April 18, 2016
Executive Profile

Goepfert leaves impression on Willington Nameplate

HBJ PHOTO | John Stearns
HBJ PHOTO | John Stearns
Mike Goepfert, CEO of Willington Nameplate, shows a strip of nameplates produced in the company's Stafford Springs factory.

VIEW: Executive Profile: Mike Goepfert, Willington Nameplate

Mike Goepfert

Mike Goepfert

CEO, Willington Nameplate

Highest education: Bachelor's degree in industrial technology, graphic arts management, Central Connecticut State University, 1982.

Executive insights:

"Treat people the way you want to be treated. … I like talking to each and every one of our employees every single day. … I think it makes a difference if people know that you got their back and you care about them, I think you'll get that back."

If Mike Goepfert were to produce two messages in his Willington Nameplate factory that describe his journey as a second-generation owner-operator of a family business, they might say something like this:

Caution — It's not easy.

Recommendation — Hire smart people to help you.

About 1990, Goepfert began running day-to-day operations of the company his father, Marcel, started 50 years ago. Goepfert brought a new approach to a business Marcel built with an entrepreneurial spirit and relentless hard work, and participated in until his death last fall at age 77, after which Goepfert assumed his father's CEO title.

After some rough early years — as a youth, Goepfert remembers discovering one Easter morning the family's car had been repossessed — Willington Nameplate grew into a success story.

"My father for the last 10 years was extremely proud of where the business was," said Goepfert, 57.

Durable nameplates manufacturer

Willington Nameplate produces durable nameplates for the automotive, aerospace, defense and industrial sectors that instruct, inform or caution. It says it enables essential communication. Its nameplates, typically metal, are permanently affixed to everything from aircraft to plumbing valves and heating fixtures. Its nameplates at Gillette Stadium help fans find their seats.

Based in Stafford Springs, where it moved in 1970, the company employs 80-plus people and expects almost $12 million in sales this year. Three acquisitions of second-generation businesses since 2011, all in Massachusetts and brought in-house, fueled 35 percent sales growth in five years.

Goepfert expects in two years or so to acquire another company elsewhere in the U.S. to add business and be a backup production site in case a storm or other disaster were to idle Connecticut operations.

Goepfert admires what his father accomplished, but the business, like other family operations, had its challenges. Family — his mother and older brother also worked in the business and his sister, Lynn Dwyer, still does — didn't always see eye to eye, he said. When he took over, Goepfert sought advice from the UConn Family Business Program and other outside sources.

"That was really different from what my father did," he said. "My father was your typical entrepreneur and didn't really leave … and I always admired the fact that he kind of stayed in touch with business concepts and what's going on.

From entrepreneur to organization

"I think I changed it from an entrepreneurial-driven [organization] — my father, he liked chaos and feathers flyin' — and I was looking more at a management-driven organization," Goepfert said.

He hired a larger accounting firm and a controller from a large company, shared key performance indicators with employees, and improved the benefits program. Importantly, he kept the family culture.

A great move, he said, was hiring Brett Greene four years ago as operations manager. Goepfert jokes he thought it would take Greene a year or two to make him obsolete, "and it took him five minutes." Goepfert recently named Greene president.

Goepfert downplays his own role.

"If I had a big ego, I might not want to bring someone that's smarter than me in and I don't think that way," he said. "[Greene's] definitely made my life better and he's good for the customers, the employees and everything involved."

Greene said Goepfert is hands off and trusting.

"Strategically, one of the best things Mike had done is go outside of the company to network and find resources that supported the company's growth," Greene said. "He was not … too proud to ask for help and it's that help that really helped get us to where we are today."

Goepfert has five sons, 19 to 30. He'd like to see one or more in the business, but they seem destined for different work, he said.

Goepfert enjoys bicycling 25 or 30 miles a day, weather-permitting. He rode 3,800 miles last year and aims for 4,500 this year. He jokes it's a good way to burn calories from the craft beers he enjoys. He also likes traveling.

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