It does not take long when talking with Glenn Christel and Tom Heiberger for the word “passion” to come to mind.
The two business partners behind Christel and Heiberger Builders Inc. clearly have a passion for their families and their faith, but also for their business. In reality, all three things are interwoven to form the foundation which has allowed the business to succeed over the past 30 years.
Tom and Glenn have come a long way from where they were in the late 1970s when they met while working for Don Johnson, a builder based in Kiel.
Glenn had grown up on a farm and— like most farm boys—learned to work with tools while fixing and building things on the farm. He later worked at Laun Furniture in Kiel assembling furniture, but that experience served to show him that he wanted to be working outdoors. Glenn took apprenticeship tests in carpentry at what was then Lakeshore Technical Institute, then went looking for a job. He found one working for Johnson.
Moved here from Illinois
Tom’s path to working for Johnson was a little different as his family was from Evanston, Ill. They moved to the Chilton area when Tom was a junior in high school. “I loved wood shop,” he said. “I was always in wood shop from early on.”
Don Parsons built Tom’s parents’ home in Chilton and Tom spent a lot of time watching the process. Parsons saw the interest the young man had in construction and said he would offer him a job after he finished high school, which he did. When winter layoffs came, however, Tom started calling around to other employers and wound up working for Johnson and became friends with a coworker named Glenn.
The early 1980s were a lot like the period the country seems to just be coming out of now in which the economy slumped and new home building slowed to a crawl. “1982 was a tough time,” Glenn said. “We were young and ambitious, but we were getting laid off and cut.”
They had been working for Johnson for about six years and enjoyed the experience. “We were very blessed to be hired by a man like that,” Christel said. Johnson developed a subdivision in the growing Appleton area and Tom and Glenn worked on a lot of new homes in that area. “Our minds were big, open funnels,” Glenn said. Tom added, “We were just into it.”
Side jobs on weekends
As many builders do, the two started to do a few side jobs on weekends. Glenn had only been out of high school three years when he started building his own home, doing things he had never done on his own before and learning as he went. One of those tasks was laying concrete block. “I only laid 18 blocks the first day, but those blocks were perfect,” he said with a smile.
Despite the challenging times of the early 1980s, Tom suggested to Glenn that they consider starting their own construction business. Just a few months later, Christel & Heiberger Builders Inc. was in business.
“We were young, but we had that vision of the amount of work we had ahead of us,” Glenn said.
They did not plan on hiring any help. Glenn’s wife helped with some of the bookkeeping. It was four years before they hired their first employee.
Compared to their vision for their futures when they started Christel & Heiberger, Glenn said they are “a lot further than I thought we would be.” Today the company has eight men working on job sites primarily from the east shore of Lake Winnebago to the shoreline of Lake Michigan, but they have travelled as far south as Cedarburg and as far north as the Upper Peninsula to do work.
As Christel & Heiberger celebrates its 31st year in business this year, Tom said, “We still have that passion. We think outside the box. We’re still excited to be pleasing people every day.”
Glenn added, “We went into business to create things. We’re people pleasing kind of guys. When you drive away after that last construction wrap-up meeting, it’s so fulfilling to know that we created this and that our customers are happy with the project, too.”
In addition to thanking their wives Lynn Christel and Vonda Heiberger for all their help and support over the years, the men are equally pleased and proud to have other family members now working in the business. Tom’s children, Jenny (Heiberger) Pitzen and Tommy Heiberger, have both been with the company for nine years, and Glenn’s daughter Jackie joined the business about a year ago.
Knows it inside and out
Since starting with Christel & Heiberger Builders, Jenny has learned quite a bit without even working on the job site. Glenn and Tom agree that “she can look at the plan and she kind of has the home built in her head since she knows the products and applications so well. Jenny is a great asset to the company and has the best attitude and cheery spirit no matter what.”
Jackie hung out with her dad on many a job site while growing up, then went to school for interior architecture. She worked for a commercial designer after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, but her dad invited her to come work for the family company and she said she is loving it. “Here you’re one on one with the customer,” she said.
Jackie added she is pleased to be able to apply her schooling and prior experience in her role at Christel & Heiberger Builders, including using 3D drafting and design software to design new homes and remodel projects. Glenn said the influx of new ideas and the use of this 3D design tool has been great for customers, as Jackie will use the program and the big screen TV in Christel & Heiberger’s New Holstein conference room and show customers what their new construction or remodeling project might look like.
“We made the decision years ago to invest in people,” Glenn said. “You have to rely on people who share your passion and goals. When everyone does their part, the pieces just click together.”
Tom and Glenn both said they feel very blessed to have such hard working and dedicated individuals on their team. Their crew of carpenters includes a couple 20-plus year veterans in Scott Kleinhans (25 years) and Wayne Casper (24). Other employees and their years of service are Jacob Muehlbauer (13), Kevin Kleinhans (13), Ryan Bingenheimer (7), Phil Plagemann (1) and Craig Steinhardt (1).
The Christel & Heiberger team must be doing something right. Last year it was named the Mid-Shores Home Builders Builder of the Year, and it also won the People’s Choice Award in the MSHBA Parade of Homes.
Even through the difficult economy of the last few years, Christel & Heiberger has not had any layoffs. While the company is certainly known for building new homes, no job is too small—including replacing doors and windows, doing kitchen and bathroom remodeling, and just about anything else the customer needs done.
Glenn said the company has done some high-end jobs over the years, but only because that is what those customers wanted. “We want to be known as high quality builders, who look at every person’s budget and try to fit in that budget.”
But under no circumstances will Christel & Heiberger do something of poor quality. Tom said, “If we’re stamping our name on it, we’re going to use a product that will give the customer the results they are looking for. Glenn and I are both very detailed people and we carry that through all aspects of the project.”
After 30 years in the business, Christel & Heiberger Builders Inc. is seeing some second-generation customers. It has a few customers for whom they have built more than one house, and they have been around so long they are starting to do some remodeling projects in homes they built. “We feel very proud of that,” Tom said.
Both men still swing a hammer on occasion, but they also stay very busy working with customers planning their projects. Glenn said the construction trade has changed a lot in 30 years. “It takes more effort to help the homeowner through the process,” he said. “There’s just more to it. More options leads to more decisions.”
Working side by side, the two generations of these two families and all of Christel & Heiberger’s employees are embarking on their fourth decade of construction excellence—and there is no end in sight. “Our families and employees are the future,” Glenn said. “We want this company to go on indefinitely. We’re here for our kids to keep it going.”