WILLMAR — John TerWisscha began his construction career in the summer of 1954 digging footings with a shovel for Mel Werder. Werder was building a hog barn 4 miles south of Willmar.
“I asked if Mel had any work for a dude like me,’’ recalls TerWisscha who had returned in late February from military service in Korea.
“He said, ‘There is the shovel.’ I picked up the shovel and I started digging. And that is how I started in construction.’’
TerWisscha was remembering his early days as the company he created in 1964 celebrated 50 years of business last week. Originally founded as a residential construction firm, TWC expanded into and found success in the commercial market.
Today, TWC is known as an industry leader in the funeral home, dental and veterinary markets.
TerWisscha worked for Werder for six years. In 1961, TerWisscha built a home for his family during his off time and he thought that he could have his own construction business, so that’s what he did. His first job was a remodeling project for a couple on Seventh Street West.
“I gave them a price on it and I thought, ‘Not too bad.’ I think I earned about a dollar and a quarter or a dollar and a half an hour. So that’s how I started,’’ he said.
In 1964, on the advice of his accountant, TerWisscha incorporated, which marks the company’s 50th anniversary.
TerWisscha says God gave him good men to work with.
“I just think of that so often. I was so blessed,’’ he said.
In 1977, TerWisscha hired Keith Nelson, who learned about construction from his father. In high school, Nelson worked for a residential contractor and started at TWC shortly after graduation. He is TerWisscha’s son-in-law and is company president.
In 1985, TerWisscha was joined by his son, Kelly, who studied construction management at Moorhead State College and serves as chief executive officer.
In the late 1970s, TerWisscha decided he needed to expand into the commercial market, and built his last house in 1978.
“I had a lot of good clients and I had good men working for me. I just felt I had to expand,’’ he said.
The company built half a dozen churches around the area, and then started constructing funeral homes. TerWisscha said the funeral home industry was going through a process of complying with building codes in their body preparation rooms and there weren’t many funeral homes that met the code.
“They were all needing to do something,’’ he said. “We hired a salesman … and we started with funeral homes. We built funeral homes in about five states.’’
In 1992, TerWisscha decided he wanted to do less company management. He became a project manager and went on the road, managing funeral home projects in four states.
About four years later, TerWisscha decided to retire and he sold the business to Keith and Kelly in 1996. TerWisscha jokes that “the boys’’ are smarter than he is.
“And they’ve had their hard times, too. They’ve learned. I had my hard times back then, too. But I think they’re doing fine and that’s the way I see the industry has gone. Like I told Kelly when he decided he wanted to pursue construction, you’ve got to specialize in some buildings, and they have done a great job.’’
Kelly TerWisscha attributes the company’s success to specialization.
“When I first started, came out of college, and started trying to sell construction, I would hear that someone was going to build a convenience store and I’d try to sell that. The next day I’d go to a bank, then a church,’’ he said.
“You never could say that we really do know your industry better than anyone else. So that’s why we really wanted to specialize so that we could honestly say that we know your industry better than anyone else,’’ he said. “We specialize in your industry. All of the intricacies of the industry, we know.’’
Besides funeral homes, TWC branched into the veterinary market.
“Every town that we would go into that had a funeral home had two or three animal hospitals,’’ he said. “There seemed to be a demand. And when we looked at demographics and expansion of the baby boomer and pet owner population, (it) seemed like the animal hospital market was a good place to move to.’’
TerWisscha says the market has really taken off for TWC in the U.S. and Canada. TWC is now the No. 1 design-build firm in the nation for animal hospitals.
“In the mid-’90s, 80 percent of our business was funeral homes. Today about 80 percent of our business is animal hospitals,’’ he said.
TWC is also targeting the dental industry as another specialty market. Specialization requires keeping up with trends and dealing with different codes and regulations in other states. The company has a total of 25 employees in four offices in Willmar, Denver, Pennsylvania and southern California.
TerWisscha says the local market is taking off again.
“If you just look around town, there’s a lot more happening now than there has been the last five years,’’ he said. “So we’re targeting that as well.’’
Nelson describes the pride of pointing to buildings along First Street, 19th Avenue and the industrial park that TWC has been part of. He said TWC’s 50-year history “lends a lot of history to the city and that’s what’s cool, too.’’
TerWisscha says there are not very many companies that even make it to a second generation or make it very far into a second generation.
“So there is a great deal of satisfaction with that,’’ he says.