As it approaches the half-century mark, Wichelt Imports Inc. continues to grow and remains a leader in the needlework industry, says Aimee Wichelt, who bought the business from her parents in 2007.
Founded in 1970, the business operates from a building along Hwy. 35, two miles south of La Crosse. It is a wholesale distributor of fine needle art fabric and supplies to stores in many countries, and offers more than 10,000 needlecraft products. Those products are used for cross-stitching, needlepoint and embroidery.
Wichelt Imports has about 30 employees.
Joyce and Ray Wichelt started the business in January 1970 in the basement of their nearby home, selling imported German gift items. They soon expanded their product line to include Norwegian wool yarn for knitting and Norwegian embroidery kits.
Other European imports followed, and Wichelt Imports outgrew the couple’s home. So they built a 4,800-square-foot warehouse in 1977 near Goose Island.
The cross-stitch industry grew significantly during the 1970s and 1980s, Aimee Wichelt said. And in 1977, Wichelt Imports became the exclusive U.S. distributor for Permin of Copenhagen, one of the largest embroidery manufacturers in Europe.
In 2004, Wichelt Imports purchased the Mill Hill line of beads, kits, buttons and treasures, which required a major expansion of its building that was completed in 2005. Since then, it has been designing and assembling Mill Hill kits, mainly for cross-stitching. The other kits the company sells come to Wichelt Imports already assembled.
With the expansion, the Wichelt Imports building covers more than 14,000 square feet of space. A new façade was put on the front of the building in 2014. “It was time to update,” Aimee Wichelt said of the new façade.
Wichelt Imports distributes its products to about 1,000 retail stores around the world, she said. It also sells products to at least a dozen other distributors that in turn sell to stores around the world.
Its product line includes more than 700 colors and counts of premium-quality fabrics, as well as prefinished table linens and towels, graphs and kits, threads, beads, stitchery accessories and hardware. All of Wichelt Imports’ fabric comes from Germany and Denmark.
The business continues to grow, Wichelt said, partly because “We’ve been able to secure some exclusive lines” of products.
One way the business has expanded in the past decade is “We’ve gotten licenses from artists,” Wichelt said. “We take their artwork and turn it into cross-stitch designs” for kits that Wichelt Imports sells. Some of those artists include Jim Shore, Debbie Mumm, Laurel Burch and Leigh Standley, the artist and owner of Curlin Girl Design.
For the past 10 years, Wichelt Imports also has published and distributed the Mirabilia line of cross-stitch designs.
Wichelt attends three trade shows in the U.S. each year, mainly to interact with retailers. She also attends an annual trade show in Cologne, Germany, where she visits with international distributors as well as retailers. At the Cologne show, she also is looking for new products that she might begin carrying.
Wichelt worked at her parents’ business during summers while she was in high school and college. She graduated from Luther High School in Onalaska in 1984 and received a bachelor’s degree in accounting in 1988 from Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.
Then she moved to Minneapolis, where she was an accountant for eight years with PreferredOne, a company that administers health benefits for clients. That was followed by three years as payroll manager at Dairy Queen corporate headquarters in Edina, Minn.
Wichelt moved back to La Crosse in 2000, to take over her parents’ business when they retired. She bought the business from them in July 2007.
“It was always in the back of my head that this is what I wanted to do, own the business,” she said.
“The best advice I received from Mom was to work for someone else before taking over this business,” Wichelt said of her earlier jobs at PreferredOne and Dairy Queen. “Working for other businesses was a way to prove I could make it on my own.” And it gave her an opportunity to see how other businesses are run.
“Going from two big companies to a smaller business was a culture change,” Wichelt said. “It takes some getting used to. You adapt.” She added that she enjoys owning the business.
“I’m very fortunate to have such a great group of employees,” Wichelt said. “Most of the people have been here at least 10 to 15 years.”