If Omaha had a Century Club, its founding members would be a corporate Who’s Who of an old cow town gone uptown.
NP Dodge. First National Bank. Union Pacific. Kiewit. Mutual of Omaha.
The list goes on.
Knocking at the door would be grizzled veterans Leo A Daly, HDR, Omaha Steaks and ConAgra Foods.
The list goes on.
Tenderfeet peering in the windows would include TD Ameritrade, Godfather’s Pizza, American Gramaphone, Election Systems & Software, West Corp., Tenaska and Home Instead Senior Care.
The list goes on and on.
Big names each. Big businesses all.
Roughly 150 companies and organizations that sank roots into the fertile soil on the west bank of the Missouri River in Omaha at least a century ago survive today. More than a few thrive. They nurtured ideas, courted customers and evolved with the landscape. Today they are the bedrock foundation of a midsized metropolis on the edge of the Great Plains with a business environment poised for the 21st century.
And plains people get the credit.
Business executives and historians say the trailblazing success of scores of old companies and the city’s high national rankings as a best place for careers and jobs, young entrepreneurs, economic performance and college graduates start with those who work in Omaha.
It’s the No. 1 asset of businesses across the community.
Doug Buchanan, president of Renze Display, founded in 1895: “We’re all blessed to live in Omaha. It’s always been a community of talented people and talented entrepreneurs. Those two things make a company successful.’’
Clark Lauritzen, executive vice president of First National Bank, founded in 1857: “We seem to have had the right people at the right times. Whether it was the Depression, the ag crisis of the 1980s or the Great Recession, we had ... employees who had the right temperament and approach to banking that was needed.’’
R. Brad von Gillern, president of Lueder Construction, founded in 1884: “The work ethic is different here than other places. There’s a pride here that doesn’t necessarily exist in other places. That pride conveys into how people perform on their jobs and the level of ownership they take in their tasks.’’
Dave Williams, president of Drake-Williams Steel, founded in 1882: “The people who worked here over the years have been very resilient and loyal. They believe in what they’re doing and that’s sustained us through some tough periods.’’
Renze, First National, Lueder and Drake-Williams each had humble origins.
First National, one of Omaha’s oldest businesses, was started by brothers Augustus and Herman Kountze. They named it Kountze Brothers Bank. Omaha was a frontier village of less than 2,000 people. Nebraska was a young territory. The nation was in the midst of the Panic of 1857, the world’s first global economic crisis.
The brothers traded primarily in gold dust and bison hides. Their safe, the only one in town, was secured by a giant leather strap.
“They kept gold dust in a coffee can on the top shelf and took turns sleeping in the bank with a shotgun,’’ Lauritzen said.
First National — its name since the 1860s — is the oldest national bank west of the Missouri River and is in its sixth generation of family ownership. It is one of the largest family-owned holding companies in the United States and the largest privately owned banking company. It has branches in seven states and is the nation’s fifth-largest agricultural lender.
The company’s landmark headquarters tower in downtown is built on history and tradition. The paneling in Lauritzen’s office covered the office walls of his great-grandfather Tom Davis, who was bank president during the Great Depression and World War II.
“You don’t get to choose when you’re bank president and that was a pretty tough period,’’ Lauritzen said. “But he was critical in allowing the bank to survive.’’
Lauritzen said he is inspired and humbled by the people whose creativity and courage cultivated the bank through the decades.
“No matter what we had to do, we did it,’’ Lauritzen said.
The fiscally prudent and conservative nature of most businesses in Nebraska over the years helped First National and Omaha flourish, he said. First National has a history of innovating and changing its business model to fit the times. The bank is committed to remaining independent and maintaining family ownership.
“We’ve remained solid at the core but flexible,’’ Lauritzen said. “It all goes back to two guys who had the courage and tenacity to start a bank.’’
Oliver Pollak, a bankruptcy attorney and history professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who has written books about historic city businesses and organizations, said good trade ideas are never guaranteed success.
“A lot of people have good ideas that don’t last,’’ he said. “The businesses that endured had good succession plans — lots of sons and daughters interested in the business — and managed to change with the times. They watched the bottom line, watched labor costs, watched the competition and remained relevant in the marketplace.’’
Omaha was a boom town in the 1880s. The 1880 Census counted a little more than 30,000 residents. A decade later the official total was a wildly inflated 140,000. Historians say a more accurate number is about 102,000.
Still, the city almost tripled in size in the 1880s. It was bonanza time.
Among the new businesses serving the growth spurt was a construction company founded by A.C. Busk. Now known at Lueder Construction, the employee-owned company, has gone through five ownership transition in 130 years.
“The common thread that has carried the company forward is that none of us are in business to create a personal legacy,’’ said von Gillern, the company president. “We want to create an environment where people succeed. The mindset is to create an enterprise that outlives me and others in the organization can carry forward.’’
Lueder is a full-service general contracting firm with projects that include the new Nebraska Furniture Mart headquarters, Lifegate Church in Papillion, science and technology centers at Iowa Western Community College, Creighton University Medical Center, a health center in Columbus, Neb., St. Patrick Catholic Church in Fremont, Neb., and the Lied Conference Center in Nebraska City.
The company prefers to limit its projects to a 100-mile radius of Omaha, said von Gillern.
“How far we can commute to a project without having people travel and work away from home is a cultural issue with us,’’ he said. “We’ve turned down jobs so we wouldn’t have to ask people to be away from home.’’
Renze Display charts more than a little of its growth to the success and growth of other Omaha businesses. The company produces exhibits and displays for trade shows and custom wallpaper and window and wall graphics for corporate and retail clients. It also produces the state-by-state Remembering the Fallen exhibits recognizing U.S. war dead from conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Most Renze customers are based in the Midwest but the company works across North America. Local clients include TD Ameritrade, ConAgra, Mutual of Omaha, First National Bank, Valmont Industries and Union Pacific Corp.
There was a time after World War II and in the 1950s that Union Pacific represented half of Renze’s business, Buchanan said. The company produced exhibits and promotional materials advertising the railroad’s Idaho ski resort and other destinations.
The company started when Gus Renze purchased floats from the 1895 Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans and shipped them to Omaha. Workmen repainted and refashioned them for the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben Parade and Coronation Ball. Renze’s Electric Night Parades attracted thousands to watch floats powered by the electric current from the city’s streetcar lines.
Streetcars disappeared decades ago, but thousands of 21st-century Omahans encounter Renze at Eppley Airfield daily. The back-lighted displays advertising local businesses and colleges lining the corridors to the terminals are Renze products.
Buchanan said innovation and risk taking are company traditions. It started with his grandfather, Maynard Buchanan, who traveled the nation buying and selling hotels for Omaha hotel magnate Eugene C. Eppley in the 1930s.
Renze Display has a decades-old, double-door safe with old Omaha police detective business cards taped to the doors. About 15 years ago, Buchanan discovered an envelope in the safe with a folded, carbon copy of his grandfather’s resignation letter to Eppley. In the letter, Maynard Buchanan thanked Eppley for years of service but told him he had an opportunity to realize his dream of owning a business. He planned to go into partnership with Gus Renze.
“That took a high tolerance of risk in the 1930s,’’ Buchanan said.
Businesses develop distinct cultures for better or worse over the years that shape a company’s future.
Williams, of Drake-Williams, said his company’s culture of innovation and loyalty has kept the business from stagnating.
“You don’t always initially create that culture. It’s just a byproduct,’’ Williams said. “We tend to attract the kind of employees that stick with us. They buy into the culture.’’
Drake-Williams was known as Wilson Steam Boiler when founded in the early 1880s. It produced steam boilers and smokestacks. During the 1920s, the company started making drag line buckets used in river excavation and levee work.
By 1960, the company shifted to the fabrication of structural steel. Company workers cut to length and punch or drill holes in beams and plates used in erecting the framework of structures such as the First National Tower and TD Ameritrade Park.
Drake-Williams’ first geographic expansion took the company into the Denver area about five years ago. It now works in a 600-mile radius of Omaha.
“Our Mountain Steel Division provides the opportunity for even more growth and diversity in the future,’’ Williams said.
Williams said the company tries to develop and promote new leaders from within the ranks. Some employees have been with the company 30 to 50 years. Dave and his brother, John, are the third set of Williams brothers to run the company.
Williams said acquiring, adopting and embracing new technology — even in an industry that still relies on many manual processes — keeps the company young.
Harl Dalstrom, a professor emeritus of history at UNO who has written books about frontier Omaha, said the community’s historic role as a wholesaling and retailing center for a territory that stretched from western Iowa to deep into Wyoming set up the city to emerge as one of the largest and most economically stable in the central and northern plains.
Still, Omaha’s rise wasn’t a steady pattern of progress, Dalstrom said.
“The 1930s were not good to us,’’ he said. “The late 1980s were difficult times for Omaha and we wondered what will happen to this place. Are we stalling?”
But Omaha showed a impressive ability to adapt, Dalstrom said.
“The simple reason for that was the diversification of our economy,’’ he said. “We keep finding new things to keep our economy diversified and vibrant.”