On a trip to Door County in the mid-1960s, Otto Andreae and Ray Sherman fell in love with Door County, daydreaming about retiring to the peninsula one day. But as the thought percolated, they decided retirement wasn’t soon enough. In 1971, they moved their industrial ovens manufacturing business to Sturgeon Bay, choosing to locate where business might be more difficult, but where living and raising a family would be much easier.
Forty-four years later their business, Therma-Tron-X, is the county’s fifth largest employer with a staff of more than 250 people, according to Elizabeth Bjarnarson of the company’s marketing and sales department. The company’s core business today is in industrial finishing systems and wastewater treatment systems, all fabricated in their massive facility on Neenah Avenue on Sturgeon Bay’s west side.
“Say you’re a company that makes screws, and they need to be color-coated,” Bjarnarson said. “Well, those aren’t painted by hand. We build the automated systems that do that — everything from screws to truck bodies, working with automotive, military, aerospace, appliance companies.”
Therma-Tron-X sells to companies worldwide, but the bulk of their clientele is in North America. Sales have doubled in recent years, and the company has increased its staff by 30 percent. Half of the staff works in the shop, but the company employs a floor full of engineers as well as administrative and sales positions. The skilled employees they need for all openings aren’t as easy to find as they were in the 1970s.
“It worked at the time because there was a core group of people who had the skills to work with metal,” Bjarnarson said. “The area had a lot of welders, fabricators and other skills from the shipyards. Today it’s a challenge. We’ve been able to find a lot of people that have skills and want to live here, but it’s not easy.”
Therma-Tron-X recruits engineers from the Midwest’s top engineering programs, and has formed partnerships with other businesses in the city’s industrial corridor and with Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) to try to train and recruit potential workers. Making contact with students early in their education has proven fruitful.
“We have our own training program at NWTC for designing and detailing,” Bjarnarson said. “We have a mobile unit that goes out and demonstrates AutoCAD and programming for the schools. We do job shadowing. We’re trying to put the bug in the ears of youth in the area that they can find these types of jobs here if they want to stay or return.”
It’s a long-term plan that aims to draw on the bonds of family, home and lifestyle, but it also begs an obvious question. Why does the growing company remain in Sturgeon Bay when it could more easily recruit and be closer to market by locating elsewhere?
“We’re family-owned, so the Andreaes have an investment in the community,” Bjarnarson said. “The primary goal is to create a great employment place where people can come and raise their family here. They work hard at trying to keep Therma-Tron-X here.”
Creating a similar business in Door County will require the same altruistic motivations.
“It depends on what your motivation is and how hard you’re going to work at it,” Bjarnarson said. “If you’re drawn to the small-town atmosphere, to the safety that comes with that and that’s important to you, then it can work. But if you’re looking at it purely from a business standpoint — your customers aren’t here, your port of entry for shipping. That’s not what your motivation is going to be if you’re going to come to Door County to start a business like this.”