Stewarding a Family Business for the Future
Kaspar Companies has left its imprint on Shiner as surely as Shiner has left its imprint on the international business and the family who has owned and operated it since the founding in 1898.
“Ours is an All-American story,” said Doug Kaspar, fourth generation owner and board of directors’ member.
The first Kaspar to arrive in America was a Swiss immigrant and missionary who delivered the Gospel and his family to South Central Texas in the 1870s. When barbed wire replaced smooth wire fences, his son August, a farm hand, used the discarded smooth wire to hand weave a basket for farm use. A neighbor bought it for $1. One basket at a time, $1 at a time, this humble enterprise became a full-time business named Kaspar Wire Works.
Today, the fifth generation of Kaspars are leading Kaspar Companies and its nine diverse subsidiaries into the 21st Century. Today’s company includes business-to-business custom manufacturing, truck grille guards and aftermarket beds, custom firearms and accessories, housing developments, an advertising agency, and a precious metals company. Depending on the season, the business employs 450-500 people; its manufacturing footprint encompasses 600,000 square feet.
“If we were in a big city like Houston, we wouldn’t have the impact that we do here,” Kaspar said. “Being in Shiner forced a sense of self-reliance throughout our whole company. If we needed something done, we had to figure out how to do it ourselves—and make it work.”
As you come into Shiner on Texas Highway 95 from the north, Kaspar Companies sits on the left while Spoetzl Brewery, maker of Shiner Beer, sits within eyeshot on the right just on the outskirts of the town. If you continue on 95 through its intersection with Texas Highway 90 and take a jog over on FM 966, you will find Boedeker Plastics.
Each of these businesses has been operating—and employing its neighbors—for decades. Collectively, the three companies provide about 700 jobs. The stable manufacturing base gives the town, population 2,069, an economic foundation that creates a level of prosperity uncommon in a region known for its agricultural production.
“Agriculture is a good way of life, but it is very difficult to get ahead,” Kaspar said. “With a manufacturing base, capital through wages is infused into the whole community and helps raise the quality of life for everyone.”
Shiner is known for the quality of its schools. The public system is often in the running for the coveted Lone Star Cup from the University Interscholastic League for exceptional performance in academics and athletics. St. Paul, the local private school, is equally successful among its peers.
Philanthropy has allowed for public gathering spaces such as the Arthur Kaspar Pavilion and arts such as the Gaslight Theatre housed in a restored 1890s opera house. A collective sense of community benefits benevolent organizations ranging from Rotary Club and Boy Scouts to the volunteer fire department and FFA.
“Having three stable, long-term employers gives people of all walks of life the ability to provide time and money to support the things in the community that are important to them,” said Cherise Kaspar Ratliff, president of the Kaspar subsidiaries Espresso and Silverback Homes. “It’s good for the town and everyone in it.”
The town, first settled in 1885 as a train stop named Half Moon, retains the neat-as-a-pin character and historic charm commonly associated with towns founded by industrious German and Czech settlers.
“Back in his day, my great-grandfather Arthur oversaw the installation of curbs along many of Shiner’s streets and neighborhoods,” said Cherise Kasper Ratliff, a fifth generation family business leader who is president of the Kaspar subsidiaries Espresso and Silverback Homes. “It’s a little thing, but it’s representative of a positive attitude and community pride, it gives Shiner a more polished, finished feel than many small towns.”
And although Shiner offers exceptional small-town life, small-town living isn’t for everyone. While its location, which is roughly equidistant from Austin, San Antonio, and Houston is ideal for shipping, young people and other potential employees respond to the big cities’ siren songs. Gone are the days when all of the company’s workforce and talent was homegrown.
“Our biggest challenge—and it’s not unique to us—is workforce,” Kaspar said. “Today young people have more opportunities. Overall people are more mobile and less likely to stay with a job long-term. America just isn’t growing skilled manufacturing workers like it once did.”
With that said, he noted that Kaspar Companies is blessed with an exceptional team from top leadership throughout its administrative offices and manufacturing floors. Many have been with the company for decades and many for 40 years or more. Kaspar himself has worked in the business full-time for 39 years.
“I’ve always lived in Shiner. I went to the same high school that my father and my sons did,” Kaspar said. “Many of the people who work at the business are classmates or school mates or neighbors or fellow church members or connected in some other way.
“It’s not ‘us’ and ‘them’. It’s just us. This is our community.”
Through the years Kaspar Companies has evolved, responding to changes in society, technology and the marketplace.
“When you’re in business for 120 years you have to reinvent yourself,” Kaspar said.
Whether the company was navigating the Great Depression, contributing to the War effort in the 1940s or booming along with America through its economic heydays, three things have remained constant: family, versatility and stewardship. Today, these serve as the Kaspar Companies’ core values.
Family-owned and run businesses rarely survive to the fifth generation.
“We’re all very aware that a multi-generational business is rare, especially one to reach the fifth generation,” said Ratliff, who is one of five fifth generation family members involved in the business. “We have a choice. We can either stir up all the challenges that exist within a long-running family business or we can walk in grace and lean into our respective strengths to move the business forward.”
Through the generations, the Kaspars have chosen to recognize respective strengths and honor the gift of talent that has been present within each generation.
“In a family business there’s no guarantee subsequent generations have the entrepreneurial skills, drive or interest the founder did,” Kaspar said. “We’ve been blessed with people in each generation who have had the capabilities and the drive to carry the business forward.”
For the Kaspars, the line between business and family is invisible. As students, the fourth generation grew up spending holidays, weekends and summers working in all departments. The fifth generation grew up playing hide and seek in the factory at night and throwing bouncy balls down the 150-foot long halls as their dads worked after hours.
Everyone, regardless of the generation, enjoyed finding the “Manufactured in Shiner, Texas” tags on Sho-Rack newspaper racks, a market Kaspar dominated for decades, throughout the country and the world. Business was the primary topic of conversation at family get togethers.
Despite the business’ omnipresence, preceding generations never saddled succeeding generations with the expectation they should return to Kaspar Companies.
“The business has provided family members a potential career and the opportunity to be here, but it’s always been an opportunity, not an expectation,” Kaspar said, noting one son works in the family business and one does not.
The family has never embraced a formal process to prepare the next generation to take the reins.
“I’m not sure you train leadership into anyone who doesn’t have those qualities as part of their makeup already,” Kaspar said. “We encourage people to learn the business by working in it—and then rising to where their strengths take them.”
And the name Kaspar doesn’t guarantee a rise to the top.
“Honestly, I think it’s more difficult to get your ideas heard and move up in the company if you’re a family member,” Ratliff said. “You have to be the right person with the right insight, skills, talent and passion to move a project forward—or the family will just shut you down.”
Of course, a family business, regardless of how strong, involves complicated family dynamics.
“The biggest challenge of any business is doing business, but when you add the word ‘family’ into the mix then family dynamics can be the biggest challenge,” Kaspar said.
For Ratliff, whose brother Jason was named CEO after working in the company for 10 years, mutual respect is the key.
“Having my brother as the CEO means that I probably am able to say things to him that I’d never be able to say to another boss,” said Ratliff, noting that all of the fifth generation Kaspar leaders have different responsibilities and different compensation based on their roles. “But at the end of the day, I don’t envy him. He has the weight of the whole operation on his shoulders—and he prepared himself by working outside and inside the company for this job.
“Our company works, I think, because we’ve relaxed into our strengths and committed ourselves to working together.”
In addition to respect, Kaspar has always kept his eye on the bigger picture when it came to business and family.
“Family dynamics is something that some companies haven’t been able to work through, but we have,” Kaspar said. “I give credit to our strong faith and eternal perspective. For me, an understanding of stewardship [another core value] makes it clear that this company isn’t just mine, which shifts the perspective to others’ points of view and makes it easier to share.”
The Kaspar family has samples of wire farm baskets, the company’s original products. On the oldest one built in the late 1800s, the wire weave is uneven and the twists vary throughout. The other, made a few years later, is much more uniform. The difference? A hand tool developed by August Kaspar that allowed workers to twist the wire mechanically increasing efficiency and uniformity.
“Innovation and adaptability are part of our historic culture,” Kaspar said.
Through the years that’s meant developing processes, tools and systems in-house to solve problems. Sometimes those solutions such as electrocoagulation have led to other business opportunities. Company engineers developed electrocoagulation, a process using electricity and polarization, to clean waste water resulting from electroplating. The technology had many applications and was eventually sold to BakerCorp Inc. for use in the oil field.
Other times, it’s meant acquiring and divesting businesses, such as Bassick Enterprises, that manufactured furniture casters. Or perhaps, acquiring and growing businesses such as Ranch Hand, a truck accessories company that is now a core business. It has since spun off a subsidiary and prompted the creation of another one.
And it’s also meant creating proprietary products such as Sho-Rack, a coin-operated newspaper rack that at one time held a 90 percent market share. At its zenith, Kaspar earned the contract to redesign and replace all of USA Today’s racks, which swelled the ranks of Kaspar employees to upwards of 1,000. The business was shuttered when consumers began to get their news digitally, reducing the demand for daily newspapers and their attendant racks.
“There were a lot of emotions attached to Sho-Rack, but, as a business you have to adapt or die,” Kaspar said. “We don’t make farm baskets and horse muzzles anymore either because the world doesn’t use them.”
In 2015, the company began its largest transformation to date. Primary leadership was transferred from the fourth generation to the fifth when Jason Kaspar was named CFO, and later CEO. For the first time, two business professionals from outside the family were included on the board of directors creating a family-led, but not exclusive, board of directors.
The original manufacturing company, formerly known as Kaspar Wire Works, was renamed Kaspar Manufacturing and moved to reside as one of nine subsidiaries of Kaspar Companies. Over the past few years, the company moved from the Berkshire Hathaway business model where individual businesses operate independently of one another to a Danaher model where philosophies of the umbrella company infiltrate and influence each subsidiary.
“Since 2015, we’ve been involved in a massive culture shift,” Ratliff said.
The current phase of the shift involves the company wide implementation of the Lean philosophy. Lean, originating in Japan’s manufacturing arena, is designed to create value and eliminate waste, allowing manufacturing companies to respond more nimbly to market demands by moving away from batch processing to building individual pieces on a shorter turnaround. It allows the engagement of employees from top management to the factory floor in improving the system.
“Cultural shifts aren’t nearly as easy as product shifts,” Ratliff said. “But in today’s world, it’s not enough just to do more—you have to do it better.”
“It’s not been easy, but we’ve set the business on a defining course for its future.”
As a family, the Kaspars never lose sight of the past or the future.
“I’m keenly aware of being generationally blessed,” Kaspar said. “This business is a direct result of what the righteous men and women before us did.”
With the blessing comes a wider responsibility.
“A family business comes with obligation and duty as well as blessing and opportunity, especially in a small town,” Ratliff said. “What we do here has direct impact beyond our own family. It’s rewarding—and humbling—to know we’re investing our time in something that can affect people for years and generations to come.”
As the family moves the business ever forward, the legacy will likely not be that of an individual, a single product or a business model.
“I liken the legacy—I’m now preparing to pass—to a baton, and it will resemble the baton that was passed to me,” Kaspar said. “The baton I received wasn’t a single thing but a group of values. Those values—as our history proves—provide a framework that’s strong and flexible enough to carry the business forward in a world where the only constant is change.”
by Lorie A. Woodward
photos courtesy of the Kaspar Companies