Listen to Wayne Oldenberg’s conversation with BizTimes Publisher Dan Meyer on MKE’s BizTimes Podcast.
Founder of Oldenburg Group Inc. Wayne Oldenburg has plenty of advice to share with local business leaders—from building trust with banks to hiring highly skilled employees.
For him, character building came before building a business.
“Stay humble,” said Oldenburg, who spent nearly two decades as an attorney specializing in mergers and acquisitions before founding the Oldenburg Group in 1981.
Oldenberg received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the BizTimes Media Innovation + Entrepreneurship Forum in December.
He credits the Young Presidents Organization, a global network of senior executives that conducts seminars and leadership courses, for his personal and professional development.
“It was the biggest learning resource for me, and I encourage any entrepreneur to check it out,” Oldenburg said.
The Oldenburg Group was a manufacturer of mining equipment, commercial lighting and military products. At one point, the company was on the Inc. list for five consecutive years from 1987 to 1991. 500 of the fastest growing companies in America. This company was ranked 20th in 1989.
Oldenburg needed money – and lots of it – to run a full operation. What he quickly realized was that bank officials trusted people before they trusted faceless corporations.
The advantage I had at that time was that my banks were local. You knew people… so you could borrow money. Capital.”
What he needed was fresh talent. But Oldenburg says he erred in trying to “keep the payroll as low as possible.”
“It was a mistake,” Oldenburg said. My advice to any entrepreneur is to pay as much as you need to get quality people. “Bringing in (talented) people is the most important thing you can do.”
The reason is simple: While she’s learned to teach employees new skills on the job, Oldenburg said, one skill she can’t pass on to her is motivation, because that has to come from within. That’s where detailed performance reviews come in – every six months.
“We do 360-degree reviews, and sometimes they’re pretty brutal,” Oldenburg said. “We’ll step back, ask a series of questions about each person, and put the answers on the whiteboard.”
Reviews like this have been part of the company since its inception and will guide future business decisions. In 2006, Oldenburg Group sold its coal mining equipment business to Joy Global Corp. (now Komatsu Mining) for $140 million, but retained the division that made machinery used in underground hard rock mining. . In 2016, it sold its underground mining equipment and defense business to a New York-based private equity firm.
The company retained its Glendale-based Visa Lighting commercial lighting division. Oldenberg continues to serve as CEO of the business, which supplies performance engineered products used in the architectural lighting industry.
Overall, innovation in Oldenburg’s businesses remained market-based, not in-house, he said. In other words, his goal was to “stay close to the customer.” For example, Oldenburg hosts discussion groups where customers provide feedback on products and the direction of the business.
“You have to build what the customer wants,” Oldenburg said. “Our customers even draw plans for the equipment they’re looking for to communicate with us.”
Oldenburg is also committed to serving the wider community. His past board service includes the University of Milwaukee Faculty Board of Trustees, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Milwaukee, Junior Achievement, Lakeland College, the Milwaukee Ballet, the United Performing Arts Fund and the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee.
He has also provided rent-free space in the Glendale Visa Lighting office building for years to three local nonprofits: Girls on the Run Southeastern Wisconsin, SHARP Literacy and ABCD: After Breast Cancer Diagnosis, which was founded by his late wife, Melody Wilson. . , to provide one-on-one peer support to people with breast cancer, and where Oldenberg serves as past chair on the board of directors. These organizations can use the money they save on rent to further their mission.
“My advice to entrepreneurs is to start paying back as soon as possible,” Oldenburg said. I give money, but giving time is also important.