Brought to you by Raymond James.
With its large and diverse population, Fort Wayne can be the place for many upstarts to make it— or break it. So it shouldn't be a surprise that several multi-million dollar companies were founded in Indiana's second largest city and continue to give back to our community. Here are five companies that had their start in the area and continued their success far beyond the borders of our state.
Perhaps one of the oldest companies on our list, Lincoln Financial Group was founded by a group of Fort Wayne businessmen in 1905. The company began as Lincoln National Life Insurance, and has since expanded into a family of companies known as Lincoln National Corporation, or Lincoln Financial Group. Upon their start, they were the first and only company in the world to use Abraham Lincoln's name, image, and famous values as the core of their brand, a permission they received from Robert Todd Lincoln (history reminder: that's Abraham Lincoln's oldest son).
Lincoln Financial Group has gone on to be named Best Life Insurance Company in the United States by World Finance magazine, and has made the 2015 list as a Fortune 500 Company. Although they've grown into an extremely successful, national company, they haven't forgotten where they began.
Their building downtown, although not the official headquarters anymore, still sports the iconic "Home Office" sign. Lincoln Financial Group is a blessing to philanthropic organizations and their commitment to community development is unprecedented. Since 2006, they have invested more than $26.9 million back into the community, funding everything from local youth and education, to economic development and the arts. Lincoln Financial Group employees can be found serving on boards and volunteering around the city, and in 2014 alone the company matched employee donations to Indiana nonprofits totaling over $121,000.
Do it Best Corp. is celebrating its 70th anniversary as a company this year. The company (originally named Hardware Wholesalers, Inc. [HWI]) was founded in 1945 right here in the Fort and has been headquartered here ever since. Do it Best Corp. has a long history that has culminated in 3,800 member-owned locations across the United States and in 53 countries. With such an international presence, the company could have its headquarters anywhere in the world, yet still it remains in Fort Wayne. A local representative said,
"Much of our success has come from a steadfast tradition of hard work, innovation and a commitment to serving independent home improvement retailers. It’s a tradition with deep roots right here in Northeast Indiana. Fort Wayne has been our home for seven decades with world headquarters still located in the original 1948 warehouse built under the leadership of founder Arnold Gerberding."
Founder Arnold Gerberding, who began his career in the hardware business upon graduating high school, became frustrated trying to compete with big names like Sears. He liked what he saw happening in local farm co-ops and decided he could become more competitive by applying the same business model to the hardware and home improvement industry. At that point, he began to dedicate his time to creating his very own co-op.
After personally traveling around the Midwest to meet with their representatives, the charming and persuasive Gerberding convinced 96 companies to become members of his new co-op with an initial $1,000 investment. Ever since HWI started operations in 1945, it was insanely successful. Its growth continued throughout the 20th century, and in 1998, HWI became Do it Best Corp. following a merger.
Despite phenomenal growth, Do it Best Corp. continues to serve the local community. In 1989, then President Don Wolf founded the Study Connection Program, a tutoring program for local elementary school students. They are involved in the Lunch Buddy Program for Big Brothers Big Sisters, and their employees are encouraged to volunteer for Junior Achievement, either by serving on the board or by teaching in local classrooms.
3. Vera Bradley
This is for all of the ladies who love the colorful prints on their Vera Bradley clutches, purses, and backpacks! Vera Bradley is synonymous with fashion in the area, and its easily recognizable patterns and prints make Vera Bradley products stand out from a crowd. In fact, founders Patricia Miller and Barbara Bradley Baekgaard were inspired to start the company when they noticed a distinct lack of feminine, unique luggage in airports while traveling.
Within weeks of their return home to Fort Wayne in 1982, after each invested $250 for materials, they began by selling unique handbags and luggage out of their homes. Vera Bradley began, and those handbags are now known all over the world. The company’s namesake is synonymous with fashion herself: Vera was Baekgaard’s mother, who had great fashion sense and modeled for Elizabeth Arden in the 1930s.
Now, 30 years later, the brand is sold in 2,700 specialty shops and 148 company stores, earning $509 million in sales a year. Despite how large the company has grown, Vera Bradley still remains headquartered in Fort Wayne, showing its continuing support and commitment to this city.
The Vera Bradley foundation has partnered with several large capital ventures in Fort Wayne, including the River Greenway, a local women's shelter, and the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo, in addition to being supporters of many local non-profit organizations.
This company has a reputation in Fort Wayne for being a cool place to work, and is well-known for their beautiful facilities and great atmosphere. The fact that they remain headquartered here in Fort Wayne, rather than in a city known for their connection to the music industry (here's looking at you, Nashville) is simply amazing.
Sweetwater Sound was founded in 1979, when founder Chuck Surack couldn’t find a retailer to suit his price, selection, and customer service needs. He realized that there was an unfulfilled niche in the market and decided to create a company to fill it.
36 years later, the small, one-man company has grown into an industry leader of musical equipment. Their number one goal is to have satisfied customers, and based on their incredible success, it’s working. With an extensive workforce and an even larger facility, Sweetwater Sound will no doubt continue to expand and dominate in its field.
In addition to being a leader in their industry, Sweetwater sound is also a leader in local giving. They've given to almost every high school and middle school music program in the region, helped kick off the "Gold for City" campaign for Fort Wayne's Unity Performing Arts Foundation, and have been a major donor for Greater Fort Wayne Inc. and the Embassy Theatre. It should be no surprise, considering his involvement in the city, that Church Surack was recently awarded the Red Coat at Mad Anthony's Red Coat Dinner for his major impact on our community.
Eating a DeBrand chocolate or delicious truffle is like a rite of passage in Fort Wayne. Every DeBrand Fine Chocolates location is a chocolate lover’s dream.
Owner Cathy Brand-Beere has loved working with chocolate since childhood. Her family was involved in the confectionary arts, which encouraged her obsession with chocolate, and she opened the first DeBrand location in October 1987. The company has experienced phenomenal growth since then.
It has expanded to three branches in Fort Wayne, a wholesale division, and a mail order department. DeBrand ships internationally, and they have opened up a location in Kuwait.
I spoke with a member of the company and asked what has contributed to its phenomenal success. He listed three key factors: quality, pride, and branding. Debrand uses the "highest quality ingredients [they] can find" and they buy locally when possible. They also take great pride as a company in their product and let that show in their branding as a fine chocolatier. Finally, owner Cathy Brand-Beere's "vigilance about being the best" has helped propel the company to success.
Brand-Beere's vigilance isn't just about success. DeBrand gives back to the community in a wide variety of ways, and some of the local organizations impacted by their support are the Hope Center, the Voices of Unity Choir, and Tapestry for Women through IPFW. This past Valentine's Day, DeBrands surprised the Rescue Mission with chocolates, and each resident was able to find a box of chocolates on his pillow.
Fort Wayne offers innovation and potential to both its citizens and its companies. It's been a launching pad for the dreams of many entrepreneurs, and the organizations founded here have contributed to making our community great. Let's continue to support each other and the advancement of our city.
(Photos courtesy of brand websites)
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