Johnson Coil In Antigo Marks 80th Anniversary

For the principals at Johnson Electric Coil Company, it’s all about the people first—their customers and their employees—with the product second.

“Transformers are just what we make,” Bill Bockes, CEO, said. “The organization and all the people in it are really what we’re all about.”

Johnson Electric Coil is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, an admirable goal for any business but one made more special by the tight-knit, motivated group of owners and employees who serve as the nucleus of eight decades of success.

“People are the most important part of our company,” Bill Johnson, who now serves in an emeritus role after spending his entire work life honing the business, said.

Johnson Electric Coil was started in Illinois on Jan. 1, 1934 by Lawrence Johnson, one day after he lost his job with a electrical manufacturer. It was the height of the Great Depression, but Johnson still vowed never again to work for someone else. He had a wife, young family and $200 in cash.

His son, Bill, was seven years old at the time.

“He started our business in the basement of his house,” Johnson recalled. “He was probably the most wonderful man I ever knew.”

The business filled a niche, repairing, rather than replacing, the neon transformers common in the day. With Lawrence, and then Bill at the helm, it grew steadily, eventually constructing a new facility in Elmhurst, Ill. in 1966, two years after its founder’s death.

But, as Johnson recalled, a shallow and unreliable labor pool soured the company on Elmhurst and it looked to Wisconsin and eventually Antigo.

The company established a small presence on North Clermont Street, which Johnson said was “kind of like putting your foot in the water” and later jumped whole-heartedly into the local manufacturing pool, constructing a 37,500 square foot facility at its current location on Watson Street, adjacent to Spring Brook.

“That was quite an undertaking,” Johnson said. “But we found people who were willing to work and who are dependable.”

Johnson Electric Coil has repaid that work ethic in many ways. It strives to place workers in suitable jobs through the health care department’s supported worker program, offers quarterly bonuses to employees based on pre-tax profits, and in the past 10 years has donated $178,000 to local organizations and causes.

“We try to support a wide variety of things in the community,” Bockes said. “We like to make our donations on the local level.”

Johnson has stepped down from active management, although he’s in the office every day. His daughter, Beth Bockes, is chairman of the board with her husband filling the CEO role.

It’s a good fit, augmented by other board members. Over a quarter of the company is also owned by the employees.

The company continued to grow, expanding its plant footprint to 42,500 square feet and, in 2013, working with the University of Wisconsin-Stout to retool, improve and publish a new Quality Manual System that enabled it to recapture some business that had previously drifted overseas.

The modern Johnson Electric Coil plant is sparkling and efficient, certainly one of the cleanest manufacturing operations anywhere, a testament to that day 80 years ago when Lawrence Johnson said he was done working for someone else.

“Under Bill’s and Beth’s direction, it is a successful company and we’re all very proud of that,” Johnson said.

A portrait of company founder Lawrence Johnson remains on display in his granddaughter’s office, and the Viking ship logo serves as a lasting tribute to his Icelandic determination.

Johnson, and Bockes, said there is much more to come.

Bill Bockes and Bill Johnson on the floor of Johnson Electric Coil, celebrating its 80th year.