When the Gehl family decided to sell its 119-year-old business, Germantown-based Gehl Foods, to a private equity firm earlier this year, there were a lot of decisions that needed to be made.
But the first, and easiest, decision was to thank the company’s 370 employees in a meaningful and tangible way.
Every full-time employee received a $10,000 gift – $5,000 for their 401(k) plans and $5,000 in their paychecks – and each part-time employee received $5,000, divided the same way.
“The absolute first conversation my family had about a possible (sale) was the gift,” said Katherine Gehl, who was president and chief executive officer at the time of the sale. “It was never a question for anyone in my family. My five siblings and my father, everyone was on board.”
The gifts totaled more than $3 million. Employees were notified over a 36-hour period in March when Gehl hand-delivered thank you cards to every employee on each shift.
“I wanted to show up personally and say, ‘I believe this company is going great places and I want this to be a great day for you also,’” Gehl said. “To be in that space of appreciation for 36 hours was a phenomenal experience.”
This impactful gift and its continued growth have earned Gehl Foods the BizTimes Best in Business Small Business of the Year award for 2015.
The Gehl family sold the company to Wind Point Partners, a Chicago-based private equity firm, for an undisclosed sum.
Gehl Foods has three Germantown facilities and a West Bend bottle-making operation. Gehl Foods, which manufactures aseptic dairy products including nacho cheese, pudding and smoothies, reported $250 million in sales in 2014.
It was founded in 1896 by J.P. Gehl as a three-room creamery that made “renovated” butter. In the 1960s, it shifted to non-refrigerated, sterile dairy products.
Katherine Gehl rejoined the family company in 2007, and had led it as president and chief executive officer since 2011, succeeding her father, John, and her brother, Andy. The company has increased sales by 80 percent and added more than 100 jobs since 2007.
Katherine has been succeeded by Eric Beringause, a food industry veteran who most recently served as CEO of Sturm Foods in Manawa, Wis. She continues as a member of the company’s board of directors.
While she would not comment on current operations, Katherine said the company is growing and creating jobs in Wisconsin, which is what her family had hoped for with the sale.
What the Gehl family hadn’t planned for, or wanted, was the media attention it received after the $3 million gift. Several employees contacted local media outlets and several stories were done earlier this year.
Since that time, however, many business owners have approached Katherine, telling her they wish they would have done the same when they sold their companies, or that they are thinking of doing the same thing if they sell.
“It makes me feel great,” Gehl said. “We were fortunate enough to grow a business and able to do this. I think as many people who can do this, celebrate the entire team, should. It is a right thing to do. But people have to make an individual choice.”