Article by Jessica Stephen
January 7, 2016
Staff photo by Kevin Harnack
When Pete Braun bought Wall-Tech Inc. in 2013, he decided it wouldn’t be just his company.
“We switched to open book management,” Braun said.
It was a move nearly nine years in the making. But, for Braun, it was the fulfillment of a career-long ambition first sparked by his brother, Mike Braun, who owns a construction company in Minnesota.
Braun grew up working for his brother, first as a mason tender and later as a laborer. He did concrete work and masonry.
“I learned to love construction,” Braun said. “Being able to build something with your own two hands and having that pride. When you’re building something and you love what you do, it makes life a whole lot more pleasurable. And it was really my brother who instilled the love of the trades.”
So, when Braun joined Wall-Tech in 1999, he was more than committed. He came in with the understanding that someday he would buy out the partners who started the company in 1984.
That day came in 2004, when Braun made his first buy-in. The deal was finalized in 2013, when Braun took ownership of Wall-Tech, started an employee stock ownership program for 80 staff and extended a profit-sharing plan for all of the company’s nearly 210 employees.
“They get a stake in how we do as a company,” Braun said. “Some people forget that if we didn’t have that workforce, like we’re running into now with a shortage of workers, we wouldn’t be able to do our jobs. So it’s about reaching out. It kind of brings everyone together more as a team, rather than the old yeller and screamer superintendents trying to get more out of the workforce.”
So far, his strategy is working.
This year, Wall-Tech was named Rookie of the Year at the Gathering of Games conference in St. Louis, which recognizes businesses who use the open book management system. The company has started a firm-wide bonus pool. And Braun launched Wall-Panel, which offers pre-fabricated structural components, such as exterior walls prepped for masonry.
The new venture complements Wall-Tech, which started as a fireproofing and exterior synthetic plaster contractor and has since moved into steel stud framing, drywall, finish taping and painting with offices in Milwaukee, Madison and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
But the new company also has allowed his crew to better coordinate with other trades and, potentially, circumvent the labor shortage that has shadowed the industry since the latest recession.
“We wanted to develop the workforce, focusing on factors in the industry that might prevent them from succeeding,” he said.
The Daily Reporter: What surprises you most about your work?
Pete Braun: I think the biggest thing that surprises me all the time is how fast the days and the weeks go by. Remember as a kid — maybe you don’t, but I do — the summers would take forever? And it’s not like that anymore. People might think construction is slow and daunting, but it’s really fast-paced, and these jobs are getting done faster and faster and there’s a lot of moving parts to it, but I enjoy construction so much, it’s not a bad thing.
TDR: What would you change about the construction industry?
Braun: If I had the magic wand, the biggest thing I’d like to change is having more collaboration, more of the trades working together. There’s a lot of disconnect. And it’s getting better, but we still have people working on their own agenda. If we had more collaboration, embracing integrated project delivery, you’d have everyone working together. That’s what the industry really needs because it affects so many things.
TDR: What other job did you consider trying?
Braun: I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be an architect, so I went to architectural and drafting school and I got an associate’s degree in architecture. I was in a design competition and going to that I realized there’s no way I could be an architect. I don’t have that creative gene. It was at that moment I said, ‘I’m going to finish this but there might be something else out there for me.’
TDR: What profession would you not like to explore?
Braun: I wouldn’t want to be a politician. That’s really the only thing that comes to mind, especially with everything in the news now. It’s a brutal business. I appreciate and respect those people who go into politics. We need them making those decisions. But it’s something I’d never want to do.
TDR: What’s the last movie you saw?
Braun: I saw ‘The Theory of Everything,’ the Stephen Hawking movie. There was so much I didn’t know about his life. You look at just the uplifting nature and the ability of the human sprit to overcome major challenges — it’s a good movie.
TDR: What would you never wear?
Braun: That’s a fun question. There’s probably nothing I won’t wear, if the wager was right. But it would have to be a pretty big wager.
TDR: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Braun: I wouldn’t want to give any ammunition to my colleagues. I’m sure they could come up with a pretty good list on their own. But that’s a loaded question.
TDR: What would your colleagues be surprised to find out about you?
Braun: I guess a lot of people wouldn’t know I was a mason laborer in my younger years. And, at home right now, I’m kind of a wannabe farmer. I moved to Wisconsin and I didn’t know the first thing about farming; being from northern Minnesota, we didn’t have farms. But I went to school at UW-Madison and the construction administration program was housed in the school of agricultural engineering, so I got to know a lot of farmers. Now we live north of Madison. I have a couple of acres, four horses, 10 chickens, no, nine chickens — one just passed way — so I mend fences and shovel manure. It’s good exercise.