In 1947, when W.R. Sauey was just 20 years old, he decided to follow in the steps of his Norwegian tool-maker father, and get active in the plastics industry by starting a molding company. But his entrepreneurship started long before that. As one of nine children being raised during the depression years, W.R.’s father took them to a farm and told them to “help yourself.” There were no handouts or free lunches back then.
W.R.’s first job (he actually lied about his age just to get the job because he was only 10 and you had to be 14) was as a magazine salesman and delivery boy for the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal in Melrose Park, IL. “I sold more magazines than any child in the U.S., 470 subscriptions,” Sauey proudly told an audience of Flambeau Phoenix employees recently. “Then I hired two friends to help deliver the magazines because the Ladies Home Journal was heavy and I had 260 subscriptions to deliver.” His salary: 1.5 cents for every Saturday Evening Post and 3 cents for a Ladies Home Journal.
At the age of 20, his future mother-in-law loaned him $500 to start a business, and W.R.’s father and his Uncle Ed built their first molding press. “She believed in him,” commented W.R.’s son and President of the company, Jason Sauey at the event. “It helps to have people believe in you.”
The business evolved over the next six decades, first with a new building built in 1957 and a new press in 1958. A new plant in 1959 and a plant expansion in 1965 created more opportunities for Flambeau (named after the Flambeau River in Wisconsin where the Sauey’s grew up). In 1969, Flambeau bought the Duncan Yo-Yo business. Another expansion in 1976 gave the company additional capabilities to seek even more opportunities. And W.R. believed in seeking out a variety of opportunities over the years.
“Diversification is key,” remarked Jason Sauey. “That’s true of Flambeau and of any company that endures and succeeds over time. We have an incredible amount of diversification at Flambeau but it’s helped us weather the storm. In addition to our custom business we have close to 600 proprietary products in 28 markets including commercial, industrial, sporting goods, retail consumer markets and medical. We’re fortunate to have been around for 65 years, due to my father’s foresight and perseverance.”
Perseverance is W.R.’s byword. “Perseverance was the most important thing I had,” said W.R. “I remember Winston Churchill said ‘never, never give up’ and I never quit. We had good people working for us, desire to succeed and perseverance. I did what had to be done.”
In addition to its U.S. operations, Flambeau, a Nordic Group company, has a molding plant in Saltillo, Mexico and one in the UK, with both injection molding and blowmolding. Flambeau began blowmolding operations when W.R. saw some good opportunities in that process. “Blowmolding is more of an art and injection molding is more of a science,” he said. “It was a different business to be in.”
Being better than the competition and understanding customer needs always brings challenges. “We must understand what the customers want,” W.R. said. “Look at things from the customer’s perspective—that’s an important issue in business.”
W.R. Sauey, who is 85 and still active in the plastics business as well as the other holdings in the Nordic Group, offered some major lessons that he’s learned: “Persevere, try new ideas, and give people the chance to work with you and for you in the best way possible. Surround yourself with good people throughout the organization. It’s people who’ve gotten us here over the past 65 years,” he said. “Next, get acquainted with a good lawyer and an honest accountant. Those two people are vital to a successful business.”
Having observed and worked with his father these many years Jason recounted some of the traits that were key to W.R.’s success and for other entrepreneurs. “Entrepreneurs are curious about the world, how things work and why and how you they can provide value,” he said. “Entrepreneurs are adaptable. They encounter challenges but they adapt to change. You must master change or change will master you.”
An entrepreneur must also be “willing to reach into their own pocket and take a risk.” W.R. added, “You can do anything you want to do if you try and if you want it bad enough.”