Economy & Business
12:55 pm
Thu June 19, 2014

Brookfield Company Rides Into a Second Century

Lake Effect's Mitch Teich gets a behind-the-scenes tour of Walsh Products in Brookfield.

You've probably never noticed the low-slung, unassuming building on Calhoun Road in Brookfield.

One of the vintage sewing machines that Walsh uses to produce its high-end harnesses.
Credit Thea Treiber
And even if you've seen it, you'd probably never guess that inside the building, some of the equestrian industry's highest-end equipment is made and shipped around the world.

The building is the headquarters for Walsh Products, which has been making harnesses, halters, riding whips, and other equipment for 100 years in southeastern Wisconsin.  At the time the company began, Milwaukee had a thriving tannery industry, but Walsh has long outlived that sector.

But while much has changed around the equestrian world, a lot has stayed the same at the company, such as the equipment used to stitch many of the leather products Walsh makes - sewing machines that are nearly as old as the company itself.

Only a few hundred of the machines were ever made, according to Walsh Chief Financial Officer Kevin Mleziva.  But he says occasional maintenance issues aside, the machines play to Walsh's advantage.

"People try to duplicate our products," he says, "and they can't quite get it to match perfectly, because they don't have the machines we have."

Walsh says it also helps that many of the people who operate the machines have been with the company for two decades or more, riding out downturns in the industry, such as recessions in the 1980s and a few years ago.  

President and CEO Paul Treiber agrees.  The Brookfield native and his wife, Thea, bought the company thirteen years ago.  Olympic show jumpers and top harness racers are among their customers, and Treiber says the key to that success has been developing new markets like Europe, while relying on the strength of his experienced leadership team.

"The big learning curve in this industry was taking the older company and bringing into some newer sections where the company could grow," he says.  "But the biggest challenge has been in putting the right team together.

"I try to involve everybody in almost all the major decisions.  Sometimes we don't all agree - sometimes we disagree, but I think through that process we make really good decisions," he says.

Walsh Vice President Thea Treiber - who met her future husband at a horse show - says the rewards of the business are readily evident.  "I can honestly say that every day is a good day here," she says, "because I walk in and every morning I am so proud of what we do.

"Giving people a tour of our shop gives me the chills.  After ten years, it still amazes me that it turns from a hide of leather into the beautiful quality we manufacture here in Brookfield."