Last fall, Jim Lindenberg sold Pewaukee-based World Class Wire & Cable Inc., the company he founded in 1995, for more than $60 million.
At the time of the sale, Lindenberg owned 80 percent of the company.
For most entrepreneurs, the sale would be a dream come true. Now, Lindenberg doesn’t have to work. If he wanted, his family could move somewhere warm and spend their days on the beach, sipping drinks with little umbrellas in them.
But they’re not doing that. Lindenberg, 50, still wants to work, but his priorities are now somewhat different. Instead of focusing on building his own business, Lindenberg wants to help others build their companies.
And through his recent purchase of the Milwaukee Wave, Lindenberg wants to help improve the quality of life in the Milwaukee area.
Lindenberg founded World Class Wire & Cable (WCW) in 1995 after he was passed up for a promotion by his previous employer, another wire and cable distributor. Over the next decade, WCW averaged double-digit revenue and employee growth. The company and Lindenberg received numerous awards, including being one of the Top 10 Small Businesses of the Year from the Waukesha County Chamber of Commerce, BizTimes Milwaukee’s Bravo! Entrepreneur Award, Wisconsin’s Small Business Person of the Year Award from the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Lake Michigan Area Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
Along with its success, WCW attracted several buyout offers.
“Personally, I never thought the company was for sale,” Lindenberg said. “I enjoyed working there and what we could do in the community. The thought never really crossed my mind.”
Timing is everything
However, in early 2008, Lindenberg’s perspective began changing as the wheels started coming off the U.S. economy. By June, he began serious negotiations to sell the company.
“The stock market crashed, copper started to crash and the economy started to crash,” he said. “There was kind of a message that this was the time. As a business owner and entrepreneur, I didn’t want to give my company away. But the offers were going up and up, and the economy was crashing. From a business decision (standpoint), this was the right thing to do.”
On Oct. 1, 2008, just before the U.S. economy shifted into a huge downturn, Lindenberg sold WCW to Anixter International Inc., a Skokie, Ill.-based wire and cable distributor.
“From a company, seller, personal, economy and valuation standpoint, he couldn’t have picked a better time,” said Linda Mertz, managing director with Waukesha-based Mertz Associates Inc., a mergers and acquisitions advisory firm. “It isn’t all that often that you pull the slot machine and you get all gold bars on everything,”
Anixter wanted to expand its presence in the Midwest and the Milwaukee area, Lindenberg said.
“They are a $6 billion company, headquartered in Chicago, and we were a $58 million company,” he said. “And we had some products they didn’t have.”
Lindenberg owned about 80 percent of the company at the time of sale. The remaining 20 percent of WCW was held by managers, long-term employees and Lindenberg’s business associates.
Anixter had made previous offers to buy the company, and because Lindenberg knew many of the company’s senior executives, he handled most of the negotiations himself.
“I took one of their earlier offers (back to them) and let them know I was very serious this time,” he said. “After courting each other for a few years, we’d already done a lot of the leg work.”
Lindenberg was aided in the transaction by Virchow Krause & Co. LLP (now known as Baker Tilly Virchow Krause LLP), Clifton Gunderson LLP and Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren S.C.
At the time of the purchase, all of WCW’s employees were retained, along with its management team. Lindenberg has been retained as a consultant with Anixter through Jan. 1, 2010. Most of his work is done from his home office, but he spends a few hours in the WCW offices each week.
While Lindenberg’s sale of WCW might look like a lucky strike, it was likely a calculated move made after careful planning and deliberation, said Patti Wallner, recently retired president of the Waukesha County Chamber of Commerce.
“Do not underestimate the hard work, dedication and incredible marketing genius behind this man,” Wallner said. “He is very deliberate in his decisions, a very ‘big picture’ thinker and very strategic. Where he might seem relaxed in how he does business, behind it is a solid genius and an incredible amount of hard work.”
Tom Kintis, president of Waukesha-based CGK Investment Banking, said Lindenberg’s sense of timing was impeccable.
“From a timing standpoint, it was either pure luck or he knew something we didn’t,” Kintis said. “Most people were looking (at the economy then) as a temporary downturn. Most of the guys I was talking to were saying they would be up 20 percent in 2009. Any guy that doesn’t get lost with this ‘The sky is going to go up forever’ and that now is the time to make a strategic decision, that’s a smart guy who I want running my business.”
Like many entrepreneurs who sell companies, Lindenberg is not the type of person to sit still. However, because of his windfall from the sale of WCW, his focus has shifted.
“After doing wire and cable for 26 years, it was time to do something different,” he said. “I want to make sure that World Class Wire & Cable can stand on its two feet, but I look forward to new opportunities to do something in the Milwaukee area that would help the community.”
Lindenberg has founded Lindy Enterprises, a consulting firm aimed at helping small and emerging businesses.
“My specialty and emphasis has been sales, marketing, growing businesses, building business plans and helping companies gain an edge,” Lindenberg said. “I’ve been there and I can relate to the struggle. There are so many businesses that are so close, and they just need a little advice to help them get there.”
Lindenberg is looking to build and nourish relationships with other entrepreneurs through his outreach service.
“It’s not all about money. It’s to help small businesses,” Lindenberg said. “I believe that if you help others, they’ll help you back. At this point (the consulting) hasn’t gotten into serious money. It’s more opportunistic – helping people, knowing that it will come back.”
Lindenberg also operates JML Holdings, a real estate investment firm. While he currently holds both residential and commercial properties, Lindenberg is primarily interested in commercial investments.
“I was doing that before (the WCW sale), and it’s something I’ll always do,” he said. “It also helps with the small business consulting. Sometimes someone needs space to store product or I can help their business move to a new location.”
Saving The Wave
This spring, Lindenberg’s first big opportunity after the WCW sale found him while he and his son, Jack, were listening to the radio. Keith Tozer, coach of the Milwaukee Wave, the city’s indoor soccer team, was on the air talking about the team’s dire prospects and the need for a new owner. If the team could not find new ownership, Tozer said, the team could fold.
“Jack said, ‘That would be so sad,'” Lindenberg said. “All of our kids have gone through the Wave soccer camps – and we kept hearing how sad it was, how the Wave had sent all of its staff home and things were really falling apart. Jack said we should take a look at it.”
After a discussion with his wife, Nancy, Lindenberg was ready to do just that. He talked extensively with Tozer, Mike Lafferty, the team’s chief operations officer, and Charles Krause, the team owner. Lindenberg admired Krause’s passion for the team but there was one big problem. The team had been losing money for 25 years.
“That was a big concern, but I’ve seen it before. World Class Wire was a struggle,” Lindenberg said. “I looked at it as a challenge. As a business person, I asked, ‘Do they have a good product?’ and the answer was yes. They have a winning tradition, it’s a family environment (at the games) and it’s reasonably priced.”
Part of what impressed Lindenberg about the Wave is the team’s long-standing community involvement. Players and coaches routinely visit area schools and hospitals. The team holds numerous instructional camps every summer that are staffed by coaches and players. Most of the coaches and players live, coach and work in the city during the off-season. And even though the Wave has been losing money for a significant amount of time, it still offers scholarships for low-income families who want to send their children to the team’s soccer camps.
“The team also does school day games during the season, where they play three games with 6,000 kids at each game,” Lindenberg said. “They’re doing so much good. But they lacked sales and marketing, networking and the ability to get the word out. The No. 1 goal (now) is to spread the word. I’m amazed at how much this team is doing in the community. The normal person around here doesn’t know that they’re doing so much.”
Lindenberg declined to disclose his purchase price for the team but says his interest in the Wave is not financial.
“I’m not doing this to make money. This is our chance to give something back to the community, to have fun with it and to help others,” he said. “The Wave gives us an avenue to do a lot of neat things in the community. I see it as a challenge, one with a tremendous upside. I think we can get the team to break even, and any money we make will be invested back into the team and the community.”
To help boost sales and revenues at the Wave, Lindenberg is turning to his extensive list of contacts in the business community in metro Milwaukee.
“The Wave’s corporate sales are low compared to some of the other teams in the league,” he said. “And as I’m talking to people, no one is saying no. No one has done a good job of saying that the Wave needs help. People want to help, especially when they hear, ‘This is your team.'”
The Wave is already planning to develop a corporate section for this year’s games, where companies will be able to host events, check their coats and have cocktails before the game begins. In the future, it also will work with corporate clients and sponsors to create packages they want, Lindenberg said.
“We’re wide open to companies to design a package that benefits them,” he said. “We’ll entertain almost all ideas.”
‘Waukesha’s Bill Gates’
Over the next few years, Lindenberg expects that most of his time will be occupied by the Wave as he continues networking with business contacts and helps steer its sales and marketing and day-to-day operations. However, once the team reaches a break-even point, he anticipates being able to focus more on Lindy Enterprises and JNL Holdings.
“I’m an entrepreneur, and you never know what path that will take,” he said. “Then I’ll look for other projects and opportunities.”
One of those opportunities is already pulling him into the classroom at several area colleges and universities. Lindenberg recently became involved in the entrepreneurship program at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater campus. Cardinal Stritch University also has asked him to speak to students in its business program.
A primary challenge for Lindenberg over the next few years will be balancing his commercial interests and those related to public service.
“I want to continue growing things, but also help out others and the community,” he said.
Wallner expects that Lindenberg’s involvement with the Wave, Lindy Enterprises and other activities will produce a lasting impact in the region.
“I think he’s destined for more success. I see him as Waukesha’s version of Bill Gates (on the philanthropic side),” she said. “I sense he has those kinds of aspirations.”