CITY OF PEWAUKEE - A local manufacturer with Pewaukee roots and international offices is celebrating 50 years of business.
Harken Inc., a leading manufacturer and distributor of sailboat hardware and accessories, planned to celebrate its 1967 founding with a party for its employees on Friday, Aug. 11.
The company has grown into a giant, with a combined office and 26-acre manufacturing facility in Pewaukee, as well as offices in Rhode Island, California, and Florida, along with overseas facilities in Australia, France, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
It has diversified into the industrial sector, for example, modifying its block, winch, traveler and furling systems for the commercial marine, utility, rescue, and other industries, according to the company website.
The beginnings of Harken
The idea for Harken comes from Peter Harken and his brother, Olaf, who were born in Indonesia during the start of World War II. The war separated the brothers and their mother from their father, Joe. All of them reunited in 1946 in the United States.
A job offer for the boys' father brought the family overseas again, this time to the Philippines. While attending school there, Peter and Olaf received swimming scholarships for their respective colleges of the University of Wisconsin - Madison and Georgia Tech.
Peter Harkin acquired an interest in water and ice sailing during his college years, and made that and other non-academic pursuits more of a focus, forcing him to leave school.
Peter Harkin later returned to Wisconsin after spending time skiing in Colorado. He took part-time work at Gilson Medical Electronics and after hours built hardware designs for his E-scow and iceboats, eventually coming up with the idea for ball bearing blocks, to help sailors release their sails faster.
Olaf Harkin visited Wisconsin during his freshman year to help his brother design the hardware.
After a three-year stint serving on a destroyer during the Vietnam War post-college, Olaf Harkin returned to Wisconsin to help his brother and friends start a company in 1967 called Scanda, which didn't work out.
Olaf Harkin then took an engineering job in New York City, but then returned to Wisconsin again to help his brother open a shop called Vanguard Boats in Waukesha. After the first year, the brothers made $3,800.
Growing the business
The brothers showed their ball-bearing blocks to friend Gary Comer, the founder of Land's End. Comer advised them to use the Harken name to market the product.
Brothers LeRoy and Al Stippich, who owned tool and die shop Accurate Products, learned the Harkens couldn't afford the tools to produce their blocks. The Stippichs decided to build the tooling, as well as building the blocks for the Harkens. The four shook on it, and the deal was official.
"Everything they did started on a handshake deal, and it's always been about the people, the relationships, and that's what's really kept everything going," said Heidi Middleton, Olaf's daughter, who helps with the company's marketing efforts.
The addition of the "Plastic Fantastics", two men named Bob Gramins and Don Michaelson, who built a sailboat in half the time it took the Harkens, along with approval of a $10,000 loan made up on a hand-scribbled legal pad, eventually led the Harkens to move into a bigger building in Pewaukee in 1971.
Over the years, the business took on projects such as the International 470 boat that became Olympic class in 1976, the Blue and Yellow Dog boats, the Swedish America's Cup boat of 1977, a contract with the Russian Sailing Federation in 1980, to name a few.
In 1986, the company opened an office in La Rochelle, France, and would sell off its Vanguard boats division, as well as open an office in Italy with the acquisition of Italian winch company, Barbarossa. Other offices overseas would eventually follow.
In 2013, the company combined its Waukesha and Pewaukee operations and moved into a 175,000-square-foot building off Bluemound Road in the city of Pewaukee. Olaf Harken wrote a book called "Fun Times in Boats, Blocks & Business" that was published in 2015.
Reasons for success
Middleton said one of the reasons for the company's success is its family and people-oriented atmosphere, and one that encourages a take-charge work style.
"Peter always says the employees are his family. We've had these people around with us for 40 years working so close. When they work hard, and you're here long days with your family, it is what it is," Middleton said.
Mark Pares, the company's facility manager at the Pewaukee location, has been with Harken for 40 years, has admired the way Harken has been run by Peter and Olaf over the years.
"There's stuff that I feel has to happen, and they trust me to do that. That's the cool part of Peter and Olaf. They give you a job, and they expect you to do it and trust you to do it," Pares said.