When a business has been around 100 years like T.H. Stemper Company, which specializes in church supplies and gifts, there are bound to be stories.
Stories like the one about a seminarian who needed a chalice 30 or 40 years ago, but didn’t have enough money.
“My dad had some chalices here and (the seminarian) just wasn’t sure and his parents were from out of state, or wherever they were, and my dad just said, ‘Well, here, take the chalice, and show it to your parents and see if they like it, and if they like it, we can work something out,’” said James “Jim” Stemper, one of the five third-generation Stempers now running the business. “He would give you the shirt off his back.”
Stories like those remind Jim, 43, who came from 13 years of brick laying to be a salesman for the company, and his brothers Joseph “Joe,” 50, John, 47, Daniel “Dan” G., 52, and Peter, 53, that they have a reputation to uphold, he said.
Grandfather bought company in 1911
A reputation that, as their website explains, dates to 1911 when their grandfather Thomas H. Stemper bought the bankrupt European Statuary & Art Company (ES&A) at 1125 E. Potter Ave., Milwaukee, from Simon Rosenblatt. Rosenblatt’s company, founded in 1894, manufactured plaster statuary and altars and, though T.H., a teacher and organist, was inexperienced in the business, he nursed it back to health.
In 1913, T.H. purchased H.E. Schwartz Co., a bankrupt religious goods store, and relocated it to the building next to ES&A, calling it Milwaukee Church Supply Co.
In 1946, T.H. Stemper Company was officially incorporated.
Joe, also a salesman, said he’s in “awe” of his grandfather, who continued to come into the store to go through the mail until he was 94 years old. T.H. ran the company, which at one time employed more than 100 people, explained Joe, who attends St. John Neumann Parish, Waukesha, and is one of 13 employees.
“I wish I would have been able to ask him about that, see how he did that,” he said.
T.H. Stemper’s sons, Daniel J. and Eugene, succeeded T.H. in owning the company after graduating from Marquette University, according to the website. From 1968, when Daniel J. assumed sole ownership of the company to his sudden death from a heart attack in 1980, Stemper’s has seen its share of challenges.
Vatican II brought challenges
The changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965 posed some of the biggest challenges. Dan, the company’s president, said Stemper’s was primarily a Catholic manufacturer of statues until Vatican II changed the sanctuary.
“It changed the way that the churches were being constructed and remodeled, and it kind of eliminated the need for a lot of statuary and a lot of different old, traditional-style altars,” said Dan, who attends Gesu Parish, Milwaukee.
It led to a decline in business and eventually a change from a Catholic church supply house to a church supply house inclusive of other Christian denominations, he said.
“We would look for other products that they used, too, so we learned what their needs were and then we began to kind of restructure what we sold around that,” he said, though a little more than half of sales come from Catholics.
In 1973, a fire destroyed a story and a half of the building. A local newspaper clipping from the time reported that the three-alarm fire, which Dan said was determined to be arson and what he and his brothers remember as a five-alarm fire, resulted in damages estimated at $40,000.
Peter, vice president of the company, in sixth grade at the time, remembers his dad answering the phone that night before rushing around with two of his brothers. While the main floor was saved, a third of the upper portion of the factory and the basement had to be redone.
“I remember having to do demolition in (the basement),” said Peter, who attends St. Mary Parish, Hales Corners. “It was all charred and it was lined with shelves and we, as kids, got to go in there with sledgehammers and everything to take down the rest of what was charred and we were covered in soot, wearing masks and we thought it was a blast.”
The police department attributed the survival of the main part of the store to doors that had been installed in the basement storage room two to three weeks prior to the fire, according to Peter.
Widow inherits financially unstable business
When Daniel J. Stemper died of a heart attack at age 52 in 1980, T.H. Stemper Co. was thrown for another loop, and his wife, Jean, was thrust into a financially unstable business with no business experience. As the mother of their eight children, including Pat, 60, Mike, who helped run the business until he died of kidney failure two years ago, and their daughter, Libby, who died from a rare stomach cancer three years ago, Jean had helped out at the store after Jim, the youngest, went to school.
John, also a salesman for the company, said he’s happy she did or it would have been a “disaster.”
“She no less raises us and then she’s got to be our boss, too – it’s not easy,” said John, who attends St. Mary Parish, Hales Corners, and joined his brothers after earning a finance degree in college.
Though Jean never wanted to be their boss, Joe said she was good with the customers, employees and at keeping the brothers together.
“I would say she would be a peacekeeper – peacekeeper, boss, mentor – because she really was very, very key in keeping the business going,” Joe said.
Having no experience was just half the battle: The business’ financial instability was unknown until the brothers worked together to rebuild Stemper’s.
“None of us really had an idea of exactly what financial shape or what shape the business or health (of it) was in, but we found out rather quickly when we took over,” said Peter, who has an associate’s degree in business management from MATC and the most knowledge of the products, according to his brothers. “My dad kept a lot of it to himself and didn’t want to bother anyone or worry anyone.”
Friends, associates helped bring business back
Peter said their father’s friends and associates within the industry helped put Stemper’s back on its feet.
One such influence was John D. Brost, a good friend of the family who ran five similar businesses throughout the country, according to Dan, who joined his brothers after working for a marketing firm for seven years upon earning a degree in business administration and a minor in accounting, who said Brost came to their aid from Chicago on a weekly, then monthly basis.
It was Brost who told Joe that all he could do was go into sales because Stemper’s didn’t have money to pay him for another position when he came back from an unsuccessful stint in a friend’s home building business in Arizona.
“I said, ‘Well, I’ve never been in sales,’ and he said, ‘Now you are.’ So, he gave me a pastoral handbook and ‘Here’s some churches – go out there and knock on the doors,’” Joe said. “Peter and I have been here the longest, and just kind of found our way through it, and it’s evolved into this and I wouldn’t change it.”
Joe said his grandfather and father taught him that by treating people fairly and with respect usually means that respect will be handed back.
“…and that’s kind of how we’ve done this whole thing along anyway,” he said. “Seeing how they’ve taken the business the first 100 years and over both of them, that’s what they did. That’s what I saw them both do, more so my dad, and we’ve just kept that going – (we) carry on that tradition.”
Jim also credits Brost with teaching them the importance of getting out in front of customers and being service-oriented.
“In this point-and-click world, we’re pretty rare,” he said of the company that still delivers for free with brothers who stock their cars with palms near Palm Sunday “just in case someone runs short.”
‘We’re not going anywhere’
Dan also said Jean was influential in keeping the business alive when banks advised her to shut the doors.
“With my big, Irish mouth,” said Jean, 83, who honored her roots with a little Irish corner she added to the store.
When bankers told Jean to close the doors, Dan said they switched banks.
“We had close friends that were in banking and they said, ‘You’re not going to make it,’ and you don’t tell her ‘No,’ so she basically said, ‘Thank you, but no thank you, I’ll go to another bank,’ and she did,” Dan said, smiling. “…and she wrote letters to the suppliers to say, ‘Work with us, we’re here, we’re not going anywhere.’”
With that, Stemper’s grew.
“We’ve been growing ever since,” he said.
“Definitely….” Jean added, explaining that the people she got to know through her work at the store were “marvelous,” including the priests.
“I didn’t know anything, really, and just had to learn by being in here,” she said.
They’ve all had to learn by working through the challenges together, respecting each other’s personalities and strengths and keeping business separate from their personal lives.
They don’t know what the landscape of Stemper’s will be years from now, but the brothers want the business to continue – ideally with another Stemper generation.
“My hope,” Joe said, “is that another one will take it from where we had it and take it even farther.”
“Personally, I’d love to see it stay in the family….” Dan said. “It’d be nice to see it go beyond three generations.”