There are a good number of second-generation companies in our business, and quite a few even third-generation, but how about five generations? Meet the Reinders family and Reinders, Inc., their family-owned, full-service distribution chain servicing ten states in the upper Midwest. Craig Reinders, president, can safely say that he’s not the only one within his family who shares a passion for the green industry.
Their legacy begins in Wisconsin, in 1866. Craig Reinders’ great-great-grandmother, Maria Reitter, owned a general store in Milwaukee. The whole story might have been that simple, if it wasn’t for Reitter’s big move west of Milwaukee.
Following her customer base to Elm Grove, Reitter reopened her store out of the basement of her home. Little did she know, she would be opening the doors to the start of an influential family business.
The family expanded when Craig Reinders’ great-grandfather, John, fell in love and married Reitter’s daughter, Margaret. In 1887, the store changed its name from Reitter’s General Store to the now recognizable brand, Reinders…and the rest is history.
The present-day corporation can be attributed to the work of Craig Reinders’ father, Richard, and uncle, Robert, formerly the executive vice president and president, respectively. After joining the management team in the early ’50s and ’60s, the brothers recognized the growing urbanization around them and began to cater more exclusively to the suburban market— the birthplace of the modern landscape industry.
The irrigation business was still in its infancy when the company decided to specialize in it. Craig Reinders’s father bought enough parts to become a Rain Bird distributor, and later in that same decade, Reinders’ uncle added Jacobsen golf equipment to their repertoire as well. In the ’70s, the company acquired a Toro commercial franchise, which included the eastern half of Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan.
During the earlier part of the 20th century, the company had its ‘hand’ in many areas. However, by the ’90s, the family decided to change lanes and focus mainly on their core strength: wholesale distribution.
This meant pruning some branches, much of its retail trade, and construction and manufacturing, which represented a sizable percentage of the company’s sales. By 2000, they had taken on their present-day shape, and as a result of the divesting, the company thrived.
In the meantime, as the company shifted and grew, Craig Reinders took time off to study economics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He returned in 1988 to work full-time in the irrigation division. “At the time, my uncle Robert was the president of the company and I worked for him,” said Reinders. He later was promoted to president of the company.
The 2000s ushered in new set of challenges for the family business. In 2006, the fifth generation of Reinders took steps to take over management. They decided to establish a fiduciary board of directors—a rarity for such a closely-held corporation. The board is legally bound to the interest of the shareholders. They are elected by the shareholders and must be comprised of no less than 50 percent non-family members. This step transformed the family business into a “business family.”
“The goal is to always have the best qualified person running the operation,” said Craig Reinders. “If that is a family member, great! And if not, we have a structure in place that allows for that, too.”
They were well into the planning stages for a move to a larger, more suitable site when the economy crumbled in 2008. In a bold move, Reinders continued with business as usual. “We made a conscious effort during the downfall to really maintain the staff and not have the massive layoffs of some other companies,” he said.
This also meant continuing with the moving plan. The economic downturn created opportunities in the commercial real estate market, which Reinders was able to take advantage of. They purchased an old plastics company with 136,000 square feet, and began renovation. In December of 2011, the company moved its headquarters to a new building in Sussex, Wisconsin.
“There are very few companies in the turf business that look like us,” said Reinders. “The unique thing about Reinders is our diversity. On one hand, it’s the old preverbal ‘one-stop-shop,’ but more importantly, I think it gives us strength when it comes to surviving economic downturns.”
Today, the company carries product lines for turf (fertilizers, grass seed), irrigation, power equipment, landscape lighting, water features and snow removal. They work with a wide variety of clients, including golf courses, municipalities, schools, parks, cemeteries, athletic facilities, contractors, landscape companies and architects.
They are also the exclusive supplier of turf equipment to the Milwaukee Brewers, and boast of more than 200 employees, including five fifth-generation family members.
Mary Reinders, a cousin to Craig Reinders, is the executive vice president; Ann Reinders, also a cousin, is the operations manager at the distribution center; Laurie Reinders, his sister, is the product category manager for holiday lighting; and Joel Reinders, his brother, is the product category manager for low-voltage lighting and water features.
Although the company has grown significantly since Reitter opened her doors, the family has never forgotten their roots. “As a company, we have had a tradition of education that dates back through generations,” said Reinders. “There’s a photo in our conference room of my great-grandfather teaching a class on grains and milling, which was one of our primary businesses 120 years ago. You carry that forward to today, as we host what I believe is still the largest privately-run education conference in the turf industry.”
He’s talking about GIC, their two-day Green Industry Conference, held every two years, with more than 40 speakers and multiple educational seminars. Attendance over the years has remained consistent at around 1,200 to 1,300 people. “That speaks to who we are as a company,” said Reinders. “We very much support the educational side of our industry.”
Craig Reinders, of course, also takes a great deal of pride in being the fifth generation of his family to helm the business. As a child, he worked odd jobs around the company; he was part of the legacy at an early age. Because of this, he knows the value behind a family business, as it has contributed to the man he is today.
“We are all a collection of our experiences,” he says.
As for the next generation, Reinders does not rule out the possibility of a non-family member leading the company. But no matter who is in charge, at the end of the day you can guarantee that Reinders Inc. will continue to give their customers the same focus and passion as they have for the last 150 years.