John Wick, founder of Wick Buildings, was presented the Bernon G. Perkins Award at the 2017 Frame Building Expo in Nashville. The award honors individuals who demonstrate exemplary service to the post-frame industry.
The award is befitting of Wick, 90, who used his firsthand experience and education to design buildings that brought additional flexibility to post frame.
Wick came from a modest farm background in Douglas County, Wisconsin, his family affected deeply by the Great Depression. Balancing work and school obligations became part of his life early on. Determined to be self-sufficient, he was just 15 when he got a job as a section hand with the Great Northern Railroad; he didn’t reveal his real age to his employer. Still living at home, he was able to save all his money. Even now, years later, he is proud to claim that he was able to pay his own way. “In all those years, from the time I was 15 years old, the only money I got from my parents was the $200 I got from my father as a wedding gift when Helen and I were married,” he said.
After graduating from high school in 1944, he was inducted into the V-12 Navy College Training Program, which sought to ready candidates for officer training. He was sent to the University of Wisconsin–Madison to study civil engineering, but before he could finish his degree, World War II came to an end, and so did the V-12 program. He continued his studies under the G-I Bill.
Wick would eventually earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration and was in sight of a doctoral degree in finance but never published his thesis. One professor enlisted his help for three years as a teaching assistant in corporate finance, but as a farm boy, he was not afraid of physical labor. To earn more money, he baled hay. “While still in grad school, I bought a New Holland twine hay baler, and for four years I did custom baling,” he said.
Wick said his ultimate goal had always been to be a contractor. “I took every course I could. I took all the advanced math and science courses I could to prepare myself to be in the contractor business,” he said.
That opportunity would not come immediately. Although he did some design work in college, he returned to the family farm with his wife and young children to care for the farm after his father left to pursue a job opportunity. When his father returned two years later, John began working for construction businesses.
It was his only time being fired that presented him with one of his greatest opportunities. By way of explanation Wick said, “I always had my own idea of how to do things,” even if his way was in conflict with the president’s. “One day, the man I worked under said, ‘John, there’s not room for you and the president of this company, and he’s the son-in-law, so you’ll have to go.’ ”
Though such news sends some people into depression, it sent John Wick to the Minnesota State Fair in Minneapolis. “All this happened in one weekend,” he said. “I’m out of a job. The fair is on. I go to the fair. I see this display of a pole building. I thought, oh, that’s it! Here I am, with a farm background, an engineering background, a finance background, a desire to be in construction—this is for me.”
The building belonged to E. G. Clinton & Company, Minneapolis. “So I went to talk to Mr. Clinton right then and there. He gave me a job, and I went to work for $2.50 an hour on Monday morning.”
The seasonal nature of construction soon drove John to pick up stakes and make his final move to create his own design-and-build company. He was working on a 5-percent straight sales commission and paying his own expenses when winter blew in. It was December 1954. “With three months of experience with Clinton, a storm coming in from the west and an extended winter shutdown of business,” he said, “I headed to Madison to start my own business.”
The following month he sold his first building to Mel Bickford of Prairie du Sac. “I was the foreman working on the construction project with Mel and two of his neighbors. I provided all engineering calculations and construction drawings, purchased the materials and construction tools and provided my labor. For most of the first two years I was salesman, engineer, foreman, worker and purchasing agent, working days and nights,” Wick said.
The first year he was the sole salesman but added a salesman in Wisconsin and then Illinois over the subsequent two years. Each received a salary, expenses and a commission.
“Then I was contacted by a silo salesman from Winnebago County who wanted to sell buildings to his customers on a straight commission basis, while continuing to sell silos and barn equipment,” Wick recalled. This agreement would eventually evolve into the more sophisticated dealer/builder model it has become today.
Wick’s drive propelled him into many other areas of the building business, including mobile home sales and manufacturing, over the coming years. For a time, it was these business that held his focus as he traveled between plants in Georgia and Texas.
Housing busts and booms brought challenges and changes, but post frame remained the foundation of the Wick business. Wick also was closely aligned with the National Frame Building Association, helping to establish and expand the organization.
One innovation in post frame that Wick helped to lead was the move from the split-ring connectors to manufactured truss plates. Split rings required drilling and overlapping timbers, a laborious process. Manufactured truss plates were fast and easy.
Wick also had a part in expanding pole buildings to accommodate larger equipment. The standard for pole buildings was developed by Howard Doane and Bernon Perkins of Doane Agricultural Services Co. Wick was impressed by their original pole-building concept, but he also had his own ideas. “They designed the modern pole barn to give coverage from rain, snow and wind at a minimum price, and they designed it with 15-foot spacing,” he said. Wick took it to 16 feet.
“My converting this to 16-foot spacing—just call it common sense. It didn’t make sense to me to cut a 16-foot plank down to 15.
“Going wider, that was a matter of understanding how you work with tractor and loader, tractor and manure spreader, tractor and wagon. By 1954, on our farm in Douglas County, we had gone from loose hay to hay bales and from pitchfork to tractor front-end loader, working inside our 40’ x 90’ dairy barn, which educated me in the limitations of working inside an older two-story barn.
“By 1954 a low price was no longer the appeal of pole buildings,” he continued. “Now the appeal was expanding farm operations while saving labor hours and reducing backbreaking tasks by using a one-story building with wide doors and high, clear-span interior work areas, which allowed machines to work efficiently and do the heavy lifting.
“Farm Hand in Minneapolis had a motto of ‘Better Machines for Materials Handling.’ I expanded that to ‘Better Buildings for Materials Handling.’”
His alliance with NFBA has afforded him the opportunity to stay close to the development of building and safety codes, and both are still important to the company today. Gail Miller, a former sales manager for Wick Buildings, is posthumously recognized by NFBA with a safety award in his honor.
It’s ironic that Wick is witnessing the full circle of the industry’s evolution. What he strived to make simple, he also helped to expand and make more complex.
“We start out with these buildings that meet the basic function, and form follows function,” he said. “We wanted to make it a little more comfortable for people to use, so we and others added a roof over a door, then we put on a bigger roof and added a concrete pad. … Now the designs are overflowing with architectural features. They’re no longer simple to build; they are getting more complex.”
It’s an exciting time, and Wick is happy to witness the changes and to know he has been part of it.
Wick’s wife died in 2016 just one day after he celebrated his 90th birthday. The last building he designed was a 6’ x 60’ covered bridge named in her honor, Helen’s Bridge, over Black Earth Creek on the Wolf Run Trail in Mazomanie.
An avid walker for many years—he clocked a 9½-minute mile in his mid-80s—John now bikes. He put 2,000 miles on his bicycle last year.
John Wick, the Movie Connection
If you are familiar with the popular series of big-screen movies called “John Wick,” yes, it does have a family connection to John Wick the founder/owner of Wick Buildings and recipient of the 2017 Bernon G. Perkins Award. Wick’s grandson, Derek Kolstad is the screenwriter.
You won’t find many similarities in character, however. The movie is about an assassin named John Wick. Keanu Reeves plays the part of John Wick, and according to the real John Wick, it was Reeves who gave the movie its name. “My grandson … wrote my name in as the assassin, with a different name for the movie,” he said, adding: “A series was planned like the James Bond series, with John Wick having a similar ring to James Bond.”
According to John, his grandson is now writing “John Wick: Chapter 3.” He has been writing movies for 20 years, and “John Wick” is his best and biggest success.