Whether it’s a toy wagon or fancy wine rack, Wisconsin Wagon Company never has a shortage of orders. Discover the mentality that drives this company’s success.
In a digital age, how does a company that makes toy wagons by hand stay successful? And how is “success” defined?
The owners of Wisconsin Wagon Company, in Janesville, say their purpose transcends making a profit. Every business can describe what it does, no matter how big or small the organization. But Wisconsin Wagon Company goes deeper. It doesn’t start with what it does; it focuses on why it makes wagons in the first place.
“We purchased the company because we wanted to keep the Janesville name alive,” says Britten Langfoss, general manager. “When you see ‘Janesville’ written on a wagon, it evokes a feeling of nostalgia. We’re part of the story where grandparents and grandchildren are connected by a gift that can be passed down for generations.”
The company began in the late 1800s, under the name “Wisconsin Carriage Company,” which made quality buggies, carriages, sleighs and cutters. When the introduction of the automobile adversely affected the business, it rebranded to “Janesville Products Company” and diversified its items; coaster wagons, “skudder” cars and other sidewalk toys became available in 1915.
“Those products were highly advertised,” Langfoss says. “The brand had a nationwide reputation.”
Unfortunately, after the Great Depression hit, the company was forced to close its doors in 1940. Wooden wagons with “Janesville” in red paint were no longer available.
Still, the nostalgic brand lived on in people’s memories.
Nearly 40 years had passed when, in 1978, a retired businessman wanted to give his grandson a Janesville wooden wagon – something identical to what he treasured owning as a boy.
But the Janesville coaster wagons he sought were no longer in production.
“So, he actually took apart a Janesville wagon he found in his friend’s garage, and went – sketchbook in hand – to the local historical society, did a bunch of research and started making them himself,” Langfoss says. “He thought this would be a fun retirement project.”
Thus began the new generation of the Wisconsin Wagon Company – a brand that’s motivated by the joy its products bring to customers. The retired businessman had a reason why he wanted to make wagons, which motivated him to assemble a durable product that could be passed down as an heirloom.
Passion and purpose still brings success to Wisconsin Wagon Company. Langfoss and her family continue the tradition of making high-quality wagons and other products that symbolize a loving relationship between the gift giver and receiver.
“I’ve literally felt like Santa’s elf before,” Langfoss says. “We once had a very last-minute order before Christmas, and of course some important equipment had to break right then. Getting that wagon delivered on time on Christmas Eve was so hectic – I literally almost drove it there myself. But it got there – that grandparent was able to give his grandson a wagon on Christmas.”
From start to finish, it takes about 10 hours to make a wagon, and usually they’re made 10 at a time.
The majority of Wisconsin Wagon Company employees are retired from their first careers, including the four men who make the wagons: Nate, Kirk, Bob and Mike. Each has his own area of expertise, but each man can easily shift into another person’s role.
Nate is the main woodworker and metalworker. Kirk assembles the products, while Bob has a knack for putting a finish on evenly. Mike, the newest employee, floats from task to task, though he primarily helps with the woodworking and sanding.
“We’re pretty lucky to have these four guys who make all of our products,” Langfoss says. “They’re retired, but they’re here and they’re perfectionists with each step of the process.”
Since 1915, there have only been a handful of changes to the wagons. For greater longevity, the products are now made with screws instead of nails, and stainless steel hardware. The wagons no longer have brakes – one of the few design changes.
“Kids don’t typically use wagons the same way – they aren’t racing them down hills,” Langfoss says. “And, funny enough, the brake used to be the part that broke the most often.”
The rest of the features have stayed the same over the years.
“We literally make everything start to finish,” Langfoss says. “We even make our metal items here. The human labor factor is important – this isn’t just some toy off the shelf that’s going to break in two years.”
Wisconsin Wagon Company primarily sells products to people within the region, though Langfoss has shipped wagons as far as Taiwan.
Interestingly enough, a large portion of customers live on Fire Island off the state of New York.
“They don’t have motorized vehicles on Fire Island, so people need wagons to haul their groceries and other items home,” Langfoss says. “Since our wagons are well-built, they last longer than our metal or plastic competitors.”
About 490 people live on the island. After Hurricane Sandy devastated the community in 2012, many wagons were washed away, meaning many new orders came in to Wisconsin Wagon Company.
“It’s amazing Hurricane Sandy impacted us way out here in Janesville, but it did,” Langfoss says. “It was a lot of work to keep up with the demand, but we have some of the best customers out there. We’ve actually been offered a place to stay – it’s amazing how people really love our product that much that they call, or write, and tell us we can come visit.”
Wisconsin Wagon Company’s workshop has a wall of photos from happy customers.
“We get pictures all the time,” Langfoss says. “Kids unwrapping the wagons, riding in them – it’s so much fun.”
Besides wagons, Wisconsin Wagon Company has rocking horses, wheelbarrows, sleds and even wagon wine racks that hold up to six bottles of wine. Some products can ship out the next day, depending on inventory. If customers have a personalized request, such as an engraving of a child’s name on a toy, this can take more time.
The company also takes on specialized projects.
“We’ve had requests for coffee tables made out of our largest sized wagon,” Langfoss says. “You can put whatever items you want in the wagon and then put glass on top of it, like a shadow box. We’ve also had someone put a lift kit on a wagon and drive it around at a car show. Those projects are really fun for the guys.”
Visitors can tour Wisconsin Wagon Company upon request in groups of up to 18 people at a time. Tours last about an hour and cost $3 per person. Orders for products can be made online at wisconsinwagon.com or by calling (608) 754-0026.