"Trust the Tradition"
In 2014 the Wausau Chamber of Commerce in Marathon County awarded Grebe's the Small Business of the Year Award in Wausau, Marathon County. Today Grebe's is an appliance, grills, kitchenware, lawn and garden equipment and mattresses store but it has not always been that way. Charting its evolution over the years since 1946 is a lesson in business leadership and adaptation to changing times. It is mainly a story about family, family values, quality for the customer and Wausau history.
By Ed Marek, editor
October 12, 2015
Steve Richetto and Tim Grebe, current family owners of Grebe's, hold a meeting with their store team.
In 2014 the Wausau Chamber of Commerce in Marathon County awarded Grebe's the Small Business of the Year Award in Wausau, Marathon County. Today Grebe's is an appliance, grills, kitchenware, lawn and garden equipment and mattresses store but it has not always been that way.
Grebe's 703 N. 3rd Ave, Wausau WI 54401
Charting its evolution over the years since 1946 is a lesson in business leadership and adaptation to changing times. It is also a story about family, family values, quality for the customer and Wausau history.
Nearly 70 years and three generations later, the store continues to prosper, but only going through what Arthur's son, Roger describes as a "metamorphosis," a series of transformations.
Arthur was the second youngest of 11 children, born in Stettin Township in 1907. The family is shown in this photo. He was the only one to graduate from school at 8th grade. His parents did not let the other kids go to school, and would not let Arthur go to high school. They were poor. From 1920 to 1923 Arthur worked on the family farm, and also worked for other farmers, picking rocks, weeding corn and potato rows, plowing and cutting grain. When he hit 16, his parents allowed him to go to Milwaukee where he got a job greasing cars at Jonas Cadillac, pay rate $.30 per hour. By 1926 Arthur was able to buy a Buick.
But then the Great Depression hit, and in 1933 his wages were reduced to $18 per week. Incredibly, Arthur was able to start a savings account at $5.00 per week. By 1937 he an Esther bought a lot at 713 N. 4th Ave. and in 1938 were able to build a three bedroom house for $2,800. Arthur came down with respiratory rheumatism in winter 1943 and lost his job. With that seemingly mundane savings account, he had accumulated $5,100 and bought a 160 acre farm in the Town of Maine. The farm had 80 acres of timber and he sold the timber for $5,000 and used the money to stock the farm. The rheumatism made it tough to work the farm, so in 1944 he sold it and bought a small grocery store at 120 N. 16th Ave. for $4,200. It was a "fix-er-upper" and that's what they did. The grocery store started to show a profit, it really wasn't Arthur's cup of tea, so he sold it in 1945 and earned a nice profit.
But now Arthur is out of work! He visited Herman Rakow, a John Deere dealer, and within less than two weeks he met J.I. Case, a field rep, and soon had his own franchise, the Case franchise. He bought two lots at 703-707 N. 3rd Ave. and in 1946 broke ground for a new building. Arthur helped dig the footings by hand. The photo shows a Case tractor with sister Charlotte at the helm.
Case sold its limited inventory faster than it could get more, so Arthur decided to use part of the building as a hardware store.
After contacting the State Hardware Association, they learned they could make a go of it if they sold $25,000 annually. Well, they topped that at $37,000. They did some expansion, they developed a superb relationship with Marshall-Wells Co. as a steady supplier of quality product, and in 1948 opened the finest displayed hardware store in Wausau. There were five hardware stores in downtown Wausau at the time. They were irritated over another dealer with whom they would have to complete.
The store in 1957. Hardware, plumbing, appliances and sporting goods
WWII made buying merchandise to sell was hard, though Marshall-Wells was quite dependable. Customers of course were yearning for hardware merchandise. Business grew steadily. Case Farm Machinery was agitated because Arthur was selling so much hardware, to which Arthur responded he was selling everything Case could provide. There were disagreements between Arthur and Case, so the two parted ways. Arthur then expanded his horizon to include plumbing supplies. But the Korean War impeded getting supplies, so he had to drive around and find them. He traveled to Alabama to seek supplies from foundries there, but each foundry turned him down. Finally, T.C. King, who had earlier said no, changed his mind and provided Arthur with tons of pipe and fittings.
These supplies were in high demand in Wausau, and as word spread several other foundries began calling Arthur offering their wares. Arthur turned them down, saying T.C. King was his guy. By the late 1950s Arthur had eight plumbers employed.
I should introduce Arthur's immediate family, using the earliest photo I have. Left to right, Arthur, Esther, Charlotte and Roger. Charlotte was born in 1930, followed by son Roger in 1934. These latter two would become very important people later on.
Charlotte joined the business in 1946 when she was 16, still in high school. She worked as a clerk and bookkeeper. Charlotte began working for free, coming in after school when she was needed. Fortunately, she took accounting in high school so had at least a head start. She has commented:
"My father (Arthur) was sharp with numbers. He just didn't want to take the time to do it."
I interpret that to mean pay attention to the books Charlotte, because the old man knows his numbers!
After graduating from high school in 1948, Charlotte started to earn a salary, $35 per week. She won a college scholarship but decided not to go, instead staying at the store to help. Given that college scholarships were hard to come by for women in those days, you can see Arthur had the right lady in the right job!
"I want to give some advice to young girls. Go to school and learn as much as you can. There is so much to know and business is very competitive."
Charlotte has underscored this when talking about the biggest change that has occurred for her through the years, saying:
"For me, it has been technology. It has continually affected how we manage our books and continues to change."
And indeed they have been up against leaders in adapting technology to businesses with whom Grebe's competes, such as Home Depot, Walmart, Menards, Fleet Farm and Lowe's.
Arthur's work, his wife's work, and the example they set charted the course for the way this company would develop. Roger has said this:
"The tone had been set … (Arthur) took pride in refunding payment for faulty produce and for positive comments he received years later from the 'customer family.' (The concept of family) extended to those vendors who offered their products and services and, in turn, were rewarded with not only a good, but an extremely loyal customer for years."
Furthermore, you can see from Arthur's record that he learned well how to adapt and change, in relatively short periods of time. Fundamentally, he allowed the customers to set the course for what he ought to offer — he worked to satisfy the needs of his customers. He maintained a strong work ethic, he built the loyalty of his workers, his children pitched in to help, and his wife Esther was always at his side. The philosophy he developed was stated well by Peoples State Bank Holdings in its Annual report of 2011:
"The philosophy was to operate with integrity, family values, quality products and fair prices
Arguably his greatest assets were those with whom he worked inside and outside the company. Arthur understood that and built the company as though it were a family, a team. Indeed, referring back to Peoples Bank's annual report, the bank's leadership saw Grebe's as one of its "partnerships with local multigenerational businesses."
The Grebe family and Peoples Bank has had a relationship that started with the bank's founding. In fact, the poor boy from Stettin with only an eighth grade education was a founding member of Peoples State Bank in 1962. Roger later commented this way about his relationship with the bank:
"My dad (Arthur) was one of the founding members of Peoples and he knew firsthand the need for the local west side bank. When additions and remodels occurred along the way, Peoples was there to help. There were times we needed advice and we knew we could count on the knowledgeable staff at Peoples. Now 50 years later we wouldn't think of going anywhere else."
Emil played a most important role in building the company. Roger and Emil had a lot on their plates to grow the company profitably. The two even delivered appliances and other items bought by customers, sometimes each individually, sometimes together. This put them on the road a lot when they really wanted to be back at the store tending to business there. But they did what had to be done.
I'll back up just a few years. Roger left the company in 1953 when he enlisted in the Army. He rose to the rank of corporal during his two years service in Germany. He returned to Wausau and the company once his hitch was over in 1955. So he rejoined the company just as Emil was coming on board.
Roger thought a great deal of Emil, and wrote this about him:
"Emil was more than a brother-in-law and business partner … (We) shared a synergistic bond that transcended individual roles and carried over into (our) personal and professional lives."
I might remark that Emil was also very close to Arthur Grebe.
Then the Grebe family and business were hit with a bombshell. Like a bolt from the blue, Emil suffered a heart attack in 1981 and died in 1982. This was a shocker to the company and all with whom Emil was associated. It was such a shock that Roger decided to sell the company in 1985 to an ACE Hardware dealer in Chicago. Roger simply said he needed to move on, seek a change. That said, he held on to the property and only sold the hardware store assets.
The arrangement did not work well. One problem was the owners remained in Chicago. Another was that Roger had left the company and Emil was gone. Charlotte and Roger's two sons, Tim and Randy, remained. But one by one others began to leave the company as well. Son Randy left in 1985 and ultimately became a missionary. Charlotte hung on as long as she could to handle the accounting and provide some semblance of continuity. Roger has written:
"Regardless of our due diligence, things don't always seem as they appear. The buyer misrepresented himself and was the opposite of what we had hoped. The business was nearly decimated, family members who remained behind to work for him fled the sinking ship and all looked bleak … Dishonest activity was involved."
The net result was Roger and Charlotte worked to figure out a way to buy the business back and rebuild its tradition of quality. Roger says, It was painful, exhausting and expensive … Much work had to be done repairing the relationships, but we stayed the course." The two siblings bought the store back in 1989, with sales down about 30 percent.
Arthur died in 1996 in Florida, age 89.
In 1997 Roger and Charlotte transferred their stock in the business to Tm Grebe and Steve Richetto, who are the owners to this day.
A fundamental rule of thumb for businesses is they have to adapt to change. The marketplace changes, people's tastes and attitudes change, business practices change, government regulations change and the change simply goes on and on.
It would be very hard to list each and every change Grebe's went through. We've touched on a few. Early on, Arthur was buying lots, constructing buildings, buying other buildings, moving, demolishing buildings, and converting buildings.
The company started by acquiring a Case Farm Machinery franchise, then won a Pyrofax Gas franchise, and then it sold the Case franchise and later on the gas franchise too all while moving into the hardware business. The company won an ACE Hardware franchise, became an exclusive GE appliance dealership in the county, and began a plumbing and heating supply business. But then downstream, after all that, the company sold the plumbing and heating department, sold the entire business to an ACE hardware dealer in Chicago, watched the company fall apart, came back and bought it back, moved into the power equipment business, built up a Chef Center department, and then, to the surprise of many, discontinued the hardware department, lost ACE recognition, began selling mattresses and outdoor cooking equipment, and maintained and improved the appliance department! I'm sure I missed a few big changes but what I have presented here is a mouthful indeed! Throughout the company had to build its service department which, as Roger has said, can "make or break a store's reputation." And furthermore, throughout the company devoted its attention to quality, first rate customer service, and building enduring relationships.
"As I look back on my career and attempt to look forward at what our children will face, the ultimate lessons are not to fear change or challenge. Our business has continually undergone change. At times it was less than others, but it indeed is continual. And so it is for us all. The major difference is how we face change … We would be interested to know of another business in the area that has transformed as much as Grebe's."
Charlotte retired in 2014. Roger works part-time and remains the president of the company.
Here are some inside shots of Grebe's today.