The people of the Midwest are known for their grit and tenacity, a capacity for growth, and a willingness to break new ground. These are the traits that Steve and Marianne Schlecht have demonstrated in successful business ventures and now, the Schlecht Family Foundation.
Steve credits his upbringing in a small farming community in Central Illinois, then followed by the counterpoint of a college education at Northwestern University, and then the opportunity to enter a training program of a well-known Chicago area public company, as the 3 “seeds” that put him on the path to entrepreneurship. During his nine years in the corporate world Steve would meet his future wife, Marianne. At the age of 30 he knew he wanted to be involved in his own business.
They moved to Wisconsin with their two young children for Steve’s first business opportunity. It failed, as well as a second endeavor, but Steve and Marianne (who was now working in the business) persisted. An idea from the second business was the foundation for their third attempt: a mail-order catalog called GEMPLER’S, offering hard-to-find supplies for farmers and ranchers. Literally a “garage start-up”, this catalog over time became an authoritative source for protective equipment for outdoor workers. It grew rapidly and was sold to W.W. Grainger in 2003. Before this sale, in 2000 Steve purchased the small Duluth Trading Company catalog. An outgrowth of this key decision would be the vision of a family foundation.
Like GEMPLER’S, Duluth Trading was a mail-order catalog business, but the Schlechts saw even greater potential in it. Calculated risks early on brought measurable success: introducing Duluth-branded apparel, adding e-commerce, and testing TV advertising. Later, retail stores were added to the mix. These initiatives allowed the business to grow, all while staying true to its original intent of offering quality products that solved real problems. Through blending that problem-solving outlook with product innovation and memorable storytelling, Duluth Trading grew in 17 years from a $6 million catalog company to a much-admired brand with projected sales of over 100 times that figure in 2019. A major milestone along the way was achieving a successful initial public stock offering (IPO) in 2015. For the Schlechts, building a company that was worthy of the public markets was another stretch goal to strive for.
Over the years, persistence, an attitude of constant learning, and taking risks instead of following the herd has paid off. These are also the attributes that the Schlecht Family Foundation now seeks to cultivate. The Foundation’s first charitable endeavor was the Driftless Historium, a museum and research center in Mt Horeb, Wisconsin, located just blocks from where the “garage start-up” of the GEMPLER’S catalog occurred. The Foundation funds endeavors that support the values that have always mattered most to Steve and Marianne Schlecht: work that adds meaning to people’s lives; education in the broadest sense of sharing knowledge for life and work; and connecting with nature, hearkening back to the tranquility they both experienced growing up in the farmlands of the Midwest.