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Dick Feller: Hard work, high quality yields success for businessman
MONROE - As a young man, Dick Feller never sat down and drew up a business plan.

But he used the skills gleaned while watching his father operate the family farm, and took a gamble on a business during a recession. Over time, he built a multi-million-dollar company in Monroe that still employs hundreds in the area.

He reached success the old-fashioned way: hard work, endless hours, great service and being a dedicated leader who settled for nothing less than the best.

Feller was born in Monticello and helped on the family farm alongside his siblings. Times were different then, Feller recalls, and by age 9 he was operating much of the farm machinery they had. They were just a few miles from town, and were one of few families bused to school, which Feller saw as an advantage.

He has fond memories of playing with neighborhood children in the barn, swimming in the creek that ran through the farm and heading the 3 miles into town to enjoy the public pool. He was glad to have been part of the generation of farming where they were bringing in new technology and machinery after the war.

"I thought it was a great time to grow up - to see all these new things come after World War II was wonderful," Feller said.

Soon, his father purchased another farm and Feller was along for the ride. He had a front-row seat while his father purchased machinery, made deals with other farmers and it gave him the opportunity to see first-hand how to talk to people, make a deal, and maybe most importantly, take risks.

At age 16, Feller got a job in town working for a construction company and put in long hours - but he still helped on the farm. He learned a lot there, too, and he was a student who most definitely preferred work over school.

"I would have never finished high school had it not been for sports," Feller admitted. He said he took the easiest classes he could and forced his way through only because he enjoyed playing basketball, volleyball and baseball.

The 1956 Monticello High School graduate decided to attend a one-year program at a technical college in Madison for welding. He had a dream to work on skyscrapers in New York or Chicago, hoping to make big bucks in the big city. He would milk cows at 5 a.m. and head to Madison for school, and head back home at night for the evening milking.

But the recession hit in 1957 and by the time Feller finished school, those readily-available welding jobs were gone. He eventually landed a position in Milwaukee at Caterpillar, becoming the company's best welder in just a few months. However, when it came time to let people go, Feller was the newest hire and found himself on the chopping block.

Feller returned home to the farm with his parents. It wasn't long before Feller's mother saw an ad in the Madison newspaper advertising a blacksmith shop for sale, and he bought it.

"It was my opportunity to do something," he said.

Business was slow going and, with two shoe boxes dividing receipts and bills, Feller counted up $6,000 of sales his first year. But he kept on with the business he named Monroe Machine & Welding, and before his second year finished, he hired his first employee. He was 19 years old.

Feller said it was good service and high quality that kept his business escalating. He was a fast learner and anytime someone wanted or needed something he didn't offer, he would figure it out.

The hands-on learning style Feller had fit perfectly with his drive for business. He lived in a trailer next to his shop, which was the size of a two-car garage, and often farmers would show up in the late evenings asking for things. He would be out at jobs by 5 a.m. so he could be back to have the business opened by 7. He committed himself to the work and enjoyed the new challenges.

"Through my whole career I enjoyed (working) as much as I loved to play ball and fish and hunt," he said. "There were always so many new things. It was exciting and challenging to be able to get out and do those things."

He stayed at his first location for three years before he needed more room. In 1961 he expanded.

In 1965, the tornado came through, destroying much of Monroe's westside, including Feller's shop. Feller said it was the year he almost quit. There wasn't much money in the business then, he said, and he had a great job offer in Rockford. But when word got out, businesses in town came forward and asked him to stay.

Reluctantly, he rebuilt, and did well.

One of the new jobs he took on was to help with a building at the Iroquois Foundry in Browntown, something that happened outside normal workhours. To take on these projects, he said he had to ask and expect even more from his employees.

"If you didn't work 60 hours a week, you didn't work for me," Feller said.

By then, Feller expanded his business to offer truck bodies, which then reached to farm bodies and hoists. As time went on and things grew, the business soon offered retail - selling pickup truck accessories, trailer hitches and more. The new items needed more room and more land. Welding stayed as the base of his business.

Feller welcomed change and was a large part of the ideas behind the growth. In the 1970s, the business took on municipal trucks.

Feller said it was likely his time spent playing in cheese factories as a youngster and driving to the feed mill in high school that helped him during the evolution of the business. Being included, and having a naturally inquisitive mind, encouraged him to make small ideas bigger.

Feller's strong business sense also gave him an upper hand when it came to hiring employees. He expected a lot, but said he also learned a lot from those he hired over the years.

He said he was lucky to keep many of them for many years.

"I was so blessed to have all of the people who worked for me," Feller said.

In the 1970s, business was booming. Feller brought in outside sales people by 1975 and in 1976, he purchased a business in Green Bay, where he expanded and saw success almost immediately. By 1983, he expanded to Joliet, Illinois.

He also purchased a business in Milwaukee during that time, but Feller said he could never make it successful.

He said he's just as proud of his failures as he is of his successes.

"I would tell my people when I hired them - 'if you never fail, you probably won't stay here long, because that means you haven't been trying to do better,'" Feller said.

Monroe Machine & Welding was growing fast and finding quick success, but Feller decided it was time to change the name. Despite a little push back, in 1978 he changed the name to Monroe Truck Equipment.

In the mid-1970s and early 1980s, Feller took on junior partners, although then he always kept a controlling interest. He said the partners were instrumental in growing the business over the years.

Partners Wilson Bloom and Arlie Fahrney were both part of creating and developing good people and management. He feels lucky to have found great people to work with through the years and says he's happy to share the success.

"I had the greatest people," he said. "I was always looking for people who wanted to work hard and work smart."

The business took on huge jobs and Feller is proud of many, including 750 trucks for the Philadelphia Railroad and 250 big trucks for the Canadian Pacific Railroad in Canada. He has wonderful stories of how he figured out how to make even the biggest orders in some of the strangest places happen. In the late 1980s, Feller built facilities in Janesville and Flint, Michigan next to the GM plants so they could work on vehicles off the line.

Looking back, Feller said he was probably good at setting up systems, and had the ability to produce, which is why he made things happen. He feels he was never a sales or marketing person, but fast, competitive service and hard work came second nature.

In the later years of his involvement with Monroe Truck, Feller was working less and playing more. It was time to say goodbye to his national company so he could focus on enjoying life. After taking some big risks, working many 100-hour weeks and putting his heart and soul into building his business, he officially retired 10 years ago. He sold the business to his partners.

During his heavy working years, Feller said it was easy to work a lot, because it never felt like work to him. He would sometimes take his family, including his three children, along during his travel trips for business, and in later years, they enjoyed spending time together in Northern Wisconsin.

Even among his busy weeks, work travel and high demand for ideas, Feller opted into community involvement when he could. He spent eight years on the National Truck Equipment Association board and served on the First National Bank board for 25 years. He was also on advisory boards for two different snow plow companies. He earned the Distinguished Distributor Award from the National Truck Association. He also received the Lifetime Award from the Monroe Jaycees, despite never being one. He also donated a lot when the outdoor hockey rink was started in Monroe for Monroe Youth Hockey.

In 1988, Feller started hunting in Alaska and almost every year since he's done a big game hunt somewhere. He's been to Africa eight times and his home is a tribute to the amazing animals he has hunted through the years. He also has enjoyed curling, slow pitch softball and being on a tug-of-war team with his father and brother in his younger years.

Today, Feller said he and Ilene Patterson, with whom he's lived with for the past 12 years, have been enjoying life, each other, children, grandchildren, family and friends. The couple still golfs, fishes and spends a few months each year in Arizona where they enjoy warm weather and socializing. They also love to attend almost all of the Wisconsin Badger games.