Essential Industries regretfully announces the passing of its beloved Chairman, James “Jim” H. Wheeler, Jr. on January 23, 2013 at the age of 90. Jim was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan to James and Marvel Wheeler on August 16, 1922. Jim was a loving husband, father, grandfather and an owner (1965-1992), Sales Executive (1965-1992) and Chairman of the Board (1992-2013) for Essential Industries.
Essential Industries’ roots can be traced to 1898 when it was founded as a soap manufacturer. The business came into the Wheeler family in 1917 and in 1944 Jim’s father purchased the company and changed the name to Essential Chemicals. Jim began college at Marquette University in 1941 and was subsequently appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy. He graduated as an Ensign, U.S Navy in 1944; the same year his father took over Essential Chemicals.
During his tenure in the navy, Jim served on destroyers in the Pacific Fleet under Admiral Halsey and in the Atlantic Fleet on COMDESLANT’s Staff through 1947. In 1950, he married his beloved wife Virginia “Ginny” (nee Bade) and was recalled to duty in the U.S. Navy in 1951 for the Korean Conflict. Jim finally resigned in 1953 after seven years of service to his country.
Jim returned home to work with his father at Essential Chemicals. They grew the business and eventually landed Sears, Roebuck & Co. as a key customer by developing Kenmore laundry soap. When he was ready to retire in 1963, Jim’s father sold the business to DeSoto. Jim wanted to continue what was becoming a very successful career in the Jan-San business. DeSoto had no interest in making anything other than soap. Jim convinced DeSoto to continue manufacturing chemicals which he sold to his growing list of customers.
In 1965 Jim recruited a new business partner, Nick Contos from T.F. Washburn Co. Together they fundamentally transformed the business, taking the company into the new field of emulsion polymerization.
In addition to their successful business partnership, Jim and Nick and their wives Ginny and Stella would forge life-long friendships. “We were really just a mom and pop kind of business when we started out. The four of us were always together when we went to business functions,” said Nick Contos. Jim and Nick purchased a manufacturing facility in tiny Merton, WI and began to expand their production capabilities. Nick was the President and “inside man” managing the operations of the business. Jim, with his larger-than-life personality and boundless energy, assumed responsibility for Sales and Marketing. The business grew quickly.
In 1988, Jim was delighted when his son Michael left his medical practice to join him in business and the company name was changed to Essential Industries. The two relished working together and Michael was instrumental in developing Essential’s R&D capabilities which allowed Essential to differentiate itself in the burgeoning industry. These new capabilities also enabled Essential Industries to expand, building a second plant in Nevada, and adding International, Raw Material and Toll Manufacturing divisions.
In 1992, Michael and his partner Russ Mascari bought the business from Jim and Nick Contos. Jim became Chairman of the Board and would continue to provide guidance to, and share his wisdom with Michael, the current owner and CEO, for the rest of his life. Jim and his wife Ginny and Nick and his wife Stella remained close friends through the years. “He was very energetic and so likeable. And he really cared about people; which is why the people who knew him were so loyal to him,” Nick Contos says.
Jim was famous in the industry for his riotous sense of humor and irresistible charm. Quick-witted and a great reader of people he was a salesman’s salesman. “Every salesman wanted to be like Jim. He could sell anything to anyone,” says Ed Zgrabik, VP North American Sales for Essential.
Jim’s generosity was also a defining characteristic. Essential COO Tom Gitzlaff remembers, “Jim was one of those people who never forgot to acknowledge an anniversary or ask about a loved one’s well-being if they’d been ill. One of the great lessons so many of us learned from Jim was the power of the personal touch. He was a great businessman because he was such a generous person.”
Jim was best known for his integrity and his unqualified belief that business is best built in honest service to your customers. He instilled these beliefs in his children. His son Michael remembers, “His customers knew that whatever Dad promised he would deliver. He recognized that the food on his table and the clothes on his children’s backs were provided by his beloved customers. Growing up, Dad would include our customers in his blessing before dinner every evening.”
Essential Industries celebrates the life of James H. Wheeler, Jr. and thanks him for his service to his country, for providing his beloved employees with excellent jobs, and for his efforts in business; a keystone in the foundation of Essential Industries’ culture, and current and future success.