A great-great-granddaughter brings a longtime La Crosse company into the 21st century
by Jessie Foss, Coulee Region Women Magazine – October/November 2017 issue
A fixture in La Crosse for more than 110 years, Badger Corrugating Company has kept its focus on family and its customers, all while adapting to the ever-changing building industry. The business has done this through five generations of the Sexauer family, and it is being led into its next generation by Melissa Sexauer-Mlsna.
The business began in a 1,600-square-foot building and focused on the fabrication of metal building products such as ventilators, stock tanks and other products for the heating and metal building trades. Today, Badger is a full-time distributor of lumber, interior and exterior millwork, cabinets, flooring, windows, garage doors, roofing, agricultural products and other products for residential and commercial projects. Over the past 10 years, Sexauer-Mlsna has taken a larger role in carrying Badger into the next generation.
A lifelong connection
Sexauer-Mlsna was born and raised in La Crosse and spent her summers on the Mississippi River at the family cottage in Dresbach, Minnesota, and winters skiing at Mount La Crosse. While Sexauer-Mlsna’s involvement in the company has increased exponentially since 2006, she remembers having a connection to the business most of her life.
“I remember being a little girl attending our Badger Showcases at the La Crosse Center, putting together sample boards, filing at the office with Dad, making photocopies and even falling asleep in his office chair,” she says.
After graduating from high school, Sexauer-Mlsna moved to Madison, where she met her husband, Brian, who now serves as the president of Badger Corrugating.
“With our love for the outdoors—hunting, boating on the Mississippi River, hiking the beautiful bluffs—moving back to the Coulee Region was a very easy decision for both of us,” Sexauer-Mlsna says.
Once back in La Crosse, Sexauer-Mlsna officially began working full time in the family business in the showroom, creating kitchens and designs.
“My mother, Cathy Swartz, and her sister were in the interior design business, so it seemed only natural for me to get into this element of the company,” she says.
Sexauer-Mlsna remains in cabinetry sales and designs today, but she has also taken a strong, active role in other parts of the business, such as the organization’s employee stock ownership plan (employees are 40 percent owners of the company), trade shows, events, marketing and community involvement.
“Most important to me is our community involvement,” Sexauer-Mlsna says. “Embracing our core values of honesty and integrity, passion and compassion, and longevity day to day is very important to me.”
Badger has stayed involved in the community by supporting local nonprofits such as The Parenting Place, Habitat for Humanity, Tools for School, Steppin’ Out in Pink and the Boys and Girls Clubs.
Women front and center
Also important to Sexauer-Mlsna is carrying on the tradition of women at Badger working in a primarily male-dominated industry. Sexauer-Mlsna points back to Badger’s very beginning in 1903, when her great-great-grandfather, Gustave, began the business. Right by his side was Sexauer-Mlsna’s great-great-grandmother, Anna. Both were involved in the family business, a tradition Sexauer-Mlsna says continues today.
“Being active in the family business is a tradition that has continued throughout all generations of the Badger family,” she says. “The wives and mothers didn’t sit out on the sidelines; they have always been involved in the daily decision making, finances, sales and marketing.”
Today, women work in various roles at Badger, from door manufacturing to sales and marketing, accounting and human resources.
Sexauer-Mlsna and her husband also work alongside other family members. Michael Sexauer, Sexauer-Mlsna’s father, is still involved in the business as its chief executive officer, and her brother is the information technology manager. Sexauer-Mlsna says working with her dad and husband has several positive aspects. “I very much enjoy having my dad as a mentor and teacher and learning the ins and outs of the building industry from him. We get along incredibly well in the office and on the job site.
“Now, working more with my husband in the business, we’ve been learning together and from each other to be more proactive about communication and sharing the best vision and values for the company. I’ve really enjoyed seeing him grow into his new role as president.”
While the joys may be plentiful, working with family isn’t also without its challenges. Sexauer-Mlsna says the family has learned to overcome the emotions and tensions that come along with being a part of a family business. They have also learned to keep business at work and not bring it up at home or after work hours.
Looking to the future, carrying on the family tradition is important to Sexauer-Mlsna. She’s had the privilege of watching three generations actively operate the business—from her grandfather and grandmother to her father and now to herself, her husband and her brother. “I want to continue building the family business for the future,” she says. “Not only for my son and daughter, but for the future of families of all our employees and members of the community.”
Jessie Foss is a freelance writer living in La Crosse
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