When Craig Parsons (MBA and WAVE ’00) and Craig Swenson (MBA’99) took a refresher economics course the summer before starting their MBA program, they did not know they had more in common than just their first names. They also shared an interest in people and were about to form a lifelong friendship, a connection that was sustained throughout the MBA program thanks to the weekly TAPS (Thursdays After Professional Studies, where MBA students socialize at a local watering hole). The two have been working together at Palmer Johnson Power Systems, an off-highway equipment company, for the last fourteen years always putting people-first in their business.
Neither Parsons nor Swenson saw themselves in their current position. Parsons didn’t anticipate joining Palmer Johnson Power Systems, his family business; and Swenson didn’t have entrepreneurship on his mind. That’s how entrepreneurship, and life, goes sometimes — you have to take opportunities that you did not see coming.
Swenson started his MBA specializing in Human Resources but quickly fell in love with entrepreneurship after taking a course from Weinert Center co-founder Bob Pricer. He ultimately switched his specialization and embraced entrepreneurship, taking an internship with Parsons’ family company Palmer Johnson Yachts. The summer project was to create a business plan to expand the business into interior restoration for private jets. Seizing the opportunity to join Palmer Johnson Yachts fulltime, Swenson ultimately graduated a semester early and became general manager for the boatyard. Within the first year, the company was sold and with the sale came a new company culture. Swenson stayed with the new management through bankruptcy primarily to manage customer relationships. It was a difficult situation early in his career, but he learned from Parsons’ father that if you put relationships with people first, you can get through any situation. After four years, Swenson joined Ruedebusch Development & Construction as director of operations.
While in school, Parsons participated in WAVE working on Stratatech, a regenerative tissue used in skin grafts. He enjoyed working with the founders and Dick Leazer (WARF Director at the time) through the early stages of building the company and decided to focus on working for a startup after graduation. While searching for full-time positions during his final semester, Adam Bock, lecturer in Management and Human Resources, told him about BroadJam, a music community website. Joining BroadJam just before the dot-com bubble burst in the spring of 2000, Parsons job only lasted for four weeks. Inspired to take the leap to start his own venture, Parsons along with Bolz Center alum Al Hawkins created Agave Group. Their consulting firm specialized in strategy development, technology licensing, and fundraising for early-stage biotech companies often university spin-offs. The duo worked with over 40 early-stage companies and even licensed a few technologies and raised seed funds of their own. While the technologies to biologically control plant diseases in grapes and potatoes ultimately failed in field testing, Parsons said they gained a lot of perspective going through the process to bring a new technology to market.
After five years running Agave Group, Parsons had the opportunity to take over his family business. Parsons’ father Bill (BBA ’59 and MBA ’63) was a partner in the original business Palmer Johnson Yachts and created what is now Palmer Johnson Power Systems to diversify the business distributing Twin Disc products. Eager to bring on a strong leadership and management team to continue to grow the company, Parsons contacted Swenson to join the team as COO in 2006. The two crafted an intentional diversification plan to ensure their business wasn’t overly reliant on Twin Disc products, which is heavily tied to the oil and gas markets. Expanding to provide more repairs of transmissions and axles led them to service entire pieces of equipment. Fully reconditioning equipment allows Palmer Johnson to re-manufacture to the specifications of the original equipment manufacturer while providing customers a one-stop-shop for their repair needs. Through organic growth and acquisitions, Palmer Johnson Power Systems has built their reputation in the off-highway industry as the go-to company for high quality, reliable service.
Bringing together an all-star management team has made the growth and success possible, but Parsons says providing continual challenges for the high caliber team is a challenge in itself. New acquisitions as well as expansion into new territories has created new opportunities for the team. They are always looking to safely diversify without venturing too far from their core competencies or sacrificing their company culture. “Company culture is the number one thing that informs all of the decisions we make,” Swenson said; “in good times it’s easy but in challenging times, like now, it’s difficult.” Following their first core value, “we care about each other” the two put the personal well-being, health, and safety of their employees first. To build relationships throughout the company despite their geographic separation, they organize a trip for the whole company to get face time every few years. In 2018 the company retreat was hosted in Vail, Colorado with some company presentations and lots of fun.
The future for Palmer Johnson is bright with Parsons and Swenson leading the team. Recognized as one of the Top Workplaces by the Wisconsin State Journal for the second time, Palmer Johnson also incentivizes employee health through their robust wellness program. Incorporating wellness initiatives with fun, motivational events like a week-long exercise relay or providing prizes and paid time off for participation helps ensure that Palmer Johnson has happy, healthy employees. The company prioritizes their community, celebrating their 40th anniversary by raising over 40 thousand dollars for Boys & Girls Club of Dane County.
Palmer Johnson is a great example of a mission-driven company that uses their values to drive business decisions. The culture at Palmer Johnson is prioritized throughout the company and the two business badgers leading it are great examples for their team. “Business is about people,” says Parsons; “prioritize relationships and know the people you want to work with while bringing different skill sets together.” Parsons suggests finding people that are passionate about the same things that you are and have some fun. “Don’t get hung up on the industry,” Parsons suggests. “It’s about the team you work with and doing something together where you can make a difference.”