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We're in good company with the Andersens

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River Falls, 54022

River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

Sarah J. Andersen is my kind of corporate board chairman.

While ex-corporate chiefs like Tyco's Dennis Kozlowski, Enron's Kenneth Lay and WorldCom's Bernie Ebbers were busy stealing from stockholders and defrauding the government at the dawn of the 21st century, Andersen was using her influence to make Andersen Corp. into a leading corporate partner with Habitat for Humanity International.

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In the late 1990s, while Kozlowski was using $19 million of Tyco money to build his 15,000-square-foot house in Boca Raton, Fla., Sarah Andersen was putting up walls and installing windows on homes for low-income working families.

While Lay was talking up Enron stock and dumping $100 million worth of it before it lost its value, Andersen was chairing a capital campaign to raise $15 million for the Twin Cities Habitat affiliate.

While Ebbers was preoccupied with hiding more than $7 billion in WorldCom losses, Andersen was supporting the establishment of a company volunteer program that now boasts 750 employee homebuilders.

"One of the core values of Andersen has been to make products that add value to people's homes and lives," Andersen said in a 2002 interview with Sky Magazine. "If we had made up a non-profit for ourselves (to support), we couldn't have done any better (than Habitat for Humanity)."

No one who's spent any time in the St. Croix Valley needs an introduction to Andersen Corp., but for the newcomers, here it is.

Danish immigrant Hans J. Andersen, Sarah's great-grandfather, founded the window and door manufacturing business at his lumberyard right here in Hudson in 1903.

Today, it's an international enterprise with more than 8,000 employees headquartered in Bayport, Minn. Five hundred fifteen of those employees have either a Hudson or Houlton address.

The 2.8 million-square-foot Bayport facility covers 65 acres. The company is the world's largest manufacturer of wood windows, patio doors and storm doors, and has pioneered the development of a number of non-wood products.

Hans Andersen's move across the river to Bayport in 1913 still provokes criticism of Hudson's civic leaders of that era. Folklore has it that they didn't do enough to encourage Andersen to keep his company (then Andersen Lumber Co.) in Hudson when it outgrew its buildings on the St. Croix riverfront.

The Grapevine Inn bed and breakfast at 702 Vine St. is the former Andersen home. When Hans died in 1914, his second wife, Sarah, purchased the former home of U.S. Sen. John C. Spooner at 915 Third St. and lived there until her death in 1934.

The second Sarah Andersen was back in Hudson last week, part of a crew of 20 or more Andersen shareholders participating in a "blitz build" of a Habitat for Humanity house. She could be jet-setting with the privileged, but instead dedicates her spare time to building Habitat houses.

Andersen Corp. committed to building 100 Habitat homes over a five-year period in celebration of the company's 100th anniversary in 2003. Sarah Andersen and company CEO Jim Humphrey have worked on all 16 houses undertaken so far.

Dave and Kari Williams' future home in The Lighthouse at Hudson Pier subdivision is No. 16 for the anniversary project.

Three weeks ago, Sarah Andersen was in Chicago for two days working on a Habitat house there being built by Andersen employees.

Most of the anniversary-project houses will be built in the Twin Cities area, a company spokeswoman said, but workers at Andersen sales and distribution facilities throughout country are also working on homes.

Sarah Andersen is no corporate princess. She wore jeans, a sweatshirt and work shoes on a blustery April morning as she measured lumber for the Williams' home and cut it to size.

I'm guessing that Hans J. Andersen would be proud of his great-granddaughter. Her grandfather, Fred C. Andersen, and her father, Hugh J. Andersen, would also be pleased, no doubt. She comes from a family of builders, after all.

"It's nice to do a job where you see what you've accomplished," Sarah told me. "I mean, we can look at this wall and know that we just built it. There is something very satisfying about that."

Humphrey told me over a cup of coffee in the warming tent that in this day of out-sourcing and off-shoring it's still possible for a company to be community-minded, treat its employees well and make money.

"I think we're a good representative of that," Humphrey said. "...Our shareholders have invested money in the corporation, so they expect to get a return on it. But I do think it shows that when people are thinking and planning for the future - not necessarily worried about what's right for Wall Street today - you can do all those things."

Andersen Corp. is a privately held company. The employees, the Andersen family and the Andersen Foundation each own a third of it.

The company has believed in providing fair wages and benefits to its employees from the beginning. Shortly before his death in 1914, Hans Andersen introduced one of the first company profit-sharing plans in the country. The generous profit-sharing checks that Andersen workers have collected through the years have made them the envy of the community.

The company also was one of the first in the nation to offer health and disability insurance.

While many corporate chieftains would say it isn't possible to treat employees that well and remain competitive, Andersen Corp. has proved them wrong. Today, it's the market leader in the window and door industry. Real estate agents boast about homes having Andersen windows when they list them.

It goes to show what can happen when corporate officers think of workers as partners and don't have their fingers in the till.

Check out "Pigs at the Trough: How Corporate Greed and Political Corruption Are Undermining America" by Arianna Huffington (Crown Publishers, 2003) for examples of what happens to companies led by people with far different values than the Andersens.

Hudson can be thankful that Andersen Corp. adheres to a different set of principles. The money the company has pumped back into the community in the form gifts and good wages has benefited us all.

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