When Todd Wanek was a junior at University of Wisconsin-Stout in 1987, he heard a Cabot Executive in Residence presentation by C.R. Whitney, CEO of Milwaukee manufacturer Allen-Bradley.
Allen-Bradley had opened a then-state-of-the-art, computer-aided “Factory of the Future” that helped cut the cost of making starters for motors by 30 percent. “That Cabot presentation (on industrial automation) was very impactful for me,” Wanek said.
Thirty years later, the 1988 UW-Stout graduate was back on campus hoping to make a similar impact on a new generation of college students. Now the president and CEO of Ashley Furniture Industries Inc., Wanek delivered his own Cabot presentation Thursday, Oct. 26, to an overflowing crowd at the Memorial Student Center.
He detailed how Ashley has grown from one plant, opened in 1970 by his father, Ron, in Arcadia to becoming the largest furniture manufacturer in the world, with sales of more than $5 billion annually.
The company was built from the ground up by the Wanek family — founder and former CEO Ron Wanek grew up on a farm in Winona, Minn. — and one that has remained headquartered in the small west-central Wisconsin city of Arcadia.
In his presentation, Todd Wanek drove home the point time and again, however, that Ashley’s impressive success couldn’t have happened and won’t continue — recalling Whitney’s presentation on Allen-Bradley in 1987 — unless Ashley stays ahead of the competition by harnessing existing and emerging technology to its fullest, including such things as robotics — 500 new robots will be installed in Ashley manufacturing facilities in the next two years — and even virtual reality to help customers envision how Ashley furniture will look in their homes.
“Technology is our biggest challenge (in industry). We’re evolving into a tech company. That’s why we’re here talking to UW-Stout right now. We think you can be in the forefront of technology,” Wanek said.
“What you’re doing here is not being done by many universities. What this university does and stands for is greatness,” he added.
As part of the Cabot Executive in Residence program, Todd Wanek, along with Ron Wanek, chairman of the board for Ashley, toured UW-Stout labs and campus and met with university officials, including Chancellor Bob Meyer.
“We’re extremely proud of what Todd has accomplished,” Meyer said.
Todd Wanek said it was his first time visiting campus since he graduated. “I’m so excited to be back. I’ve been busy,” he said, the latter remark drawing laughs from the audience.
Dirt under his fingernails
Wanek’s degree at UW-Stout is in industrial technology; the Bachelor of Science program today is called engineering technology. He knew, even as a college student, that he would go into the family business. He often left campus to return to Arcadia at night and weekends to load trucks and work on the company’s assembly line, calling himself a dirty-fingernails, hands-on learner.
“I took every opportunity to work,” he said, while also citing the education he received a UW-Stout, including professors who became mentors to him.
Ashley “was small back then,” he said, but he helped change all that. Sent overseas by his father, who knew that Ashley had to become a global player in the furniture industry or wither, Todd lived for five years in Asia working at Ashley’s Taiwan manufacturing and distribution center, developing supply chain and manufacturing bases throughout the region, including China as it began to embrace free trade.
“It was a tremendous opportunity to learn about world manufacturing. It was the best five years of my life,” he said.
When he returned to the U.S., he oversaw Ashley’s 1994 purchase and expansion of an upholstery facility in Ecru, Miss., that has become the largest in the world, more than 2 million square feet covering 100 acres.
Just eight years after graduating from UW-Stout, he was named Ashley president and chief operations officer in 1996. He became CEO in 2002. In those six years, Ashley’s revenues grew from $200 million to $1 billion.
A company with drive, vision
Todd Wanek explained how Ashley has risen to the top in a highly competitive industry through a combination of drive and vision.
“We’re a company with grit and will find a way to do things better. We’re always looking for a way to reinvent ourselves,” he said.
For example, by cutting waste the company today can produce a sofa for $169 that cost $219 to make in 1994. Change starts at the top: CEO Todd Wanek once attended lean manufacturing classes at Ashley presented by Ted Theyerl of UW-Stout’s Manufacturing Outreach Center.
Ashley is so diverse in its operations that it exports furniture to 123 countries but also is the largest importer of furniture in the U.S., and it’s vertically integrated, controlling the manufacturing process from raw materials through distribution and point of purchase at its Ashley HomeStores.
“You can’t just be good at one thing,” he said. “We have a mentality of being hyper-competitive in everything we do.”
Ashley has grown from 35,000 square feet of manufacturing space in 1970 to more than 17.5 million square feet, and in the past five years sales have shot up about 25 percent to $5.25 billion, he said.
“We believe in the art of the possible. I’m a product of this university, a product of positive thinking,” he said. “You have to find a way to improve.”