MIDDLETON — Steve Kalscheur winces when he hears someone refer to the UW Provision Co. as Dane County’s best-kept secret.
“I’m saying we should be the best-known secret,” the company president said with a smile.
Considering all the changes taking place at UW Provision, which is already one of the Midwest’s largest distributors of fresh, frozen and dry-goods food products, Kalscheur’s wish may be coming true.
Earlier this year, the Middleton company at 2315 Pleasant View Road opened a 19,000-square-foot addition that includes 10,500 square feet of additional cooler and freezer storage so it can better serve its 2,500 customers, including grocery stores, restaurants, institutions and meat processors.
Kalscheur said his company’s 22 trucks combine to average 370 stops a day and drive 28,000 miles a week in a distribution area that covers all of Wisconsin, most of Illinois, eastern Iowa, plus Minneapolis-St. Paul and the suburbs of St. Louis.
He added that UW Provision sells about 1.1 million to 1.2 million pounds of products a week and has $9 million in inventory in their freezers.
In the Madison area, UW Provision’s customers include grocers such as Woodman’s, Knoche’s and Miller & Sons; restaurants such as Smoky’s Steakhouse, Toby’s Supper Club, Fat Jack’s Barbecue and Paisan’s, plus institutional customers such as UW Hospital and the Kohl Center.
“The way I look at it, we have to have an answer to keep Costco, Walmart, Sam’s, all those guys, from putting the local grocers out of business,” said Kalscheur, whose company has a reputation for selling high-quality products at competitive prices.
There’s also a new 6,600-square-foot retail store that will help UW Provision better serve its drive-up customers looking for the meats and seafood products. UW Provision also sells Wisconsin cheeses and other dairy products, beer, wine and liquor in its new store.
Engineered Construction of Verona was the contractor for the additon, which has environmentally friendly features, including heat and water reclamation systems.
UW Provision will soon be selling products like high-end steaks through the Internet.
“Click and pick. Be like Omaha Steaks,” Kalscheur said. “Maybe come up with a few fundraising packages so if you buy something, then 5 bucks goes to the UW band, the football team, the hockey guys or whatever. That’s our next step.”
Put it all together and UW Provision may have to change its label as “The Meat People” to “The Meet People” because of all the ways it helps such a varied number of customers.
“It kind of looks like we’re the wagon wheel, we’re the hub in the center and the spokes are going everywhere else,” Kalscheur said. “Our trucks go all over the place on a daily basis. We get to just about every city in Wisconsin twice a week, so it’s easy for us to pick up something here and take it there and connect everything together.”
It’s hard for anyone in the food business not to notice all the changes that have taken place at UW Provision since Steve Kalscheur took over the business two years ago from his father, Jim Kalscheur.
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“Jim and the older generation did a really great job. But since Steve took over, I think it has gone to a whole other level,” said Karl Miller, who buys meat from UW Provision for Miller & Sons Supermarkets in Verona and Mount Horeb.
What Miller likes is that the company’s personality hasn’t changed.
“They bring stuff to us on Saturday mornings. The big guys don’t do that,” Miller said. “I think (UW Provision) has gotten to be a pretty big guy, but what we deal with them, they treat us like they’re one of the little guys yet.”
Van Nutt, the executive director of the Middleton Chamber of Commerce, said UW Provision sets an outstanding example of how smart companies prosper in a tough economy.
“Smarter businesses, when times get tough, do typically get more involved in things because they do understand the best practice sharing and they do understand top of mind,” Nutt added.
“So much of what we do at this Chamber is connecting needs and resources, and a lot of that is people sharing best practices,” Nutt said. “They have a handful of people who are very active.”
Kalscheur is an interesting study because he is earning high marks as a company president even though he doesn’t have a college degree. His final year of schooling was at Mount Horeb High School, where he was a star wrestler who went to the WIAA state championships as a junior and senior.
He used a track-and-field metaphor to explain his role as president. “I just grabbed the baton and kept running,” Kalscheur said before adding that his father taught him to be a hands-on president who knows every facet of the operation.
So Kalscheur doesn’t spend time during the work day ensconced in a big office. He sits at a cramped desk in the middle of a busy work area looking at two computer screens full of data.
“He wasn’t a CEO who said we have to budget this and do that,” Kalscheur said of his father, who still comes to the office regularly and helps wherever needed. “Every day he was buying stuff and selling it. He knew the business from the back to the front instead of the front to the back. That’s all stuff you can’t learn by going to school. You have to learn it by doing it. If there’s a problem, fix it.”
Wrestling also taught Kalscheur to be accountable for his actions. “It kind of teaches you: What’s your plan? What are you going to do? If that guy beats you, it’s not the ref’s fault, it’s your fault. Manage your own destiny. If you’ve got a problem, you better fix it because nobody else will do it for you,” he said.
'Getting the word out'
Kalscheur’s latest quest is to find and sell more high-quality specialty products from Wisconsin companies. “Now that we have some room, I’d like to take WAMP (Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors) and go get their champion ham and champion summer sausage and champion brats and highlight that we’re selling them on our sign out in front (of the store),” Kalscheur said.
“Or, let’s say you have a champion sausage, let’s take it over to the restaurant guys in Madison. Everybody is into local stuff now. Everybody is acting like, ’Hey, that’s a great new idea.’ But we’ve been doing that for 50 years.”
That’s one example of why some people call UW Provision the county’s best-kept secret.
“Getting the word out is one thing we haven’t been good at,” Kalscheur said. “We’ve been good at buying and selling stuff, we’ve been good at production. Now we have to get back into more of the selling and more of the communication: ‘OK, if you need something, give us a call and we’ll get it done.' "
"Jim and the older generation did a really great job. But since Steve took over, I think it has gone to a whole other level."
— Karl Miller, of Miller & Sons Supermarkets
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