May has been a month of well-deserved recognition for Empire Screen Printing of Onalaska. Within the space of four days, the company based on Marco Road received two major awards. On May 16, at the Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corporation’s headquarters in Madison, Empire was announced as the winner of the Sustainable Process Award for large organizations.

Empire won that award for the technological advances it has pioneered in UV LED curing lamps and inks used in the screen printing process. In fact, Empire is the first screen printer in the entire world to successfully adapt UV LED technology. That innovation marks a big step forward — not only for the industry, but for the environment.

Operating expenses for a press with typical mercury vapor curing units — which generate plenty of heat — cost around $34,000 a year (and the mercury bulbs used eventually end up in a landfill).

However, the cost for the same press installed with UV LED curing units adds up to an energy efficient $658 per year.

According to Empire’s president, John Friesmuth, that’s why the company has invested $1.8 million in the new technology — a technology essentially created by its own employees.

The company’s “can do” attitude was also cited on May 12 when Empire was named Wisconsin Family Business of the Year for companies with more than 100 employees. The award program, now in its 13th year, is sponsored by Smith & Gesteland, LLP, a Madison-based CPA and business consulting firm, First Business Bank, and the Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek law firm.

The aim is to highlight and celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of family businesses that make a positive impact on their communities and on Wisconsin’s economy. A panel of independent judges looked at 15 companies nominated for the award before naming Empire the winner in the large company category.

Although it has nearly 300 employees, Empire definitely fits into the category of a family business, but the judges also had especially high praise for the company’s “game-changing” technological innovations, its willingness to share them openly with their peers in the industry and its commitment to social responsibility.

Empire’s founder and CEO, James Brush, started the company as a one-man operation in his garage back in 1960. The company’s board of directors includes Brush, his wife Cindy, his daughter and HR manager Autum Jacobs, as well as stepson and president John Friesmuth.

Over the years, many other family members — siblings, kids and grandkids — have worked at the company in production, engineering and sales or during summer breaks from college. Friesmuth, who worked at nearly every job in the company before becoming its president, said that because employees tend to stay so long (one employee has been there 43 years), the family vibe extends to employees.

“To be honest, just about everyone here feels like family,” Friesmuth said. “You get to know people’s kids because they’ve worked here in the summer, too.

Friesmuth believes that Empire’s culture of finding ways to do things better stems directly from Jim Brush’s influence. Brush’s mother died when he was young and he lived with his grandmother for a while before leaving home at age 17.

There were times when he was living in his car, Friesmuth said. “Jim had to grow up self-reliant and this company has become that way, too.”

Unlike a typical screen-printing operation, Empire has its own machine shop where employees develop, modify and in many cases, build their own production equipment.

“Jim challenged the machine shop to build equipment not found on the market to solve problems for us,” said Doug Billings, vice president of sales and marketing.

The old curing methods were incredibly time-consuming. Empire’s environment-friendly innovations have reduced the time to do jobs from days to minutes. Friesmuth said that back in 2008, the company might have 1,000 or so jobs in process at any one time. Today, he said that number would be less than 100.

Although Empire has plenty of major clients — firms like Kwik Trip, Honeywell and Bunnomatic — the production innovations they’ve made have not only reduced time to complete jobs, but given the company ample room to grow.

“We’re probably at 60 percent capacity now,” Friesmuth said.

In July, Empire hosts its second major trade show. Sixty vendors from all over the country will come in and get a good look at the company’s latest technological breakthroughs.

Meanwhile, it’s likely that further innovations await. Friesmuth said that his machine shop crew is currently working on perfecting a 12-color LED process for a large format press.

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