A business visionary who made a huge mark on Janesville died last week at his home in Lake Geneva at age 94.
Don Hedberg was a chemist and Coast Guard veteran who got his start in business selling models of molecules to teachers while living in Evanston, Illinois.
Hedberg’s wife Geraldine “Gerry” Hedberg was often the public face of the family’s business and philanthropic efforts, but it took both of them to create Lab Safety Supply.
Their contributions live on not only in the Hedberg Public Library but in the business they sold in the 1990s to Grainger Industrial Supply, which continues to employ many hundreds in Janesville to this day.
Deb Cahill, a longtime Lab Safety worker, recalled her first job for the company in 1983 was making “spill pillows” that were used to sop up chemical spills. She also recalled a close relationship her bosses created and generous benefits.
In those early days, the Hedbergs would visit employees each morning for a chat. They knew not only people’s names but those of their spouses and children, Cahill recalled.
They even invited employees to Christmas parties at their house.
Once, when Cahill’s daughter was going on a school trip to Mexico, “Gerry just handed me money and said, ‘Here, this will help pay for it.’ They just were extraordinary people.”
Cahill believes there are many such stories that few ever knew about.
“We were family,” she said.
As for the benefits, “My husband got to retire early because of the insurance and profit-sharing we had,” Cahill said.
“They truly cared about their people, and they knew everybody,” agreed Jenny Bianes, who worked for Gerry’s travel agency, Airjet, before taking a job at Lab Safety. “They wanted happy people working for them and truly cared about making it a positive environment.”
Peggy Hedberg, the eldest of the couple’s three daughters, said her parents moved to Janesville in 1977 and lived on Holmes Street near the Janesville Public Library. They relied on the library in pre-internet days for research into government regulations and other information that helped them spot trends and steer the company’s new direction.
“They got this idea to put goggles and safety signs in mailers to teacher,” Peggy said. “Those things went like crazy.”
The business grew. The Hedbergs decided early on to use a product catalog rather than a traditional sales force, following the trend of retail catalogs, such as Land’s End.
“It just changed the way you did business,” much like the internet did a generation later, Peggy said.
“They were so happy in the early days. It was really a fun, creative time for them,” Peggy said.
Don’s obituary describes how he turned the business into a seller of safety supplies for classrooms and laboratories. The business had safety experts on hand to answer customers’ questions, such as which kind of gloves were best for working with a particular chemical, Peggy said.
“He didn’t want to just sell products. He wanted to sell knowledge, too, which probably was very unusual at the time,” she added.
Gerry died of cancer in 1998. Gazette stories described how Don believed her positive outlook kept her alive longer. He later endowed a chair in psychiatry at the UW Medical School and donated $2 million to build the Hedberg HealthEmotions Research Institute building at UW-Madison.
Peggy Huber Tadder started with Lab Safety in 1989 and still works for Grainger. She also felt the Hedbergs’ warmth.
“It was just a very inclusive company, where everybody knew everybody,” Huber Tadder said.
The Hedbergs provided good benefits, which included meals catered by Taco John’s or the Janesville Country Club once a week, Huber Tadder recalled.
The benefits later grew to include a free, on-site medical clinic, a low-cost cafeteria and a fitness center.
Don and Gerry sold their business to Grainger in 1992, and Peggy became its CEO for the next five years.
Lab Safety Supply employed hundreds, and the some of the wealth it generated turned into today’s Hedberg Public Library.
The Hedbergs also donated $7 million to build a new library at Don’s alma mater, Carthage College, supported Rotary Botanical Gardens and helped found Rock Prairie Montessori School.
Former employees of Lab Safety Supply started posting glowing comments to the Hedbergs’ three daughters last week on a private Facebook group, reflecting a legacy that includes goes beyond the Hedbergs’ entrepreneurship and philanthropy:
- “It was an honor to work for your parents.”
- “All of our lives were forever enriched by being a part of the LSS club. By far, the best and most rewarding employment experience of my working career.”
- “You truly felt you were working for a family business that cared for everyone each day.”