Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:33 pm
Michael DeBakker’s story is one of tragedy, perseverance, survival and rebirth. And that just covers the past 12 years.
DeBakker and his first wife, Peggy, founded Milwaukee Broach Co. Inc. in 1985. The company began as a manufacturer of components used in jet engines for military and commercial aircraft.
Like many startup companies, Milwaukee Broach, lost money in its early stages. By its third year, however, the company was turning profits, and its workforce grew to 150 employees in the early 1990s.
In those early stages, DeBakker might have seemed like the movie character Rocky before his first big fight, feeling he was unstoppable on his way to the top.
Then the first punch came. An economic downturn slowed the company’s growth, stalling profits.
The slowdown was followed by a second, more direct punch in 1993, when tragedy hit DeBakker’s family and the company. Three times. DeBakker’s wife died of breast cancer. His father, Donald DeBakker, and his plant manager, Gerald Goodchild, each died of strokes.
Suddenly, DeBakker was a single father of two boys, ages 8 and 11, and the president of a company that faced an uncertain, precarious future.
However, his tribulations continued. A third punch sent DeBakker and Milwaukee Broach staggering against the ropes.
The company was embroiled in a bitter lawsuit between 1995 and 1997 over the value of shares held by a minority shareholder. Although the case was settled in 1997, DeBakker said the time, energy and capital spent to fight the claim took a heavy toll.
To survive, his company needed an influx of cash, and it came from DeBakker’s personal savings.
"We had to pay off the lawsuit when it was settled, and when the company isn’t doing real well, it falls onto the owner," DeBakker said. "We were also in a time of recession, battling on both ends."
Somehow, he never lost faith.
"When you’re an owner, the money doesn’t matter as much as the success. With all the blood, sweat and tears, if I made it through that, I felt like we could make it through and persevere," DeBakker said.
However, fate was not done battering DeBakker and Milwaukee Broach.
A potential knockout punch came with the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, and the recession that followed. The Menomonee Falls-based company appeared to be dead in the water, DeBakker said.
Seven employees had to be laid off, and DeBakker asked his management staff, including himself, to take a voluntary 20-percent pay cut to keep the company afloat.
The company was hemorrhaging money, posting "huge red numbers," DeBakker recalled.
Things got bad enough that DeBakker even reached into his own personal finances – again – to keep the lights on.
"All I could do was be honest with the management team," he said. "They understood where we were and knew I was personally funding this company to go forward. It was hard to keep focused – but that’s where our people stepped up. They never lost their focus.
"Every owner gets there," DeBakker said. "You have to decide if you’re going to delve into your personal wealth. It’s lonely out there. Ultimately, that decision comes down to you pacing the floor at 3 a.m. It also comes down to your family and the people helping you from the outside. Those were tough days."
Determined to survive, DeBakker and his management team deployed a three-pronged corporate strategy. They invested $1.5 million in new equipment and invested in training their employees. Perhaps most importantly, they diversified the company’s product line. The management team was determined not to allow the company to be subjected to another economic slowdown in the cyclical aircraft industry.
By branching into automotive parts, hand tools and electric generating equipment, Milwaukee Broach began serving a more diverse lineup of industries to pick up the slack when the aircraft industry dipped.
By December 2003, orders started coming in from the company’s diversification plans, thanks to an aggressive sales staff, DeBakker said.
"And that month, we got a huge defense contract," he said. "We got a huge one for power generation, as well."
In January 2004, some of Milwaukee Broach’s aircraft manufacturing clients started placing new orders, as their businesses began to rebound.
Today, Milwaukee Broach is on the rise. The company posted $3.2 million in revenues for fiscal 2004, and DeBakker is forecasting about $4.2 million in revenues for fiscal 2005.
That is a remarkable turnaround, considering how DeBakker and the company have overcome death, recessions and a lawsuit.
DeBakker said he thinks of his employees as family, because many of them have been with the company since its early days. DeBakker said his feelings about the employees, paired with his commitments to faith and his own family, helped him through the darkest times.
Milwaukee Broach has grown from a small shop into a company that does global business from three locations in the United States. In addition to the Menomonee Falls plant at N52 W13821 North Park Drive, the company has facilities in Antigo and South Carolina.
Like Rocky, DeBakker took his punches and kept getting back up, somehow stronger each time.
All seven employees who were laid off have been hired back, and five new employees were hired last year. Two more employees were added recently, and the company will hire additional staff this year, DeBakker said.
DeBakker said some of the credit for Milwaukee Broach’s survival should go to his advisory board.
One of those advisory board members, Stuart Schroeder, an attorney with The Schroeder Group, a Waukesha-based law firm, said DeBakker’s positive relationships with his employees, vendors and customers kept the business alive.
"There were times when Mike was remaining upbeat when some of his advisors, including yours truly, were not so sure he was going to be able to do it," Schroeder said. "He has had a real wonderful attitude while going through all this. That was the key thing which allowed him to persevere. He has a wonderful relationship with his suppliers and his employees. People are willing to give him time and go that extra mile for him – they had faith in the guy that he would be able to do it."
Today, DeBakker faces much more manageable problems than he has in the past.
"We’re actually trying to slow down a tad," he said. "You have to be careful when you look at how heavily you get involved with a customer. Pre 9-11, we had three major customers. Now we have 10 major customers who make up 75 percent of our sales."
DeBakker has remarried and has two more children with his wife, Kristin.
"I need to give credit to my wife and her family for their support," DeBakker said. "They walked the floors with me at 3 a.m."
Michael DeBakker has gone the distance.
N52 W13821 North Park Drive, Menomonee Falls
Product: Components for jet engines, power-generating turbines, the automobile industry and hand tools
Number of employees: 40
Annual Revenues: $3.2 million in fiscal 2004
February 4, 2005, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI