FEATURE – Building on the past – Great Northern Corporation traces 50 years of success back to founders

Posted on Nov 1, 2012 :: Features
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Great Northern founders Robert W. Brown, left, and J. James Davis 50 years ago “created a company with strong core values that we still strive for today,” says GNC CEO John Davis, who is Jim’s son.

When constructing a building, everyone knows a firm foundation is essential. The same goes for businesses, says John Davis, chief executive officer of Great Northern Corporation in the Town of Menasha.

Great Northern Corporation (GNC), a producer of corrugated packaging, is reaping the benefits of the secure foundation laid down 50 years ago by the company’s founders, Bob Brown, John Maring and Jim Davis.

The company’s four core values – integrity, personal commitment, entrepreneurial spirit and shared future – guide the company, says John Davis, who is Jim Davis’ son.

“The founders created a company with strong core values that we still strive for today,” he says. “We have a rich heritage here at GNC and that has propelled us forward. Everything they created is still relevant today.”

Fifty years ago, GNC’s founders conceived the idea for the new company at a birthday party. Davis was living in Neenah when the new owners of the company he worked for began moving top managers to New York. Davis wanted to stay in Neenah and toyed with the idea of starting a business with his associates.

“They have such a strong belief in the entrepreneurial spirit,” says John Davis. “Jim and Bob loved trying new products and new ideas. Not all were winners, but they always had the energy to try new things. I guess you can say innovation is part of our company’s DNA.”

Each of the founders contributed $50,000 to get the company up and running. John Davis says his father “often looks back and can’t believe he mortgaged the house and took this risk, but it turned out.”

“It was really naïve. It’s just as well that you don’t know some things when you’re starting a business, because you’d never do it,” Brown says in a video put together by GNC in honor of its 50th anniversary and shared with all company employees.

Jim Davis and Bob Brown remain active in the company, sitting on the company’s board of directors where John Davis says they “like to stir the pot. They challenge us and want to know what’s the next thing we’re working on.”

Davis says Brown as the company’s first salesman set the foundation for GNC’s commitment to customers. “Bob set the tone that customers are our friends and if they do well, we’ll do well. We’re fortunate today to have a culture that is customer driven. We’re successful when our customers are successful. Bob embodies that spirit,” he says.

GNC has grown dramatically through the years. Starting with three people in a small office in downtown Neenah, the company now has more than 1,000 employees at multiple sites in seven states.

During the 1970s, GNC acquired the components of what today is known as its Laminations and Rollguard divisions, both based in Appleton. In more recent years, the company acquired Kell Container and Kell Specialty in 2004 in Chippewa Falls, then started StrataGraph in Oshkosh in 2005. In 2007, the company opened a design center in New Jersey and acquired Minneapolis’ Creative Carton in 2008.

GNC has a Key Employee Incentive Plan that keeps employees informed on how the company is doing and rewards them when the company does well. GNC also lets key employees – about 40 people or so – invest in the company via stock options.

While growing up, Davis says the expectation was that if any of the founders’ children wanted to enter the business – Brown’s two sons Tom and Dan also work today for GNC – they would need to go work somewhere else after college before coming back.

“It really gave us a good perspective on the industry and was helpful,” says Davis, who worked for another company for a few years before completing his business degree. “It was a great experience. That expectation is just another great thing about the founders’ legacy – they really thought ahead about the kind of company they wanted to have and made it happen.”