Maintaining the family fountain

How the Mullett family has survived nearly a century of successions at Bradley Corp.

Bryan Mullet, president and chief executive officer of Bradley Corp.

Hanging on a wall in an office at the Bradley Corporation’s global headquarters in Menomonee Falls is a photograph of the company’s original patent from nearly 100 years ago.

In it are a few hand-drawn images. A circular tub shaded with fine, slanted lines. A pipe running through its center attached to a spray head. Tiny numbers inked with elegant curves labeling different components.

Lynde Bradley, Dr. Stanton Allen and Harry Bradley.
Lynde Bradley, Dr. Stanton Allen and Harry Bradley.

They are designs for the first Bradley Corp. industrial washfountain, the cornerstone product of a 95-year-old Wisconsin manufacturer of commercial plumbing fixtures and washroom accessories that sells to clients all around the world.

Now in its fifth generation, the company owes its remarkable longevity as a family-owned and operated business to a different surname than those contained in the high-profile signatures written on the patent.

Jotted beneath the word “inventor” in its lower right-hand corner is the loopy signature of Harry L. Bradley, who helped form the Allen-Bradley Company in 1910 with his older brother, Lynde Bradley, and a Milwaukee physician named Dr. Stanton Allen.

Beneath Bradley’s name is the more elegant signature of attorney Louis Quarles. Quarles, at the time he signed it, was a senior partner at a law firm he founded in 1910. The firm would eventually combine with a competitor and grow into the second-largest in the state. Now based out of the 411 East Wisconsin Center building in downtown Milwaukee, a sign on the roof of the 408-foot high-rise bears its name: Quarles & Brady.

Through decades of consolidation and economic change, those high-profile names would eventually disappear from the ownership of the firms they helped build. Allen-Bradley was acquired by Rockwell Automation in 1985; Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company was acquired by Detroit-based Stroh Brewing Company in 1982; and Quarles, Herriott, Clemons, Teschner & Noelke merged with Brady, Tyrrell, Cotter & Cutler to become Quarles & Brady LLC in 1974.

Bryan Mullet, president and chief executive officer of Bradley Corp.
Bryan Mullett, president and chief executive officer of Bradley Corp.

But the name in control of the Bradley Corporation since the beginning has remained the same.


And preserving its legacy hasn’t been easy.

“If anyone tells you it’s all hunky-dory with a family business, they’re lying to you,” said Bryan Mullett, 44, president and chief executive officer of Bradley Corp. “Successful family businesses are the ones that realize the key is admitting you’re dysfunctional. When you come to grips with that, and you know it, understand it and can communicate it, the more successful you’re going to be.”

On a morning in January, with the picture of the patent hanging behind his head, Mullett leaned forward in his chair at the Bradley Corp. headquarters and laid out a few key tenets of the Mullett family’s philosophy on business leadership.

Among them: get a plan early, develop a thick skin and be ruthless about staying focused.

“Make sure the family is informed and make sure there’s separation,” he said. “It’s really important that the job hat, the shareholder hat and the family hat remain separate, and that clear roles and responsibilities are defined. That’s the secret sauce to keep a family business thriving.”

The Washfountain

The Bradley Corporation is steeped in history. A room on an upper floor of its headquarters has an entire wall covered with information about the company’s past on a historical timeline.

The first year listed: 1921. It was the year two of Bryan Mullett’s ancestors partnered with a third local businessman to purchase the patent for the washfountain from Harry Bradley.

Right around the time the U.S. was entering World War I, and tanks, mortars and guns thundered in Europe, machine shops and factories were whirring in Milwaukee.

Long lines were forming on factory floors around sinks only built to accommodate one person at a time when employees needed to clean soot, grease and dust off their hands and arms. The lines were causing congestion, taking up space and limiting efficiency. Harry Bradley dreamt up a solution to this growing industrial problem.

Original washfountain patent.
Original washfountain patent.

He thought up plans for a circular sink that made more efficient use of space and could accommodate as many as eight employees at once. He started making prototypes. In 1919, he patented the idea.

But in 1921, Bradley found himself with an excess of concepts and a dearth of capital as the fledgling Allen-Bradley Company struggled through a short, post-World War I dip. He sold the patent to a group of three businessmen. Their names: Gustav Grossenbach, Howard A. Mullett and Louis Schlesinger. Grossenbach was Howard Mullett’s father-in-law.

The trio set up the Bradley Washfountain Corporation, named for the inventor of its first product, and began making and selling washfountains. As the company began manufacturing other plumbing fixtures and accessories, it dropped its signature product from its name.

By 1928, Mullett would become president of the company. By 1953, his son, Howard G. Mullett, would land the title. After Howard G. Mullett’s death in 1980, his son, Donald H. Mullett, took leadership. And in the spring of 2016, Donald Mullet’s eldest son, Bryan Mullett, arrived at the helm.

But the story behind their transitions is much more complicated than the timeline would suggest, and the Mulletts have not had a continuous grip on executive leadership, even while maintaining ownership or controlling shares.

“There were three presidents in between my dad and grandfather,” said Don Mullett, 74, over the phone from Australia, one of several countries he’s visited since Bryan took over day-to-day control of the company.

There were also three non-family members in charge between Don and Bryan.

“We have a history of people running the business for us until we felt a family member was ready for the job,” Don said.

Planning for a transition

No matter how meticulously planned or how old the company, family business succession is always tricky, but some transitions are more clear-cut than others.

“Some of these things are just far more difficult to transition than people might think,” Don said. “There are always feelings hurt. It’s not an easy thing to do. They might think it’s simple, but there are rifts and barriers and crises and family issues. You just have to make sure you’re trying to understand all sides of the business and how it fits into that.”

When Howard G. Mullett died, his son, Don, then in his late 30s, was the clear successor.

How the company would be passed down to his three sons, however, was more opaque.

Perhaps the most essential piece to a successful transition is legal and estate planning. Don got started with his in 1990.

“When you look at companies that don’t make it past the second or third generation, they don’t do estate planning well,” said Bryan. “That’s usually the first trip-up.”

Estate planning for a family business decides who gets what in the event of the owner’s death. It can serve as a safety net to make sure certain things are taken care of right away – like making sure the surviving family members have enough money to pay for things like an estate tax, or establishing a clear and immediate transition for company leadership.

It can also serve as the foundation of a future succession plan.

Joe Senner at work on the factory floor.
Joe Senner at work on the factory floor.

In Don’s case, through his father’s estate planning, he took leadership when Howard died.

During his estate planning, he decided to split company wealth among his three sons — Bryan, Erik and Christopher.

He then decided to get all three of them involved with different aspects of the company as they grew up so he could examine their strengths and weaknesses in different roles.

“I put the kids in really a lot of different areas of responsibility from the get-go,” Don said. “All of them worked in the shop, so they knew the business from a product perspective. They were moved through different experiences, worked as different types of managers. You really need to spread them around, see how they do with decision-making, what their management style is.”

But getting experience outside the family business is also essential, Bryan said.

“Allow your children to take time to explore other positions so they can understand how other leaders work, how other bosses work, to learn the good and the bad from other organizations,” Bryan said. “The CEO has to be patient enough to allow for that time, to see how the children develop. And then, after four to five years of that, bring them in and take another four to 10 years and say: ‘where is the individual best suited to be to be successful?’

“In some cases, they all might be able to be the CEO; in others, one might be able to be CEO. Take the time to let them flourish outside and inside, and see who is best suited to be in what position. And then really try to support that and drive it home.”

Making the choice

In 2007, when Don hit the traditional retirement age of 65, he didn’t feel any of his sons were ready to take over the business. So he brought in an executive from the outside, Michael Sipek, to run the company as CEO. Sipek had a combined 30 years of experience as an executive at Western Industries and Rexnord Corp.

“I think the wisdom of all that, when you make these decisions, you want to be comfortable. And it gave me plenty of time to develop the kids,” Don said. “At 65, there wasn’t one of my boys who was ready to take over the overall management of the corporation. Some people mature quicker than others, but I just didn’t feel I was ready (to make the decision).”

But the time was nearing.

Bryan, the oldest son, got his start in the 1990s at a company in Dallas, Texas called Braswell & Associates, also a commercial plumbing and washroom accessory manufacturer. He worked in sales there for a few years and was happy with his position and the warm Texas weather. Then, in 1997, his dad called.

“There was a job opening here back when our washroom accessories division was in Milwaukee, and it was a regional sales manager job, and my father called me,” Bryan said.

His dad offered him the job, and Bryan initially turned it down: “I said, ‘Well, I like it down here. It’s warm.’”

His dad tried again: “I think it’s probably a good time to come back.”

Bryan again turned him down.

Don laid down an ultimatum: “Well, I’ll let you make the decision. But there’s a job opening now, and I’m not promising a job opening in the future.”

“It took me a while to come to my senses,” Bryan said and laughed. “I told my boss that, and he said, ‘well, that’s a pretty good point.’ He said, ‘you may want to reconsider, you’re always welcome here and we’d love to keep you, but probably the wise decision is to go back and see what it was like to work in a family business and for your father.’”

So he did. And over the next 20 years, he worked his way up the rungs of the company ladder, eventually leading the company’s fixtures and accessories manufacturing business and overseeing all aspects of corporate purchasing.

The middle brother, Erik, 42, started out as a firefighter and EMT for the City of Waukesha and Village of Hartland. He held that job for about five years before taking a job at Bradley as manager of a distribution center in Ontario, California, where he stayed for two and a half years.

From 2001 to 2007, he worked as the plant manager and manufacturing supervisor at The Mills Company, a Bradley Corp. subsidiary located in Marion, Ohio.

From there he worked his way up, and by 2013 had become the vice president and general manager of Bradley Corp.’s Building Specialties Group.

The youngest brother, Christoper, 34, started his career in 2008 working as a territory manager of Proudly African Imports in the British Virgin Islands. The company is a wholesaler of imported products from African countries, including clothing, soaps, musical instruments and accessories.

He held that job for two years before returning to Bradley Corp. to take a sales job. For the past three years, he has been the vice president of sales for Bradley Plumbing Corp.

“My father, you put yourself in his shoes, he did everything in his power to make it work with three boys running the business,” Bryan said. “However, somebody has to be in charge. You can’t have three cooks in the kitchen. It’s OK that it doesn’t always work out all the time.

“It’s taboo to talk about. It’s sensitive. But if families don’t make difficult decisions, the business isn’t going to be around for many generations.”

In 2012, Bryan was named president of Bradley Corp. and assumed broad responsibility across the company’s product groups to implement its long-term strategic plan. Don maintained his role as chairman of the Bradley board and Sipek stayed on as CEO.

In 2014, his brother Erik, who had been promoted to VP of the company’s building specialties group a year earlier, left the company. He currently owns his own consulting group, Mullett Consulting Corp., an aircraft management and leasing company called Private AirShare and nine Snap Fitness locations in southeastern Wisconsin.

Patricia Hill at work on the factory floor.
Patricia Hill at work on the factory floor.

In 2016, Bryan was named CEO.

“When that came down and I was asked to take over, you can imagine how difficult it was for my other two brothers,” Bryan said. “But once that was determined and supported by not only Don but also the board and the family, it became very clear. That was the most challenging time. I can tell you, it was a lot of stress. Trying to make it all work for the family, to get everybody through the trials and tribulations, it doesn’t take weeks – it takes years. You have to have the patience to get though it and some thick skin. You’re going to take bullet holes, you’re going to take hits across the chin, you’re going to have scars.

“One person might say, ‘that’s not worth it,’ but another person might say, ‘now that we’re through it, it was worth it to see how things can flourish and how the family and business can continue to grow.’

“Erik went down a different path, but he’s still a shareholder, he’s still on the board,” Bryan said. “We helped him take another path because it just didn’t work. Those are some of the trials and tribulations of a family business. Christopher, my youngest brother, he’s in the sales department and he’s doing a wonderful job.”

Full steam ahead

From its early days as a washfountain manufacturer, Bradley Corp. has maintained its identity as a commercial plumbing and accessory manufacturer, but much has changed over the past 95 years.

For one, the company is much larger. It has a total of 550 employees, three manufacturing plants – all located in the United States – and a distribution warehouse in Canada. For another, the company has formed multiple divisions and acquired several subsidiaries over the past three decades. Bradley Corp. works closely with architectural design firms to furnish and lay out bathrooms in commercial buildings and sells a wide range of commercial and personal plumbing accessories.

Some of them are quite innovative.

The company is rolling out a new line of motion-activated hands-free wash stations that includes a dispenser for soap, a faucet for water and a hand drier side-by-side on one sleek, continuous bar. The benefits, Bryan explained, are twofold: hand-washers can do all three steps in one location with minimal hand movements, and they don’t have to touch anything that might have accumulated germs or bacteria from other users.

Bryan is also bullish on the prospects for future growth.

The company opened its first sales office outside the United States in Dubai, in August of 2016.

“There’s always somewhere in the world where the economy is growing and there are places where the economy is declining,” said Jon Dommissee, Bradley Corp’s director of Global Marketing & Strategic Development. “There’s industrial revolutions going through Indonesia, India, places like that right now. China is in a little bit of a slowdown, but it’s still the largest economy, and the largest construction economy, in the world. We’ve always aligned our company with where the trends are moving. We analyze a lot of trends.”

Bryan said the company sees a big opportunity to expand its sales presence in Africa and the Middle East.

“Since I’ve been on this planet, I haven’t seen construction like I have over there,” he said. “It’s unbelievable how quickly they build. They don’t have the red tape. When you get outside the city, it just goes to open desert and camels, so you can just put up another building because nothing’s there. It’s just fascinating to see the growth. We’ve put boots on the ground there and made significant investment to grow in that region.”

In terms of the overall health of the company and the outlook over the next few years, Bryan is optimistic.

The transition years were some of the most difficult of his life, he said.

“You have to wear three hats, and you have to be disciplined,” Bryan continued, referring to his three roles as a Bradley Corp. employee, a company shareholder and a member of the Mullett family. “You’ve got to be disciplined to wear the right hat at the right time.

“And that’s challenging.”

He stressed the importance of looking outside the walls of the business for guidance, inspiration and, when needed, blunt advice.

“Each child, each sibling, should have a mentor unrelated to the business,” Bryan said, reflecting on the past few years. “I can’t express enough that having a mentor to help the individual with family drama, and help the person with personal growth and development, and then be able to — when there’s a lot of stress — let that person vent, is essential.

“But that mentor also needs to be able to hit that guy right between the eyes and say, ‘you’re dead wrong.’ That mentor is a key, key piece.”

And now that the transition is over, it’s full steam ahead.

Read more stories on family businesses in the special publication, Wisconsin FamilyBiz.

Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

Ben Stanley, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

No posts to display