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Family-owned Richardson Industries predates state’s incorporation

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July 1, 2024

SHEBOYGAN FALLS – A sawmill, a dam and a lumberyard.

Cheese boxes, duck boats and roof trusses.

Furniture for taverns, dining rooms and lecture halls.

Across more than 175 years of operation, Richardson Industries has conducted business in all these sectors.

“We’ve done a couple of things,” Company President Justin Richardson said.

By his count, Justin said Richardson Industries has had 15 different businesses and counting – with the company’s present iteration serving as an umbrella for two entities.

“Our primary business (Richco Structures) is wooden roof and floor trusses we ship through the Midwest,” he said. “And our other business is Richardson Contract Furniture. We manufacture private-label furniture for designers and furniture companies in the United States.”

Justin said as the seventh president to bear the company’s surname, he has a keen understanding of what’s attributed to Richardson Industries’ endurance, regardless of its specialization.

“(We’ve had) constant entrepreneurship – with failures and successes – throughout those 175 years, but constantly evolving,” he said.

Settling into history

Richardson Industries proclaims it was founded in 1848 – the year Wisconsin became incorporated as the 30th American state – though Justin said the business was founded several years earlier by Joseph Richardson.

“(Joseph) came here to farm, like so many did,” he said. “Sheboygan Falls used to be called Rochester, Wisconsin. Rochester had plenty of open space for farming, (but) they found they couldn’t get lumber.” 

Justin said Joseph “saw a need and filled the need,” unwittingly establishing a trend that would be followed by his descendants – identifying and meeting the demands of their respective ages under the Richardson Industries title.

“We started as a sawmill,” he said. “We shored up a dam, and my great-great-great-great-grandfather (Joseph) sold two-by-fours to the settlers so they could build homes.”

Justin said a lot happened over the next 70 years – Wisconsin was granted statehood, the American Civil War commenced and concluded and the Town of Rochester became the City of Sheboygan Falls.

As times changed, Justin said a succession of his ancestors – many also named Joseph – helmed Richardson Industries, each putting his stamp on the operation.

“I respect everybody who took a swing with the business,” he said. “From Joseph (the first) who took a crack at shoring up a dam and getting leather hide, to making a sawmill and cutting lumber for the settlers – to my great-great-great-grandfather who decided to make chairs for the local tavern – to one of them who wanted to make cheese boxes – to one of them who made roof trusses in Florida.”

Justin said each company leader before him took a risk, and it paid off.

“I respect the heck out of that,” he said. “I think it’s amazing what they did.”

Justin said throughout the company’s history, one of the most consistent strategies has been to continually invest Richardson Industries’ earnings back into the business.

“We’ve been content in running a nice, solid, family-owned business and making a good living,” he said. “We’ve never gambled the company’s future on hitting a home run. We’ve borrowed money to expand and things along those lines, but we’ve never jeopardized the company for personal interest.”

Justin said he credits this fiscal responsibility to navigating centuries of economic issues and industry upheavals – which he said have at several times threatened to end the Richardsons’ historic run, particularly when the company’s prospects depended on the housing market.

“In 1929, my great-grandfather sold everything he owned to keep the company,” he said. “He had a cabin up north he sold during the (Great) Depression and bought it back when we got out of it. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, you couldn’t get a home loan for under 16.5% or 18.5%. In 2008, we were days away from bankruptcy… We’ve teetered… Throughout the (past) seven generations, there have been a lot of close calls where we almost didn’t make it.”

Justin said he already had his own crisis to manage.

He had been working in various roles at Richardson Industries since 2005 before earning the position of president of the company – “one week before the COVID-19” pandemic impacted the country.

Justin said during this time, the company was deemed an “essential business,” remaining as operational as possible and attempting to fulfill the suddenly high demand for Richco’s trusses amid the ensuing ­­– and unexpected – housing construction boom.

“You’d wake up one day, and you’d have 13 call-ins, and you had a supply chain that was completely and utterly screwed up,” he said. “Other than the (2008) recession when we almost went belly up, it was the hardest we’ve ever worked.”

Like his predecessors, Justin said he was able to steer Richard Industries through the unique challenges it faced in the course of his stewardship.

“How you ran your business in the 1960s, how you ran your business in the 1910s and how you run your business in 2024 – it’s not comparable,” he said. “It’s not even on the same latitude. There’s a whole bunch you can learn from mistakes, and there’s a whole bunch you can learn from success. That’s how I pay respect to the previous generations.”

Leading the legacy

Justin said he was never pressured into becoming president of the family business, nor did he feel entitled to the position.

“I had the right last name, and I was seventh-generation, but I also worked hard,” he said. “I also have ambition for it – it was never expected.”

Though Richardson Industries has always been family-owned, with a board of directors comprised of a majority of Richardsons, Justin said the company’s president has not always been a family member.

He said the board provides valuable perspective and judgment in determining whether a Richardson is ready or experienced enough to step into the role.

Justin said he relishes the opportunity to lead the company, upholding its storied past while putting his own stamp on it – though he said he’s keenly aware of the ancestral pressure he’s under.

“I can’t screw it up,” he said. “(I’ve got) six generations before me staring down with a stern look of ‘don’t be the one to mess it up.’”

In light of this pressure, Justin said his approach to his position is “not as conservative as maybe previous generations might have been” as he looks to ensure Richardson Industries stays around for countless generations.

“I’d like to see us get bigger,” he said. “I’d like to see us withstand some of these (crises) and not be on such a tightrope. The goal is to always grow – responsibly.”

Justin said he specifically seeks to grow Richardson Contract Furniture, which he said has already completed work “for the White House, the (Los Angeles) Lakers and the (New York) Yankees” – some of its more prominent clientele.

He also said akin to previous leadership, he is open to pursuing new, adjacent opportunities.

“We’re in a strategic position where if an opportunity (that) aligns with our expertise comes along, we would look into purchasing another business that is well run,” he said. “If someone were to get out of business and has similar values and culture, we would be interested in expanding and bringing another business underneath our umbrella.”

Regardless of which categories Richardson Industries has served or will serve in the future, Justin said the most important constants of the company have been the quality of its products, the service of its customers and the treatment of its employees.

“Without customers buying from us and paying their invoices, and without our employees working hard and coming to work every day, we wouldn’t have made it one generation,” he said. “I think a lot of times businesses forget – it’s the people.” 

As for the future, he said, as much as he hopes the company will one day be run by an eighth generation of Richardsons, he intends to afford his children the same freedom to find their path as he was granted. 

Legacy or not, Justin said he can only concern himself with what he can control in the present – finding reassurance and inspiration as the latest in a long line of leaders.

“I love the arc Richardson Industries is on,” he said. “As long as the U.S. dollar stays strong, I have full faith in Richardson Industries.”

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