PRINCETON – The downtown here is a collection of buildings that were once general stores, butcher shops, bakeries and taverns but are now gift shops, clothing stores, restaurants and antique shops.
One of them even pays homage to the Muk Luk and houses a museum that tells the story of the footwear that was born here in the late 1930s. At its peak, the Handcraft Co. employed more than 400 people but ultimately closed its Muk Luk plant in the early 1970s.
This Green Lake County city of 1,192 people, 77 miles northeast of Madison, is a tourist draw, but what is happening inside a former general store at West Water and South Pearl streets could give the city’s limited manufacturing a boost.
Only this time the product is for the eyes and ears not the feet and comes in the form of a triangular speaker case about the size of a two-slot toaster.
The founders of Princeton Audio, Mike and Beth Pelland, believe their wireless bluetooth speakers, which include a patented, removable, external interface that can adapt to changes in technology, could lead to 40 employees and annual sales of $80 million by 2020.
“It’s manufacturing but not in the old-fashioned sense. It’s a very trendy and technological product, said Kristin Galatowitsch, an attorney and whose husband, Dennis, owns Twister, a shop across the street from Princeton Audio that sells clothing, craft beer, wine, kitchen supplies and gifts. “It gives us that younger flavor.”
The Pellands, both 46, have no intentions of leaving Princeton, despite offers from investors.
They live on Green Lake with their three children, 10, 12 and 15, are sourcing parts from around Wisconsin, have about 80 local investors and the backing of a local nonprofit development organization. They are also about to launch a campaign to raise $500,000 in capital from angel investors to develop other products like headphones, sound bars and sub-woofers all out of wood. The speakers range in price from $300 to $1,500 while headphones will initially sell for $130 a pair.
“Our goal is not to just build a manufacturing company and a brand here but to build economic development in Princeton,” Mike Pelland said. “When someone comes to you and says, ‘We want you to move out of Princeton,’ it’s like do you realize the vendor base I’ve built up in the area that can do this stuff? This is not an easy shape to make out of wood. We’ve gone through lots of iterations to make this so we can mass produce these products and make sure that they sound great and they look good.”
Roby Irvin, a former boat builder and now a cabinet maker in Princeton, produces the wood cases. Molding comes from Ideal Wood Products in Berlin and electronics from Pro-Activce Engineering in Sun Prairie. The internal lithium ion batteries are from Fedco Electronics in Fond du Lac, metal control knobs come from T&W Design in Montello and the metal grills that cover the speaker cones are produced by Miller Tool & Die in Mayville.
Final finishing on the cases is done by one of three companies depending on the order. Basic finishes are done at DeRuyter & Co. in Berlin, medium-end finishing takes place at Omni Glass & Paint in Oshkosh while high-end orders go to Ebel Yacht Works in Scandinavia.
“For some people, a business like this might feel more comfortable in Silicon Valley but to us, this feels natural,” said Beth Pelland, who also works at the Princeton Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’re so ingrained in this community. We want to build up this community.”
Final assembly is done at Princeton Audio where the first floor is a mix of office, retail and manufacturing space although most sales will be direct through the Internet and to wholesalers and other businesses.
The building also has a recent history of retail fame. From 1996 to the late 2000s, it was the home of Tracy Porter, whose home furnishings drew acclaim from Oprah Winfrey. Like Porter’s creations, Princeton Audio speakers are works of art as well. Wood choices include mahogany, white oak, black walnut, cherry and maple. Each case has the same design and speaker but each has its own sound characteristics.
“Each tone wood resonates differently based on the density of the wood” said Mike Pelland. “This wood moves. It definitely plays a factor.”
Pelland grew up in the Chicago area and attended Southern Illinois University before working as a design engineer for Motorola and Hewlett Packard. He started his own consulting firm in 1997, which led to the creation of Red Fusion Studios in 2010. When the studio’s largest customer, Milwaukee-based Koss Corp., pulled its business in early 2014, Pelland was forced to close the business and layoff 40 employees in offices in Princeton, Milwaukee and Chicago.
Beth was born in North Dakota and then lived in Janesville and Edgerton before graduating from Middleton High School and UW-Whitewater. After meeting Mike, they lived in the Chicago suburbs and began looking for a weekend home on Green Lake. In 2005, after buying a home, they put their children in the Princeton School District and have turned into locals.
They drink Piggly Wiggly brand bottled water, are regulars at the Buckhorn Bar & Grill and fish for bluegills, crappie and bass on Green Lake. Mike Pelland also plays basketball three mornings a week at Markesan High School with Joe Dillie, the president of Farmers State Bank in Markesan and with whom he does his banking.
The Pellands bought their 7,000-square-foot building in downtown Princeton for $150,000 in 2011 and are spending another $60,000 to remodel the second floor for their offices. That project should be completed by spring and allow the company, which has a liquor license, to also host events. Ultimately, the Pellands would like to move assembly work to a 19,000-square-foot building a block away that has been vacant for years but was built in the 1960s to make Muk Luks.
Attorney Mike Lehner is a lifelong resident of Princeton where his grandfather started a law practice in 1904. While Lehner has seen the city’s downtown transform over the years, more manufacturing would add to the tax base and bring jobs.
“I certainly would like to see Princeton grow and expand and have this kind of new business. I’m hoping it will take off,” said Lehner, 65, a Princeton Audio investor. “What I like about these particular speakers is that they won’t go out of date, and they can be easily retrofitted. These are beautiful tone woods that are like a piece of furniture.”
The company, with only one other full-time employee, and the designs are winning awards and drawing attention.
In January, Princeton Audio took first place and won $5,000 in the Northeast Wisconsin Business Plan Competition and took third place at America’s Pitch Tank in Appleton. In 2014, the speaker captured bronze in the International Design Awards competition that attracted more than 100 entries from 52 countries.
The Tri-County Regional Economic Development Corp. that serves Marquette, Waushara and Green Lake counties also took the unusual step of investing $25,000 in the company in July 2014. The non-profit now owns a share of the company and has a seat on its board of directors.
“The upside potential is tremendous and our original investment did what it was supposed to do,” said Bill Wheeler, the development corporation’s executive director. “The future’s going to tell. He’s got a great product but it’s got to be marketed and it has to get out there among those people involved with that type of technology, and the audiophiles have to buy into it. I think it’s really just a matter of time before it really catches fire.”