Langlade County Economic Development Corporation plays key role in succession plan for Johnson Electric Coil
With assistance from the Langlade County Economic Development Corporation, the future is bright for Johnson Electric Coil in Antigo.
The manufacturer, a key player in the niche market of industrial transformers, has been purchased by Julie Berndt, who started at the company shortly after high school in 1991 and worked her way up the corporate structure to become president in 2021 and, as of January 1, 2022, owner. In a way, it is the end of an era, since the change in ownership marks the first time in the company’s 88-year history that it has not been led by a member of the Johnson family.
This is the right time and I am comfortable with the position,” Berndt says. “This is more than just a job to me. Everyone has a purpose here. We are making a difference for the customers who we serve, the people we employ, and the community we are a part of. It’s all about keeping the jobs in Antigo.”
Berndt was assisted in the process by Angie Close, Executive Director of the Langlade County Economic Development Corporation (LCEDC) and the Central Wisconsin Economic Development Fund (CWED).
“At EDC, we took the role in helping to determine what the succession plan for the business should look like and asked, ‘how can we help?’,” Close explains.
Most of the dollars were secured privately, but Close also used her expertise and office to leverage a variety of programs through CWED, a regional loan program established by the consolidation of state-funded Community Development Block Grant Revolving Loan Funds within central Wisconsin. That provided the needed gap funding, covering the portion of costs that private lenders were either unwilling or unable to cover.
“A lot of times, private lenders can’t do the full portion of the financing,” Close explains. “This program offers favorable terms and is often a better solution for closing the gap in funding for businesses. The numbers really speak for themselves.”
“If I hadn’t had that resource, I could not have done this,” Berndt says.
When Berndt started at Johnson Coil, she was placed in the accounting office, which she admits “wasn’t my strong suit.” It quickly became apparent she had a natural rapport with customers and fellow employees, allowing for an easy transition into management and human resources.
“I discovered I have a passion for the world of manufacturing,” she says. “My objective is to improve the overall image of manufacturing in the U.S. and interest others in it as a career.”
It was a natural fit, but it brought a mix of opportunities and concerns. As she continued with the company, Berndt was also growing her own family, and she lacked the formal education that was becoming increasingly necessary.
Staying true to its mission of caring for employees as family, Johnson Electric Coil financed her continuing education, first a two-year associate degree at Northcentral Technical College and then bachelor’s and master’s degrees in industrial management from the University of Wisconsin-Stout.
At times, splitting time between school, work, and family—in an era before in-home Internet and online programs—was a challenge. But Berndt balanced all three successfully, crediting the company, her family, and the employees in accomplishing her educational goals.
Berndt was promoted to general manager in 2008, vice-president of operations in 2017, and added to the board of directors that same year.
She helped shepherd the company through the economic downfall of the 2008 recession and the challenges of the 2020 pandemic. The 2000s also saw the implementation of lean manufacturing, a production method aimed primarily at eliminating waste, optimizing processes, cutting costs, and boosting innovation in volatile markets.
“It was stressful and chaotic, but we knew it was the right thing to do to sustain the company,” Berndt says.
Johnson Electric Coil designs and builds transformers for industrial manufacturers and the machine tool industry. It was founded by Lawrence Johnson in Illinois in 1934 and continued by his son, William, who moved the company north to Antigo in the 1970s. Bill Bockes became president in 1986 and in 2004 he and his wife, Beth, who is William’s daughter, took over ownership, until the sale to Berndt early this year.
The business offers complete design, engineering, and manufacturing services to create efficient, value-based custom transformers and inductors. To date, Johnson Electric Coil has manufactured nearly 17,000 unique transformers. Sales totaled nearly $9 million in 2020.
Close said that Johnson Electric Coil is an excellent example of how public and private agencies can work together to spur economic development and save and produce good-paying jobs within a community. In the last year, over $700,000 has been awarded through CWED Fund to Langlade County businesses.
Back at Johnson Coil, Berndt says that she has always enjoyed the leadership role, and, even three decades ago, imagined herself one day owning the company.
“I thought it was pie in the sky,” she says. “But I never gave up.”