briggs & Stratton Corp., which manufactures lawn mower engines, sputtered as its quarterly sales dipped to $637.3 million from $720.1 million in the same period a year earlier, which marked the warmest Wisconsin spring ever.

“Here in the U.S., the spring lawn and garden season has been delayed by at least a few weeks due to a prolonged cold and wet spring in many parts of the country. This is significantly different from last year when we had an unusually early start to spring with very warm weather across the country,” said Todd Teske, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Briggs & Stratton.

Strattec Security Corp., which manufactures locks and other parts for the automotive industry, reported lower quarterly sales to Chrysler Group LLC and General Motors Co.

Badger Meter Inc.’s quarterly sales fell to $71.8 million, down 5.9 percent from a year earlier.

“The company believes the net overall sales decrease in municipal water sales was due mainly to a colder and snowier winter and to the effects of Hurricane Sandy. National weather data indicates that above normal snow fell on the country compared to the same period in 2012 in which there was below normal snowfall. Generally, snow can slow or stop installations and delay the reordering of meters,” the company said in its quarterly report.

Acknowledging the rough first quarter, Badger Meter CEO Richard Meeusen remained characteristically undaunted. “First quarter sales can be significantly impacted both favorably and unfavorably by weather patterns. However, all of our utility customers still need to replace aging meters and many are moving forward with technology improvements. As such, we believe that these unusual quarterly dips can be evened out over time,” he said in a conference call with analysts.

Likewise, equipment manufacturers such as Generac Holdings Inc. (portable electric generators) and Johnson Outdoors Inc. (fishing and camping gear) also will be cramped by the late spring.

While most Wisconsin businesses stammered through the prolonged cold, wet winter, a handful of businesses actually benefitted.

Ski hills and resorts enjoyed an unusually long season. Plumbers and cleanup crews felt a rush as sump pumps could not keep up with the torrential rains.

Wisconsin’s railroad freight operators likely gained market share in the logistics industry with the long winter, according to Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc. analyst Ben Hartford. The flooding on the Mississippi River and the late thawing of the St. Lawrence Seaway wreaked havoc on the barge and shipping modes of freight transit.

Meanwhile, utilities such as Wisconsin Energy Corp. undoubtedly received a revenue bump from customers having to run their gas furnaces well into spring.

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