Made in the Tri-States: A winning formula – New owners thrive at the helm of 94-year-old company

Scott Smith fills beer line cleaner at Higley Industries. A pair of millennials has taken charge of the longtime Dubuque business, which provides a variety of cleaning products and floor finishes for industrial and residential customers. The products are created at its Dubuque location. PHOTO CREDIT: JESSICA REILLY

Higley Industries has called Dubuque home since 1923.

But as the company nears its 100th anniversary, a pair of millennials hope to breathe new life into the business.

Luke Hoffmann, 27, and Lance Hummel, 32, purchased Higley in March 2016.

Since taking over the business, the duo has introduced new products, expanded the company’s retail offerings and even tweaked some of the age-old formulas.

Hoffmann previously worked as a software trainer at Cartegraph, while Hummel was an engineer at John Deere Dubuque Works.

Realizing they wanted to pursue an entrepreneurial venture, the friends reached out to the previous owners of Higley in December 2015. Within four months, they had purchased the business.

Since then, they have “dived in” to the complex universe of cleaning products, aiming to improve and perfect the products they offer.

“I think we were a little over our heads in terms of all the new information at first,” Hoffmann said. “For both of us, though, our nature is to understand things as deeply as we can. We want to see things from every angle possible.”

WIDE

RANGE OF PRODUCTS

Within its facility at 585 Huff St., Higley creates more than 100 products.

Floor finish is among its most popular offerings. These products are applied to tile, cement and wood floors, extending the lives and improving the appearance of the surface.

Hummel noted that the products are used in local school gyms, grocery stores and more.

In addition to selling finishes, Higley employees apply them and train others how to do so.

“The objective is to be partners with the customers,” said Hummel. “We’re not just selling them the product. We are selling them the service and the knowledge base.”

Higley manufactures a wide range of cleaning products. It has recently expanded its offerings, introducing items like soap and even creating soap dispensers adorned with the Higley name. Many of these products are geared toward industrial customers. The company sells items that are used in the automotive and marine industry, as well as products that can be used by manufacturers.

But Higley’s offerings also include items that can be used in a home. Those products include toilet cleaner, all-purpose cleaner and glass cleaner.

Since Hoffmann and Hummel took the reins, Higley has expanded its retail presence. Their products now can be found at Hy-Vee stores in Dubuque and Nebraska. Items also are available in select Ace and True Value hardware stores.

As the company works to expand its presence, part of the battle is increasing name recognition.

Even though the company has been in Dubuque for nearly a century, Hoffmann admits Higley isn’t necessarily a recognized name.

“What we’ve learned is that, if you’re 55 years and up and you grew up in Dubuque, you’ve probably heard of Higley,” Hoffmann said. “But if you’re below that age, there’s probably only a 5- or 10-percent chance you’ve heard of the company. We hadn’t even heard of it until right before we bought it.”

The owners also have aimed to put their profits to good use.

A portion of the proceeds from most products sold at Higley goes to local charities, according to Hummel.

“That is a big point of emphasis for us,” he said. “As we grow, we want to make sure we are also giving back.”

A WI

NNING FORMULA

When it comes to creating products, everything starts with the formulas.

Hummel said the strength of Higley’s many products lies in their proprietary formulas, many of which date back to the company’s founding 94 years ago.

“Some of them date back to ’23, others date back to the 1940s, and a lot of them have evolved and been tweaked over time,” Hummel said. “In many cases, we have taken products that aren’t working as well as they should and we have worked to improve them.”

Hoffmann and Hummel both admit they are “not chemists by trade.” So when they decide it’s necessary to tweak an existing formula, or concoct a new one, they reach out to professional chemists in hopes of finding an ideal solution.

“We don’t have one chemist we go to for everything — we work with people who are experts in their specific fields,” Hoffmann said. “The process involves a lot of back and forth. We tell them what we think we need and they offer their professional opinions.”

Hummel explained that Higley works with a variety of vendors to bring in “the raws” — raw materials — that are necessary to create the products.

These proprietary formulas are transformed into finished products within Higley’s Huff Street facility, at which 10 workers are employed.

In addition to making sure ingredients are added in the proper volumes, staffers also must make sure they are mixed in the right order and allowed to interact for the proper amount of time.

The products are packaged on-site, with containers varying from 4 ounces to 275 gallons.

If the proper precautions aren’t taken, the processes can potentially be dangerous.

“Most of the finished products aren’t hazardous, but making the product can be if things are not done properly,” Hoffmann said. “That is why everything must be done the right way and everyone must wear the proper protective equipment, whether it is gloves or suits or goggles.”