A Man with Stainless Standards: Paul Mueller
By Tom Carlson
Every year, hundreds of businesses start up in the Springfield area and every year, about that same number goes broke. They fail for many reasons: bad management, under capitalization, poorly conceived business plans, changes in the economy. As a former bankruptcy lawyer, I was well acquainted with the failures, but less so with the successes.
The first stop in my inquiry was the Paul Mueller Company. I dialed up a friend, one of Paul and Nadine Mueller's seven kids, Jeanie Morris, and asked if I could meet with the 98-year-old patriarch. Jeanie said she would get back with me.
When the nod came, I wasn't sure what to expect. I had reviewed archives of the company from the Springfield News-Leader and other publications, and the picture that emerged was of a person who was intensely private, didn't suffer fools gladly and didn't like to talk about himself. I found only two articles in the past 40 years in which the inventor, engineer, manufacturer, and founder of a company selling products in more than 100 countries had consented to an interview. "Founder of the Paul Mueller Company One of Springfield's Most Private Individuals," said one headline. No kidding.
No doubt, had I called him for an interview, he would have said no. But saying no to Jeanie apparently was another matter. In February 2014, I visited him in his home on Walnut Street where he has lived for 61 years. He kept an office in the back. Displayed on the shelves were brochures featuring gleaming stainless steel tanks used in dairies, breweries and wineries around the globe. Family pictures line the walls. A news channel runs with the sound off on a small television on the corner of his clean desk. Classical music plays softly in the background. Mueller especially liked to listen to operatic sopranos, said his daughter Kathleen Moore.
Mr. Mueller — it seems presumptuous to call him Paul — was friendly and willing to talk. Although nearing the century mark, he focused intently on my questions and was precise in his response. I wasn't surprised. His reputation had preceded him. His friends and associates say he is known for his uncompromising standards in both his personal and business lives. To such a person, accuracy is important.
"The guy has absolute integrity. I have never met anybody in my life that had any higher standards," remembered Dan Manna, who was president of the company for 24 years. "He is an extremely disciplined individual. It's always do what's right, and avoid what's wrong."
Paul Mueller moved here from Denver with his parents and sister in 1930. His father, R.G. Mueller, had been hired by the Springfield Gas and Electric Company to manage the utility's conversion to natural gas. This was a large undertaking with home after home converting from coal-fired furnaces to gas furnaces. After graduating high school in 1934, young Mueller, sensing an opportunity, went to work at the utility in the drafting and engineering department and learned about these new natural gas furnaces.
Looking back and connecting the dots, it seems clear that Mueller always planned to one day go into business for himself. I asked him if he made his plans more than 10 years in advance. "More than that," he quickly responded. His plan was simple but not easy: identify the skills necessary to run a business and go about acquiring those skills as efficiently as possible. Take no side trips such as going to college and studying courses unrelated to your goal. It was a waste of time and energy, he had decided.
So with the exception of a short course in air conditioning at Purdue University, he bypassed college. With a solid understanding of furnaces and air conditioning under his belt, the remaining course in his self-education was learning how to sell the product. So he went to work for an Ohio company, the Surface Combustion Corporation, which was developing a comprehensive program for its sales force. This was in 1938 during the Depression, however, and the company canceled the program. "I was discouraged," he said in a 1969 interview, "but I went to work for Smith Heating Company on Central, and sold furnaces and repair service."
In 1938, he married Nadine Parker and started working as a salesman for Smith Heating for $25 per week. In two years, he was ready to go into business on his own. He and co-worker Gordon Mann started Mann & Mueller Heating and Sheet Metal Works. They hired one employee and situated themselves in an old welding building located on the former Heer's parking lot at Campbell and Olive. It was a scary time for his wife, Nadine. "Mom was worried whether they would be able to buy groceries," Kathleen said.
At Mann and Mueller, Mann oversaw the fabrication and Mueller handled sales. "I would go door to door asking people if they needed anything repaired — furnaces, furniture, anything," he said.
At first, business was slow. Making the weekly payroll was an ongoing concern. Mueller said if it had not been for his banker, James A. Jeffries, the business would have failed. But the Citizens Bank president saw something in the young entrepreneur and was there for him when he needed help. Mueller remembered Jeffries with great gratitude for this and also for helping him buy the family's first house in Springfield.
Mueller was in the bank one day to pay a bill and Jeffries told him the bank had a house for sale on Loren Street. He gave Mueller the keys, and suggested he and Nadine take a look at it. "You're dreaming. I couldn't buy a doghouse," he told the banker. "He said just go and see if you like it and we'll work something out." They followed his suggestion. They looked at the house, got terms they could manage through the bank, moved in and started their family.
The banking relationship flourished. Some years later, when Citizens Bank made its first large unsecured commercial loan, they made it to the Paul Mueller Company for $600,000. This was an unprecedented amount, remembered Great Southern Bank Chairman Bill Turner, who then worked at the northside Citizen's Bank. It was concrete evidence of the reputation and trust Mueller had earned with the bank.
By 1943, Mann's health was failing and Mueller agreed to buy him out. He took over the company, renamed it the Paul Mueller Company and exercised full control over every aspect of the business until he retired as president in 1976. And just how did the salesman, who now has more than a dozen patents in his name, get started on the engineering side? "I sneaked in," he joked.
It wasn't long until the company expanded into poultry processing. This was during World War II and the military needed automated equipment to process poultry for the large mess halls. The 29-year-old Mueller pivoted from furnace repair and began fabricating a line of chicken pluckers, scalders, and eviscerating equipment. Following this, the company expanded into dairy.
This was just after the war and the dairy industry was being transformed. Southwest Missouri was becoming one of the United States' major dairy production areas. The Carnation Company had built a huge processing plant in Mount Vernon. During this time MFA built a milk processing plant not far from the current location of Mueller's plant at Kansas and Chestnut. This facility was later acquired and expanded by the giant co-op Mid America Dairymen, Inc. Eventually, Kraft built its huge cheese processing plant on East Bennett Street. Opportunities were great if you had the right business plan and the know-how to execute it.
Dairies were modernizing in response to new health regulations that phased out the old milk cans dairy farmers had always used. To stay in business, farmers needed new stainless steel tanks and milk coolers. Mueller, who had already been fabricating and selling cheese vats, added a new production line to meet the farmers' demand. The company grew fast, eventually expanding into stainless steel tanks for breweries and wineries.
Never boastful himself, Mueller was quick to praise his workers. "I'll put the skill and ingenuity of Missouri workmen and idea men up against those of any other state — and I'll bet we come out on top," he said of that time.
He was particularly loyal to his early employees like the brothers Joe and Paul White.
"The White brothers were his secret in production. They were unbelievable fabrication men," said Dwayne Holden, who got his start out of Drury College for Mueller as a salesman. Holden co-founded Custom Metalcraft in 1977 and served as its president until he passed away in late 2019. The White brothers and other early employees who stuck with Mueller over the coming decades were well rewarded with stock when the company went public in 1969, remembered his friend, Don Dailey.
The company known for its uncompromising standards was continuing to grow. Mueller was demanding and exacting in all facets of the business. When he wasn't in his office, he was walking through the plant ensuring that standards were maintained. It was his version of MBWA, Management by Walking Around. "He controlled the entire business. He was everywhere and into everything," Manna said. Manna recalled an incident when Mueller was inspecting a tank that was under construction. "Paul looked it over, and it did not meet his standards. He looked at the guy and said, 'you can put your name on it, but you are not putting my name on it.'"
He would rather cut something up than send it out the door if it did not meet his standards, Manna said.
The company was also known as a place where you were expected to work hard. Mueller set an example for hard work and he demanded the same from his employees. "We were there early and worked late, and we were there on Saturdays," remembered Dwayne Holden, who went on to found his own fabrication business Custom Metalcraft on East Division in Springfield. Holden credited much of his success to the hard-work habits he developed as a Mueller salesman.
Mueller took tremendous pride in the company products. "Those huge beer tanks we built for Anheuser Busch looked like pieces of jewelry on a train," Manna said. In his autobiography, iconic vintner Robert Mondavi writes about Mueller's wine fermenting tanks. A perfectionist himself, Mondavi raves that he had never seen such beautiful welding. That first sale to Mondavi vineyards launched the Mueller name in California's wine country. The stainless steel tanks are now a common sight in Napa Valley.
As dedicated as he was to his business, he was just as devoted to Nadine and their seven children. Dinner was served every night at 6 o'clock. Mueller never missed, and you were expected to dress for dinner. "You couldn't come to dinner with curlers in your hair," his daughter Jeanie recalled with a laugh. If his daily task list had not been completed, he would go back to work and take a couple of the kids with him, she said.
In the early years, he worked every Saturday and would take the kids to the post office to give Nadine a break. They would pick up the company mail and distribute it throughout the company so that it was there on Monday mornings. There was a protocol to this as well. Respecting his employees' privacy, the private CEO wanted each recipient to open his own mail, recalled Manna.
When the kids got a little older and the company was well established, Mueller bought a farm near Strafford. It had a freshwater spring so he could fish — something he had always enjoyed. It was here on the farm that the businessman and inventor turned to other pursuits. When he wasn't tinkering with some piece of farm equipment, he was engaged in gardening or woodworking. He once built a hydroponic device for growing tomatoes. He called them "podrophonic tomatoes," recalled his friend Don Dailey.
Mueller's devotion to his family was total, particularly to his wife, Nadine, who died in 2005 from Alzheimer's. Paul looked after her at home during her 13-year illness.
When the children were still at home, he continued to make time for them and for their visitors, says Rosalie Wooten. "As a friend of one of his daughters, I spent many Saturdays either at their house, where Paul was cooking, or at their farm where Paul worked most weekends. He was either cooking or being sure his children's friends had a good time. Even at that young age, I took note of his willingness to spend time with his children and their friends."
In fact, when the inventor turned his energies and creativity to cooking, things got pretty interesting. The Mueller Family Cookbook has a notable entry for Oxtail Soup. First, Mueller had to make a soup pot large enough to hold his recipe. His family remembers their father standing on a chair, dropping ingredients into the huge vat and stirring the contents with a paddle. In 1971, he saw an article in Sunset magazine about building an adobe oven. He built one and the family enjoyed baking bread in it for years.
Returning to my initial inquiry, what was different about this company that enabled it to succeed where others fell short? Mueller would undoubtedly credit timing, hard work and his employees. But Mueller, who embodies that old German proverb that a man should be more than he appears, wouldn't say more. His standards would not permit that.