Made in the Tri-States: E.J. Voggenthaler Co. celebrates history, quality

Alex Mihalakis welds steel framing. PHOTO CREDIT: NICKI KOHL

Kevin Kisting admits that there is “nothing to boast about” when it comes to the headquarters of E.J. Voggenthaler Co. in Dubuque.

The manufacturer has called the same nondescript building, located at 400 E. Seventh St., home since 1944. It now covers about 25,000 square feet and houses the company’s 10 employees.

“I like to joke that the nickel tour here only costs four cents,” said Kisting, now the business’ sole owner.

Kisting’s lighthearted nature, however, is countered by an intense pride he feels for the business.

The 66-year-old has worked at E.J. Voggenthaler full time for 49 years. He represents the fourth generation of a family that has been at the helm of a business that has operated in Dubuque for 128 years.

E.J. Voggenthaler Co. is a metal fabricator. The company has provided the steel for countless structures throughout the tri-state area and beyond.

Kisting said Voggenthaler steel forms the backbone of commercial buildings housing Kane Family Dentistry and the Nordstrom distribution center, as well as facilities at Loras College, Clarke University and University of Dubuque.

But he insists that the company’s success cannot be measured by the buildings it has helped construct.

“Everybody these days says they built their business on service,” Kisting said. “It’s become so cliched. But that has truly been the mantra of this firm from day one.”

LONG HISTORY

E.J. Voggenthaler started the company in 1890.

While Kisting never met the founder, he speaks about him with a palpable sense of admiration.

“He was a bit of a Henry Ford,” Kisting said. “He was an extraordinarily talented and gifted man — a visionary who was light-years ahead of his time.”

The initial headquarters for E.J. Voggenthaler Co. was located about a block north from the current facility. The current building was constructed using steel that Voggenthaler himself fabricated.

After Voggenthaler died, his daughter, Leona Voggenthaler, took the helm. She remained the leader until passing away in 1966.

It was then that Kisting’s mother, Virginia Voggenthaler, took the reins of the business. She had been working there for 38 years, having started at the company at the age of 17.

She would continue to work there until 2005, marking a career with E.J. Voggenthaler that spanned the better part of 77 years.

Even with his mom running the business, Kisting had to earn his way onto the payroll.

“When I was a youngster, I did some hijinks in the plant and was taught, ‘If you do that again, you won’t have a job,’” he recalled. “’You won’t work here simply because you are the boss’ kid.’”

Kisting began working at E.J. Voggenthaler Co. in 1966 and started working full time four years later.

Both of his brothers also have worked at the company. Bob retired from the firm six years ago. The oldest of the family, Joseph, worked there until dying in a boating accident in 1985.

CLOSE RELATIONSHIPS

When one speaks with Kisting’s clients, it becomes clear that his emphasis on service is more than just a mantra.

The company sells steel to a variety of customers, from farmers to contractors. Their purchase could range from a bulk sale to a single piece.

The company also provides fabrication services for large-scale projects. Employees begin with raw materials before cutting, welding, notching, coping, bending, painting and delivering them to customers.

Rob Rands is president of Midwest Builders, a small commercial general contracting company based in Fennimore, Wis. He often calls upon E.J. Voggenthaler Co. to help his company out of a bind.

“There are a lot of times when we ask them to do something spur of the moment, when there is a problem in the field and we need them to jump on it now,” Rands said. “That’s where they are so good. They don’t say, ‘In a couple of weeks,’ or ‘We’ll do it when we can find the time.’ They jump on it now.”

Ryan Fecht, a project manager at Epic Construction, also has worked with E.J. Voggenthaler Co. for years.

He characterized the company as one that it proud of its history.

“When you walk in the front door, you see a picture of (Kisting’s) mother,” Fecht said. “That just shows the history of it. I know they have been in Dubuque for a long time. And it’s that customer service that keeps them in business.”

STICKING TOGETHER

The company now employs 10 workers, according to Kisting.

He said the company has a “very long-term rank and file,” noting that one employee has been there for 51 years. Multiple others have been with the company more than 20.

Kisting’s connection to the workers dates back to before he had even begun working there.

“As a child, I had been taught a reverence for the old guys who were working here,” he said. “I had respect for them before I even knew them because I had heard about the kind of craftsmen they were.”

Kisting has maintained that reverence through the years. Today, he hopes his management reflects the respect he holds for his workers.

He claims the company has never laid off a full-time employee in the 128 years of its existence.

“We’ve worked very hard for four generations to make those people know they are appreciated,” he said. “We want to give them as much job security as there can possibly be on planet Earth.”