Founded a century ago, Fredonia’s Petersen Products continues today under family ownership as a supplier to the mining and pipeline industries
With a history that now spans 100 years, Fredonia’s Petersen Products has witnessed a lot of changes in the world.
The key to that longevity, according to company president Phil L. Lundman, has been flexibility and responsiveness to customer needs.
“I read that 90% of businesses fail in the first five years,” Lundman said.
“We have been through a lot of challenges where we could easily have failed, but I think a family business is more likely to weather those things than a company that has to answer to investors.”
As a family-owned company, its history involves a bit of genealogy.
The roots of the company lie in Denmark, the country George Petersen — Lundman’s grandfather — left in 1900 at the age of 27 to find his fortune in America.
Petersen was the epitome of resourcefulness, making his living building houses, working on the railroad and as a butcher.
In his spare time, he patented several inventions, including an inflatable device to clear clogged waste lines at the butcher shop.
Petersen relied on family members and friends to produce the device, and began marketing it from a house on Milwaukee’s South Side. Variations of that design in a wide range of sizes are still made by the company.
The family business withstood countless hardships, including food shortages, the Great Depression and staggering war economies.
Ever the hard worker, Petersen eventually suffered a stroke and his wife, Rosa, stepped in to run the business.
Lundman’s father, Philip E. Lundman, grew up in a North Dakota orphanage but wound up in the Midwest after stowing away on a train.
It was here that he met and eventually married Eleanor Petersen, daughter of George and Rosa Petersen.
Working alongside members of the Petersen family, Lundman became deeply involved with the company and assisted with its relocation to Tennessee.
He and his wife eventually purchased the business, often recruiting the help of their three eldest children — Faith, Judith and Philip L. — to help with production.
“I remember working on a lathe when I was six years old, standing on an apple crate,” the younger Lundman said.
After serving four years in the U.S. Air Force, he helped move the business to Milwaukee after Rosa Petersen died.
The company came to Fredonia in 1973, largely thanks to the encouragement of then-Village President Tom Pintar.
Lundman recalls that the building the company moved to on Wheeler Street “was a disaster,” but they rehabbed and expanded it. It also came with 20 acres of land that eventually became home to apartments and home sites.
The company began to prosper as it supplied products to Sears, Walmart, K-mart and many other retailers, although it borrowed heavily to finance operations.
When the cost of steel needed for a line of automotive products skyrocketed and interest rates soared in the 1970s, the company started Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.
After a reorganization plan was approved, the company weathered the crisis and got out of debt in 18 months.
When Lundman was forced to deal with some health problems, he sold the automotive aftermarket business and turned the company’s attention to the pipe clearing devices.
That has evolved into products used around the globe in the mining and pipeline industries.
A collection of case studies document the success of Petersen products, including a system used to salvage a $2 billion uranium mine from a massive flood in Canada and assistance in developing a lunar lander prototype for NASA.
Diversification returned in 1996 when the company added a wastewater division managed by Lundman’s son-in-law, Tony Birrittieri.
At its peak, the company had as many as 125 employees. Today, it has about 45.
“We make a point of keeping under 50 now to avoid federal complications with things like Obama Care,” Lundman said.
The 100 years of challenges and successes will be celebrated during an open house for the public from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 21, at 421 Wheeler Ave.
Plant tours, refreshments and entertainment are planned.
“I don’t have any idea how many people will come, but we have had a lot of people work here over the years,” Lundman said.
Image Information: PETERSEN PRODUCTS President Phil Lundman, the grandson of the company’s founder, said that being a family owned business has helped the Fredonia company survive challenges over the 100 years it’s been in existence. Photo by Mark Jaeger