Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the Progress Edition of the Ashland Daily Press published on Jan. 29.
C.G. Bretting Manufacturing Co.’s roots in Ashland go back to 1890 when Christopher G. Bretting bought the prosperous Parish Iron Works, one of Ashland’s leading businesses with more than 500 employees.
Today the firm remains Ashland’s flagship industry, with about 600 workers in three operations at the cutting edge of manufacturing technology.
Over the past 130 years, the firm has reinvented itself several times and continues innovating, even as it has expanded purchasing Absolut Manufacturing in Iron River and T&T Manufacturing in Spooner.
Bretting President and CEO David Bretting said Absolut makes equipment for the production of specialty bags, such as bags for fast food restaurants, paper lawn and leaf bags, potato bags and charcoal briquette bags. T&T Manufacturing is the latest acquisition by Bretting, bought last year. They manufacture products for wood processing industries, offer welding services and custom machining for a variety of clients.
He said both operations were both integral parts of the Bretting operation. The expansion outside of the Ashland facility is a departure for the firm, which has previously done expansions in-house at the 280,000 square foot Ashland facility.
“We continue to purchase new machine tools and computer systems in the Ashland operation, but in order to be able recruit new employees and do a little diversification, there is Absolut and T&T,” he said.
Bretting said the addition of the two business elements didn’t represent a fundamental change in Bretting operations.
“Both of those operations are run very similarly to Bretting — very family-oriented, very long-term businesses that have been there and treated their customers correctly,” he said
Those acquisitions were the latest way the company has evolved with changing market conditions. When Christopher Bretting purchased the Parish Iron Works, the firm on the shores of lake Superior was surrounded by the greatest concentration of sawmills in the country and Parish specialized in serving that industry. Bretting continued the work, but expanded into the burgeoning iron mining and shipping industries as the seemingly inexhaustible timber resources began to wane.
In its turn, the mining industry began to play out after World War II. The company was down to just a dozen workers when Tad Bretting took over in 1960 and changed the firm’s emphasis to paper-conversion machinery.
Bretting had made its first napkin-folding machine for Marathon Paper Co. in 1929 and in 1965, the first napkin-folding machinery was offered to other companies.
Before long, word of the quality of Bretting machinery got out, and the firm began a series of expansions to its Ashland facility and modernizations to its manufacturing infrastructure that has led it to its current leadership position.
Bretting said the acquisition of Absolut and T & T were reflections of a company’s goal to stay at the cutting edge of technology and compete with manufacturers in Europe and Asia.
That is especially important because over half of Bretting’s sales are to countries outside of North America, Bretting said.
A staff that is nimble enough to adapt to changing conditions is also a major reason for Bretting’s success. The company’s workforce is incredibly loyal, with an annual turnover rate of less than 1%. That loyalty is due largely to management that treats its staff as individuals of value, and not just replaceable cogs in a machine.
“You can make short-term decisions getting rid of costs, getting rid of people, but in the long term, and we are in our fifth generation, that doesn’t cut it,” Bretting said.
Good wages and benefits, good working conditions, a challenging agenda, all are part of the loyalty picture. So is selecting the right employees, said Bretting.
“It’s like my dad used to say; you hire folks around you who are smarter than you and work harder than you, respect that, and you will be successful,” he said.