True Grit

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:39 pm

Despite her company’s struggles, or rather because of them, Karin Lee-Fournier has chosen to expand her business with a new facility.

"We hit a point in our business either where we shrivel up or we go for everything," said Lee-Fournier, who is the president of Milwaukee-based Badger Trailer & Equipment Corp.

The company recently broke ground on a new 17,500-square-foot facility near Interstate 94 at 2738 N. Sylvania Ave. in Yorkville, which is located in rural Racine County.

Lee-Fournier hopes to attract business from trucks traveling on the interstate between Chicago and Green Bay.

Badger makes refrigeration systems for trucks, does trailer repairs for trucks, does auto body work for trucks and sells Thermo King Corp. trucking products.

The new plant will cost $1.7 million and is slated for completion in mid-November. The company plans to hire 10 new employees to staff the facility. Even after the plant is built, the company will continue to maintain its operations at 415 S. 3rd St. in Milwaukee.

Badger placed a 10 percent down payment for the new facility and is funding the remainder through a $795,000 loan from M&I Bank and a $735,000 loan from the Racine County Business Development Corp.

Lee-Fournier hopes the new plant will keep her struggling company going. It has been in her family for three generations.

The company has had shrinking revenues due to economic conditions, such as rising fuel costs. Truckers are spending less money on preventative maintenance and are putting more money into their fuel tanks, Lee-Fournier said.

Government restrictions on the trucking industry have also played a role in Badger’s hardships. As a result of those restrictions, truckers have less time to get repairs and need a facility they can get to quickly. That’s a big reason the company is building a new plant near the freeway.

The company has overcome adversity several times since it was founded in 1916 by Lee-Fournier’s grandfather, L.E. Lubbers.

Lubbers’ son and daughter-in-law, Bob and Betty Lubbers, who worked alongside him to run the company, died in a plane crash on their way to a Thermo King dealers’ trip to Japan.

In 1966, Gordon Lee and his wife, Jean, Lee-Fournier’s parents, moved from Madison to Milwaukee to assist Lubbers with running Badger.

The Lees sold trailers in Madison and were familiar enough with the business to take over as its leaders that same year. The Lees adopted the five children Bob and Betty Lubbers left behind, who were between 18 months and 9 years old.

"My mom and dad would never watch the Brady Bunch, because it does not come out that way," Lee-Fournier said.

Today, Jean Lee retains majority ownership of the company, with the remaining 49 percent distributed among her three children, Lee-Fournier and Brien and Ann Lee.

In 1981, Lubbers’ health began to deteriorate. He died later that year, dealing the second significant blow to Badger and again eliminating top-level leadership in the company.

Under Lubbers and Gordon Lee, the business exceeded $1 million in yearly revenue 30 times.

The company was then dealt a blow that would lead Lee-Fournier to make the decision to either expand or "shrivel up."

Gordon Lee fought back pain for more than three years, undergoing a series of surgeries to relieve the osteoarthritis pain in his spine.

"My mom wasn’t telling us everything," Lee-Fournier said. "She knew but never actually said he wasn’t going to come out of the surgery."

Last May, Gordon Lee, 75, died of surgery-related complications.

"My dad was really strong," said Lee-Fournier, who began serving as the company’s president when the surgeries began in 2002. "My mom would sign off on things not questioning. As my dad became older and weaker, she became stronger and more involved with the decisions and the directions we were going.

"Now I rely on my mom a lot. There were times I was nervous and not sure I wanted to go through with this. She really encouraged me and said, ‘We can do this.’ So, we’re in it, and there’s no turning back," Lee-Fournier said.

With an all-eyes-forward attitude, Lee-Fournier hired Wayne Perrins as her general manager to assist with the expansion and create succession plans. Perrins left an Atlanta-based Thermo King facility in late February this year.

"The new shop down on I-94 is going to give us a more visible presence to the transportation industry," Perrins said.

The Yorkville facility will be able to accommodate 53-foot trailers and will offer a drivers’ lounge, showers and computer amenities.

The expansion is only one arm of a multi-faceted strategy to turn Badger around, Perrins said.

The company will initiate a sales blitz with Thermo King corporate leadership in July, sweeping the southeastern Wisconsin market with information on the services Badger offers and its new facility. Badger’s repair services and products such as Tri Pac, which drastically cuts fuel and environmental costs from idling trucks, will be highlighted.

The purchase of a new refrigeration truck and the conversion of the former refrigeration truck to a mobile maintenance trailer truck is part of the company’s upgrade.

"We are going to go after it with gusto," Perrins said.

An additional 10,000-square-foot expansion is planned for the Yorkville facility, Perrins said.

"As the growth takes place, we’ll add on to the building," he said.

The mobile units offer brake, lighting and electrical repair. Currently, Badger has two refrigeration trucks and one trailer truck offering services in the Milwaukee area. With the projected addition, Badger hopes to increase the number of mobile units, as well.

"We’re not testing anything," Perrins said. "We’re going to make it happen in both locations."

Badger Trailer & Equipment Corp.

Location: 415 S. 3rd St., Milwaukee
Founded: 1916
Employees: 30

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