A Tribute to Two W&H North America Icons: Jim Feeney & Siggi Wagner
Since the last issue, two larger-than-life figures at W&H, Siggi Wagner and Jim Feeney, who made our North American business come to being, have passed away.
Ribbon cutting of W&H in Lincoln, RI in 1978. Second from the left is Jim Feeney and third from the right is Siggi Wagner.
Siggi Wagner was a Managing Director at our headquarters in Lengerich and was with the company from 1958-1997. He believed in a corporate presence in the American market and fought for it. He was a fierce U.S. advocate and responsible for much of the success we had in the early years. In fact, without his advocacy, the Rhode Island HQ might not even have happened.
Jim Feeney, the first president of W&H in Rhode Island, is no new subject for President’s Corner and is the main focus of this article. As it happens, he came up with the idea of writing a column from the voice of the company’s leader. It’s this voice that has anchored itself to our corporate culture to this day.
Windmoeller & Hoelscher had been selling in the U.S. since 1901 through various rep agencies, the most recent in 1976 being Sheldahl Machinery Company. Jim was hired to run the Rhode Island division of the company. Not long after that, W&H approached Jim about running their first direct Sales and Service operation in Lincoln RI. At the time, W&H had annual sales in the U.S. of only $5 million, but Jim was convinced that high-end German machinery and the U.S. Flexible packaging customers were a perfect fit. “The same love that Americans have for German cars, will be the reason we’ll be successful.”
Andrew Wheeler and Jim Feeney enjoying a chat at the wedding of W&H employee, Christoph Stein, and his wife, Sasha.
Jim was the “face of the W&H franchise” for 24 years and led his people with the same values that he demanded W&H portray to the industry. Jim used to say that we are not just selling machines, but trust and reputation, both of which are much harder to earn than they are to lose. One of the first things that Jim told me was “we are the best at what we do and the most expensive … I will NEVER apologize for that. You get what you pay for.”
“We will do what we say, and we will do the RIGHT thing, always” was one of the many sayings that constantly pop into my head when I think of my mentor. I find myself writing about Jim as I would about my father, a man that you wanted to be, the man that you wanted to be proud of you, not disappoint, who commanded the respect of any room he found himself in. People were drawn to him and his legendary ability to focus on YOU as if there was no one else there, and no place that he would rather be. He could work a room with ease, expertly remembering details of everyone’s lives, kids’ and spouse’s names, dinner, or golf outings that they had attended together. He had social skills that would make the most skilled politician (in a good sense) envious.
Even on the golf course, Jim was the consummate gentleman. He was not a gifted golfer, but he loved the game and the strong personal interactions which it facilitated. He would tell his playing partners that he was a lousy golfer, yet played fast, never searched for a ball for more than a minute and knew all the rules. He believed that “if technology will give me an edge, I’ll buy it!”, which became one of his favorite sales arguments for W&H.
Jim was as proud of his people for the extracurricular activities in which they excelled as he was for their standing out in the workplace. He constantly asked me how my youth hockey/soccer/lacrosse teams were doing and if someone’s child came into the office, he would be the first there to greet them with a handshake. I remember prepping my son for his first visit to W&H and his meeting with Big Jim. “Firm handshake and look him in the eye”. Lucas passed the Jim test with flying colors.
In the summer of 1994, I was approached by a close friend, who recruited me to produce a play in Scotland the following summer. With no such experience, he finally convinced me that it was “just another form of Sales”. I entered Jim’s office, terrified that he would put the kibosh on such a silly idea that would clearly distract me from my duties at W&H. Quite the contrary, Jim was almost more excited about it than I was. He started reading up on it so that he could ask better questions. Eventually, he and his wife, Sandy invested in the show and came to multiple previews.
Jim died on Friday, July 2nd at his beloved home in Westport, MA at the age of 85. He had survived a myriad of health problems, each one of which could have felled a lesser man. There was an outpouring of sentiment to W&H and the Feeney family, not just from colleagues and friends, but from competitors and the press, each of whom respected and genuinely liked the man. Words like “gentleman, honest, straightforward, funny, sincere, focused, driven, tough” were used an awful lot in those sentiments.
Jim was a man that we can only strive to emulate. Hans Deamer continued in his footsteps, as do I. I am proud to say that the spirit, enthusiasm, integrity, and insistence on doing the RIGHT thing and being the best partners that we can be to our customers and best employer to our team, is alive and thriving at W&H!
Thank you Siggi and thank you Jim