It Runs in the Family: A Look at Some of Iowa's Multigenerational Family Businesses

August 10, 2018 | It runs in the family

Much like the small towns that define Iowa, family-owned businesses started by visionary entrepreneurs have a rich history in the state. Throughout generations, these companies have provided many benefits to the communities they live in and to the state as a whole.

“I feel like we’ve given economic vitality or a shot in the arm to the community,” said Mark Hanawalt, president and CEO of United Equipment Accessories in Waverly. “That’s important to us. We want to make a difference in our community.”

Here are some of these Iowagrown businesses, and the entrepreneurs behind them.

Springing into the family business

Tim Bianco spent many hours in the family factory as a child. So much so, he referred to it as a second home of sorts.

His father, Jim, started and owned Iowa Spring, originally based in Des Moines but later relocated to Adel. As Tim puts it, his father was always at work, so if Tim wanted to get some family time, he had to be at the factory.

“I was one of those kids that if you wanted to hang out with your dad, you had to go to work,” Tim said. “He was always at work. Even though I started working full time in 1989, I grew up working in the factory from the beginning. I always knew my career path.”

The beginning of Iowa Spring dates back more than a decade before Tim joined the business. After moving to Des Moines from central Illinois in the mid-1960s, Jim worked as a salesperson for a mechanical spring company. That company was bought out, and Jim was determined to create his own business.

He borrowed money from his father, mortgaged his house and took advantage of a smallbusiness loan. Jim operated his company with just one machine and one engineer when it started in 1977. Iowa Spring focused on creating large springs for large machines, like John Deere tractors, one of the company’s earliest customers, and it also created springs for automatic garage doors.

The company started near the fairgrounds east of downtown Des Moines and moved to Adel in 1979 after it outgrew it space. When the farm crisis hit in the 1980s, Iowa Spring took a hit, like many other companies, but continued to grow after the crisis subsided.

Tim knew he wanted to work in the family business ever since his childhood, but entering the family business wasn’t going to be easy. When he enrolled at Drake in the mid-1980s, Tim worked three jobs, including at Iowa Spring, to help pay tuition.

When Tim graduated in 1989, his father hired him as a salesperson, but it came with a catch. Jim wanted Tim to learn the garage door business, so he told Tim to work for a local garage door installer for nine months. It served as an informal internship.

Tim learned the ins and outs of that business, and a few years later he was on the road as a salesman, traveling around the country for about a decade. In 2002, he took over the company. Since then, Iowa Spring has seen consistent growth, about 5 to 10 percent per year, Tim said.

“When I started, we had about 30 employees,” he said. “Over the years, we continued to add equipment and people. Fast-forward to today, and we have two manufacturing facilities, one in Iowa and one in North Carolina, and roughly 160 employees.”

The future of Iowa Spring looks bright, even in a period of change. The company, with the advice of Iowa State University’s Center for Industrial Research and Service, is changing its manufacturing process, about a 24-month project. But that won’t change the reputation the organization has built through two generations of family ownership.

“We’re known in our industry as a maker of big springs,” Tim said. “We have a well-regarded reputation, and we’re sought after by big manufacturers. People who make big products need big springs. They come find us.”

Born and bred for agriculture

There are a few numbers that stick with Charlie Schafer and remind him of the importance of his job in the agricultural industry: More than two-thirds of corn loss and more than half of soybean loss is directly related to water issues.

“That’s crazy, and the USDA tells us that based on the most recent data and best projections, those issues are getting worse,” Schafer said. “With all the technology, you would think it would be getting better, not worse.”

Schafer’s dedication to farming is what encouraged him to start his business, Agri Drain in Adair, with his brothers, Chris and Bill, in 1976. Schafer grew up 7 miles north of Adair, on a 160-acre farm with his parents and five brothers. While attending Ellsworth Community College, Schafer, the youngest of his family, came home to help his parents keep the farming operation going.

“We had corn and beans, a big garden, hogs and cattle,” Schafer said. “It was a great way to grow up. How fortunate can you get? I enjoyed helping out my parents, even as small as our operation was.”

Schafer and his brothers formed a partnership after he graduated from junior college. At first, the company served as drainage contractors, installing tubes for Iowa farmers, but as the market evolved and the partners became more knowledgeable in the industry, the company started to focus on product development, manufacturing and distribution in 1984, ending the construction business entirely.

It was a good decision, as the company grew along with its product lines. Now Agri Drain has about 47 employees and works with drainage contractors around the United States and Canada. It has become a complete supplier of products for drainage water management, subirrigation, wetlands, ponds, lakes, erosion control and land improvement.

Agri Drain has been moving toward automation in its water drainage systems, and Schafer hopes it can make a big difference in the industry. These systems can drain excess water from fields, store it and use it in times of need.

“We think automation is the future,” Schafer said. “We want to add and subtract water before the crop even knows there’s a deficit or excess so it never brings them under stress. It’s pretty amazing.”

Born and bred on farm fields, Schafer considers himself lucky to be helping Iowa farmers and working in the industry for as long as he has.

“It’s a wonderful group of people who are really dedicated and committed,” Schafer said. “It’s a great industry, and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

Three generations of success

Creating a family legacy has worked out well at United Equipment Accessories in Waverly.

Now a third-generation business, United Equipment Accessories started in 1952. The founder, Vern Iserman, worked out of his garage. The first product he produced, which isn’t part of the company’s line anymore, was a component remote control kit that was used to remotely operate truck-mounted cranes or excavators from the rear operator cab.

The company has grown from that one control kit into producing a variety of products for heavy machinery, like industrial cable reels, Decril cable, cable chain/cable carriers and durable shift controls. The products are key pieces in construction and forestry machines and are essential in some wind turbines.

United Equipment Accessories has grown dramatically since its beginning, and a lot of that has to do with Mark Hanawalt, the second-generation owner and stepson of Iserman.

Hanawalt graduated from Cornell College in 1975 and worked for the business all his life.

“I wore many hats, so I had a lot of knowledge of core needs in very specific areas. I could look for what made people successful,” Hanawalt said. “It was a great background to take over the company.”

When Hanawalt became the president in 1999, he said he had already been running the company for a decade prior. He was schooled on all the things he needed to take it to the next level. He expanded product lines beyond the construction and equipment industries and took sales international. The result was a large increase in revenue and size.

United Equipment Accessories now employs 130 people, compared with the 20 to 30 people it employed about four decades ago. And Hanawalt still has bigger dreams for the company.

He wants to double in size. Hanawalt believes that growth will come through acquisition and expanding to new markets. With his son, Daniel, in the company as well, United Equipment Accessories looks poised to continue growth and providing a vital service to the community.

Bottling for more than a century

The Atlantic Bottling Co., an Iowa-based company that sells more than 400 products and packages all over the Midwest, looked nothing like it does now when it started in 1905. It started with ice cream and didn’t get into the soda business until 1909, when Frank Villisca sold the business to his sons, Royal, Harry and Henry Tyler.

In 1915, they began their foray into the soda industry by selling just four flavors, called “Tyler’s Flavors”: orange, grape, strawberry and cream. In the 1920s, when the family bought a plant in Clarinda, they found a franchise contract for Coca-Cola. While the Coca-Cola brand was becoming more popular around the country, it wasn’t gaining in Iowa.

The Tylers worked with Coca-Cola and sold the company’s soda along with its original flavors. Soon enough, Iowans wanted more Coke.

Royal sold his stake in the business to Harry and Henry in 1923, and as the company grew, Harry and Henry decided to split it. In 1949, they drew straws to determine who got which of the four locations at the time. Harry got Atlantic and Creston; Henry got Shenandoah and Grand Island.

Harry’s son, Jim Tyler, began delivering Coca-Cola from a wagon when he was a young boy. Jim was a fighter pilot in World War II and returned to the family business after the war. He took over the company in the 1950s, growing it and later expanding it to Greater Des Moines.

Kirk Tyler, the son of Jim Tyler, who took over the business in the 1950s, grew up in the business and ran a delivery route. He went to Atlanta, the home office of Coca-Cola, after college graduation in 1978 to go through the SOB program— “That stands for son of a bottler,” Kirk said with a laugh.

He returned to Des Moines in 1981 and became the company’s director of sales. In 1991, he was named the president of Atlantic Bottling Co.

Perhaps the biggest change he oversaw was the expansion of the company’s Coca-Cola territory rights in 2016. The Atlantic Bottling Co. assumed territories in areas that surrounded distribution centers located in Mason City, Ames, Spirit Lake, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Ottumwa and in the Quad Cities area in Illinois.

Throughout the three generations of family ownership, the Tyler family has become a well-known name around the state. “It means a lot, and it means a lot to our family,” Tyler said. “We’ve had such a long history of it. When people think of Coca-Cola in Iowa, they think of the Tyler family.”