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BY RICH ROVITO AND MATT HRODEY
1. Master Lock
In an iconic advertisement launched during the 1974 Super Bowl, a Master Lock padlock is shot by a rifle to highlight its Tough Under Fire campaign. Master Lock has made laminated padlocks for nearly 100 years, and the locks remain at the core of the company’s business. After shifting some manufacturing to Mexico and China, Master Lock made an unexpected decision and began moving work and jobs back to Milwaukee. This caught the attention of President Barack Obama, who visited the factory in 2012 and highlighted the company in his State of the Union address that year. Today, thousands of components, including locking cylinders, shackles and padlock bodies are made at its North 32nd Street plant every day.
2. Briggs & Stratton
Briggs & Stratton has a hand in a lot of those outside chores that are part of the, ahem, joy of homeownership. The Wauwatosa-based company makes engines for lawn mowers and snow blowers. It also manufactures snow throwers, riding lawnmowers and pressure washers. Much of Briggs & Stratton’s manufacturing had been shifted away from Wisconsin over time, but the company changed course in 2015 and moved production of pressure washers, snow blowers and riding lawnmowers to Wauwatosa after closing a factory in Georgia.
The Shur-Line brand isn’t just about painting. It’s about painting smart and fast. Starting out in Fond du Lac in 1944, ShurLine and its products made speedy roller painting available to at-home painters for the first time. You know the cover you slide on and off the roller to keep it from drying out? They manufactured the first one. Newer products include an award-winning Easy Pail and specialized edging tools, the first of which they introduced in the 1950s to save shaky hands. The manufacturing facility and corporate headquarters sits behind a quiet residential neighborhood in St. Francis.
4. Walthers Model Railroading
It’s no great surprise that mechanically inclined Milwaukee saw the rise of electrical engineer William K. Walthers, one of the early pioneers of model railroading (and a founding member of the Model Railroad Club of Milwaukee, no less). The company bearing Walthers’ name still has a headquarters facility and store with limited hours on the Northwest Side. Walthers manufactures an entire world of buildings, props, trains and switching yards to scale. And if you want an electric smokestack to pu smoke as the train chugs along (of course you do), Walthers makes those, too.
5. Eder Flag Manufacturing
Whatever flag you’re flying – American, state, international, sports, military – there’s a decent chance it’s made in Oak Creek. Eder began making flags in 1903 and claims to be the largest U.S. company to make both flags – more than 5 million each year – and flagpoles. One item customers won’t find any longer: the Confederate flag. Eder stopped producing them in 2015 after a church shooting in South Carolina. Huzzah!
The mattress maker traces its history to 1958, when it began in a humble furniture store in northern Illinois. Verlo is now in the stables of Marcus Investments, they of the movie theaters and hotels. Its corporate headquarters is tucked away in the Third Ward above Anthropologie, and stores stretch across the Midwest, mostly, with a concentration of eight right here in southeastern Wisconsin. Instead of having a central plant, each Verlo store serves as a miniature factory that can crank out dozens of mattresses a day. The company (named after founder-wives Verna and Lois) faces stiff, not soft, competition. Disruption is perennial in the hard-fought mattress market, with online sellers, innovative honeycombs, memory foams and other space-age materials all fighting for dollars.
7. McDermott Pool Cues
Founder Jim McDermott got his break in the cue business in 1975 and was inducted into the International Cuemakers Hall of Fame – yes, that’s a thing! – in 2011. He made a name for himself with innovative production methods and business practices. Paul Newman wielded a McDermott cue in The Color of Money, and trick shot artist Brian “Superman” Pauley relies on one to pull off his famous leapfrog maneuver. The company produces 12 brands of cues, shafts and accessories at its Menomonee Falls plant, with list prices topping out beyond $2,000 – even before customization.
8. Containers Up
This company, located on the North Side, is more of an “upcycler” than a “maker.” Its business is repurposing shipping containers. It used at least one to raise a big slide in the Harbor District. Several more have been transformed into bars, which are rented to clients. Whatever idea you have – even office space – Containers Up wants to hear it.
9. Carma Laboratories
Chapped lips have been generating business for Franklin’s Carma Laboratories since 1937, when Alfred Woelbing began hand-pouring a lip treatment in his Milwaukee kitchen that would take on the Carmex brand name. Carma Laboratories plans to construct a new global headquarters campus in Franklin, where it currently operates a factory. The Carmex product line has expanded over time to include a range of flavors – cupcake batter, anyone? – as well as lip butters and cold sore treatments. But it’s the lip balm in the classic jar with the yellow cap that remains the company’s most recognizable product.
Foamation just smells right – like childhood toys and times when a pretend something-or-other was almost as good as the real thing. The Harbor District manufacturer of faux-cheese stuff makes Cheeseheads, sure, but also a long list of foam fantasies: cowboy hats, bacon bandannas, pillowy ice cream cone hats, corncob footballs destined for the dog’s mouth. Founder and Cheesehead inventor Ralph Bruno cut the first one out of couch foam in 1987 and keeps it under lock and key at Foamation, for history’s sake. Other companies make cheap, flimsy alternatives to the Foamation special, but the heavy foam version remains the Grade A Cheesehead.
11. FX In Motion
You’re at the game, and you want a brat or a hot dog but don’t want to leave your seat. Luckily, the Bratzooka is just about to fire up. The brainchild of FX in Motion, the Bratzooka, which is manufactured at a plant in New Berlin, uses a patented thermal delivery system and the technology of a T-shirt Gatling gun, another of the company’s innovations, to shoot sausages into the stands as free promotional items. The wurst of choice arrives wrapped so tidily, complete with condiments and napkins, you’d never know it was just shot out of a cannon.
12. Diamond Nexus
This place makes diamonds, basically, in a low-slung building off Ryan Road in Franklin, and the people inside don’t care about how geology normally works. Theirs are “simulants” grown in a lab, using a secret formula that mimics real, all-carbon diamonds. These are not cubic zirconia stones (another kind of simulant), and the company resents any such comparisons. The colorful, cigar-chomping Gary LaCourt, now CEO of the parent firm, Forever Cos., founded Diamond Nexus in the Milwaukee area in 2004. He runs the business according to his own golden rule: “Take care of your customers like they were your mother.”