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How Businesses Are Building Community in Sheboygan, WI

Collaboration, investment in community are hallmarks of local businesses, big and small.

By Heather Cherry on May 9, 2023

Courtesy of Sheboygan County EDC

When you live in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, the extraordinary accomplishments of local businesses can seem commonplace. But big companies like Sargento and Johnsonville credit their success to their community — whether the general community or their employees.

“We consider our community to be one of our core stakeholders,” says Louie Gentine, CEO of Sargento Foods. “That has been a part of our philosophy since my grandfather started the business in 1953. He strongly believed that to have a thriving business, he needed to be surrounded by great communities.”

A great community isn’t just where people live but also where they work.

“We refer to our employees as members — we’re a very team-oriented environment. We want all our members to feel proud, engaged and supported in keeping a strong community,” says Stephanie Schafer, associate director of earned media at Johnsonville. “One of our company values is about loving your neighbor. Part of that is watching out for your coworker to help them stay safe and giving them a good critique on how to do their job well, but it’s also loving your community.”

Sargento Foods
Courtesy of Sargento Foods

Pillars of Support

Sargento supports the community by focusing on four pillars: housing, hunger, education and events. This means they may sponsor sporting activities, donate to fundraising events, build a science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) program in the local high school, or partner with nonprofit organizations to extend their reach.

“We’ve partnered with Habitat for Humanity in the Sheboygan area to help rebuild neighborhoods for individuals,” Gentine says. “The United Way is also a leading organization that we support. They have an amazing pulse on the community’s needs and make the biggest difference. We are one of the largest contributors as a company and do a corporate fundraising drive and match dollar for dollar.”

Johnsonville has a similar mindset. For example, they have a service time off program where members can use up to eight hours on workdays to donate to the community. They also sponsor an annual member giving drive where members can submit applications for a nonprofit they want to see Johnsonville support.

“The member giving drive is a chance for members to share nonprofits that are important to them,” Schafer says. “It is a popular program that reflects the giving spirit of our members — they have a good community service mindset.”

Courtesy of Sheboygan County EDC

Workforce Development

The support for the community doesn’t end there. Many Sheboygan companies are actively involved in creating lasting change for future generations.

“Many of us have grown up or attended school together,” says Michael Stayer-Suprick, president of Johnsonville’s international business and CEO of Johnsonville Holdings. “Collectively we share in the beliefs that we have wonderful jobs to offer, and Sheboygan County is a desirable place to live, work, and raise families.”

To do this, companies are investing in resources — like local high school programs — that promote a strong workforce. For example, Sargento has a position specific to workforce and community development where the individual’s role is dedicated to identifying employee barriers and how to overcome them.

“We saw many years ago that workforce development was going to be key to the success of our future,” says Portia Young, director of corporate public relations at Sargento.

Workforce development research helped identify a significant need for affordable housing throughout Sheboygan County. As a result, four multi-generational, family-owned companies — Johnsonville, Kohler Co., Masters Gallery Foods, Inc., and Sargento Foods — have partnered with the Sheboygan County Economic Development Corporation (SCEDC) to create The Forward Fund and help move Sheboygan County forward.

The Forward Fund addresses some of the barriers in the current housing market and provides affordable options to residents. The most recent round of funding enabled the Forward Fund to submit a proposal for 24.88 acres that will provide up to 49 single-family homes in Phase I and additional lots in Phase II for other multi-unit single-family dwellings.

“We understand that we can create a strong workforce development program, but if people can’t live here in affordable housing, that won’t benefit us or them,” Young says.

“In looking to the future we also all see a tight labor market ahead — largely related to lack of affordable single-family housing,” says Stayer-Suprick. “These family-owned companies have a great track record of collaborating on initiatives to better Sheboygan County, and this Forward Fund is the latest example.”

Sargento and Johnsonville joined The Forward Fund because of its long-term impact on the community.

“It was easy to see there was a need and to get excited about supporting this,” Gentine says. “The Forward Fund is a great example of how we can unite and support change for our community.”

Stayer-Suprick adds, “There are great-paying manufacturing jobs here, from top to bottom. We know that homeownership is an important goal for families, but today and over the last decade, that is a challenge due to single-family home inventory and at an affordable price. A transient workforce doesn’t build a good community. If we can work together to make these developments happen for those looking for places to raise their families, we’ll open up more opportunities to attract and retain employees here in Sheboygan County.”

Sargento Foods
Courtesy of Sargento Foods

Collective Effort

The commitment to bettering the community isn’t exclusive to big businesses.

“I don’t think it’s just the big businesses working to make a better community. It goes back to the area of Sheboygan County, down to the individuals who support each other,” Gentine says. “People are always showing up for each other. It is amazing to see how the community comes together — big or small, this is a great community that looks out for each other.”

And that sense of community is contagious.

“There is a sense of pride in the community,” Gentine says. “I get that from talking to our employees — they are proud when they see the Sargento logo in the community supporting whatever it may be. But even if you’re not an employee and see businesses supporting the community, it makes people feel good to live in an area that has been blessed with so many families and companies working to make our communities great.”

This article was sponsored by the Sheboygan County EDC.

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