On the road in Milwaukee

Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company

A block away from windy Lake Michigan and anchoring the financial district of downtown Milwaukee sits the three building complex of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company (NWML).

With over $44 billion in assets, NWML is the eighth largest of all US life firms in assets, the largest life firm west of the Atlantic seaboard and the 70th largest business enterprise in the US when measured by assets. Revenues totaled $8.8 billion in 1993. I meet with nice guy Thomas Towers, Associate Director-Public Relations, in the grandiose "old" building. Built in 1914, the massive ornate pillars out front let you know you're entering a building steeped in history and tradition. The eight-story, 350,000 square foot marble-clad structure is a real beaut inside and out. Directly behind and connected via a skywalk to this building (called the South Building) is the 16-story, 500,000 square foot East Building (built in 1978). Kitty-corner from the East Building and connected via another skywalk is the 18-story, 550,000 square foot North Building, built in 1990-it's the newest.

Here's something unique about NWML: For over 80 years, the company's trustees have annually named a group of three to five policyholders to make an independent and completely unrestricted evaluation of the company's operations, management and strategic plans. Hmmm, that means an ordinary policyholder like me could dissect, critique and make a pest of himself right? Wrong. Looking over the company's latest annual report I read the four page "Report Of The Examining Committee". Who are the five "ordinary" policyholders submitting the report?: Wayne Sanders, CEO-Kimberly-Clark Corporation, Juanita Hinshaw, VP & Treasurer-Monsanto Company, Jeffrey McKeever, CEO-MicroAge, Inc., J. Michael Moore, CEO-INVETECH and Patrick Prout, President-Bank One, Cleveland. Not exactly Joe and Jane Ordinary. Does this examining by outsiders produce results? A few years back, one group took the company to task for never advertising. The company listened and now most of you may know NWML through it television and print ads as "The Quiet Company".

The company's mission statement hangs over the fireplace in CEO James Ericson's corner office on the fifth floor of the South Building (the "old" building). "Why is he on the fifth floor instead of the eighth?, I ask. "Tradition", Towers answers. Sounds good to me but, "why does he have a walk-in safe in his office?" I ask. Towers isn't sure but says there's a walk-in safe on every floor in the same corner office.

I spend a few minutes with Santo Saliture, Associate Director of Advertising and Corporate Information. Why? He knows quite a bit about the company's past. Saliture whips out a book on the company's history and opens it up to a picture of General John Johnston, who founded the company in nearby Janesville in 1857. The General looks very proper and business-like in the picture except for one small detail I can't help but notice; the man is wearing TWO HUGE circular earrings! Well, so much for mom, apple pie, ice cream and insurance companies being conservative.

Marshall & IIsley Corporation

Founded in 1847, Marshall & IIsley, a bank holding company, occupies a company-owned, 20-story building built in 1968. The orangish-brick, blah-looking structure isn't fancy looking and neither are the executive offices on the sixth floor.

Michael Hatfield, Senior Vice President & Secretary, says the company will soon be completing its acquisition of Valley Bancorporation of Appleton which will see its assets increase from $7.9 billion to $12.3 billion.

A wonderful collection of Wisconsin wildlife oil paintings by Owen Gromme brightens up the otherwise drab furnishings on the executive floor. Why are the executives on the sixth floor instead of the 20th? Hatfield is at a loss for an answer. He jokingly says it might be because the fire escape ladder only reaches to the 6th floor.

Johnson Controls Inc.

Home for Johnson Controls (1993 revenues $6.1 billion, net income $145 million), the largest publicly-held company in Wisconsin, takes me five miles northwest of downtown Milwaukee to a company-owned, two-story structure built in 1966.

The first thing I do upon walking into the place is to check the thermostats in the lobby to make sure they aren't Honeywell. Though the company is the world's largest independent supplier of automotive seating systems and the largest supplier of batteries to the North America automotive market, it also manufactures and markets facility control systems (i.e. thermostats).

Glen Ponczak, Manager-External Communications, tosses out a bit of trivia: the first thermostat produced by Johnson Controls back in 1885 is stored in the company's vault. Interesting, but not as unusual as the chairs found in the company's theater-like auditorium: all 75 chairs swivel and recline. Actually it's not unusual for Johnson Controls because it's a type of chair the company manufactures for the automotive industry.

Master Lock Company

I'm ten miles northwest of downtown Milwaukee visiting Master Lock Company, the world's largest padlock manufacturer. The headquarters/plant is in a rough area where, to be honest with you, I wouldn't feel safe even locking my bike up with the two matching 1,450 pound locks standing guard outside the company's offices.

Master Lock is a subsidiary (roughly $200 million in sales) of American Brands, a $13 billion in revenues Greenwich, CT-based conglomerate with interests in tobacco, distilled spirits, life insurance and office products. My reason for visiting? I've been a faithful user of their locks since I was knee-high to a grasshopper.

I get an extensive tour of the plant, which sits on 17 acres, takes up three city blocks and has been located here since 1939. About 1,500 employees work in the place and me being me, I ask to drop by some of the employee locker areas. Why? To see what brand of lock they use to lock their lockers. Aw shucks, I check almost 200 lockers and everyone's locked by a Master Lock---no competitors in sight.

I currently use a Master Lock combination lock on my bike and find out the first one was introduced in 1935. Who says what combination numbers goes into a lock? We walk by a computer that randomly selects combinations and punches the numbers into the lock cylinder. The lock then rides along a conveyor belt where the combination is tested by a machine to make sure it unlocks.

Paula Kraus, Vice President-Human Resources, drags me atop the roof on this very windy day. Why? To see the 15-foot tall lock attached to the side of the five-story building. The massive lock has been up there since 1939 but, it isn't visible from the street anymore since a shipping building built in 1982 obscured it.

A glass case in the office area displays interesting company memorabilia. Examples: Pictures of US marshals using Master Locks to lock-up speak-easies during prohibition. The original laminated padlock made in 1921 by Harry Soref (1887-1957), inventor of the laminated padlock and founder of Master Lock Company. Then there's the famous Number 5 lock used in the filming of the company's first TV commercial in 1967. It was fired upon at close range with a .44 magnum pistol and held tight. The commercial was immediately taken off the air because of fears gun owners would hurt themselves trying to imitate the shooting. This commercial however inspired the filming in 1973 of Master Lock's now famous "Tough Under Fire" commercial, in which a Number 15 is fired upon with a high powered rifle and holds.

The company does a good business in Canada selling locks for handguns. Why? The law in Canada requires handguns to have locks.

Harley-Davidson, Inc.

About a mile from Master Lock and still in a rough part of town sits the six-story, 500,000 square foot headquarters/warehouse of Harley-Davidson (1993 revenues $1.2 billion, loss $12 million). The red brick structure looks to be about 50 years old and its location has historical significance: the company was founded in 1903 and Harley-Davidson's first factory site-a 10x15-foot shed built in 1907-stood a block away.

Taking center stage in the second floor reception area are two Harley-Davidson motorcycles from different eras; one's a puny-looking 1903 model (looking more like a souped-up bicycle) and the other's a powder blue, monster-size, 1994 "Fat Boy" with a price tag of over $14,000. Several pictures of the founders; William Harley and the three Davidson brothers hang on a wall near the two cycles. Checking in with the two receptionists I note the counter top area done in black leather.

Tony May, public relations intern, answers my questions sitting in the company cafeteria called the "Red Brick Cafe". Across the hall an up-to-date fitness center with the usual weights and training machines is available to the 300 employees.

Harley-Davidson puts out an impressive mail order catalog, which puts The Sharper Image's version to shame. Paging through, there's everything from a $300 Harley-Davidson neon wall clock to a HO Harley Davidson train set ($100) to an international stamp collection containing authentic stamps from around the world featuring Harley models ($160).

CEO Teerlink's corner office contains (surprise!) a three-foot tall scale model of an Electra Glide Classic cycle, a bronze called "Campsite" which depicts a cyclist looking for a place to sleep, a boomerang shaped desk and, a stand up desk. Overlooking the triangular boardroom table in the boardroom are four, 24x36 pictures of early Harley-Davidson cycles.

It's cold and very windy today which is how May explains the lack of "hogs" in the company parking lot (that's slang for Harley-Davidson cycles). Geez, what a bunch of wimps, the elements don't stop this biker from hitting the road.