This article, written by Jim Offner, originally appeared in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.
First in a series of articles on Junior Achievement Hall of Fame recipients, first published in Cedar Valley Business Monthly magazine.
WAVERLY — Mark Hanawalt always knew he’d eventually come into the family business, Waverly-based United Equipment Accessories — a company he currently serves as CEO; he just didn’t think he would join up right after college.
After Hanawalt completed a bachelor of arts in economics at Cornell College in Mount Vernon in 1974, he planned to explore “outside” opportunities.
“When I got out of college, I knew there was potentially a family business opportunity here, and my philosophy has always been to get started outside before coming back.”
Times were tough for a lot of new graduates back then, Hanawalt soon would learn.
“At that time, I wouldn’t say it was deep, but it was a tough recession and there weren’t a lot of jobs available,” he said. “I talked it over with the family, and they said they thought I should come back now.”
So, he did. Hanawalt took a position in the purchasing department at UEA in June 1974.
He never looked back; indeed, he soon came to realize UEA and firms like it form “the backbone of Iowa.”
Now, Hanawalt is being honored as one of three laureates at the 23rd annual Junior Achievement of Eastern Iowa Business Hall of Fame induction ceremony Oct. 26 at the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.
A sense of stewardship over the business quickly took hold when Hanawalt joined his company after college.
“You realize there’s a legacy value to them and, if they go away, there’s a certain amount of economic vitality at whatever level that goes with them,” he said.
Hanawalt said he began to appreciate his role in keeping the family business going.
“I started thinking, I knew the rate of failure in going from the first generation to a second generation. And part of my challenge was how to make this a successful transition,” he said.
There was a lot to carry on. UEA started in 1952 as a part-time business in the back of a downtown automotive garage in Waverly. The company moved to its current location in the late 1950s and grew from there.
Hanawalt has tried to continue learning throughout his 40-plus years in the family-owned operation.
“People would say I sometimes talk a lot, but I actually listen, too,” he said. “One benefit I’ve had is learning what the first generation did well and what they didn’t do so well. I feel like I learned a lot. That’s changed my philosophy in how I especially value our work force. That’s our No. 1 asset. I know that gets a lot of talk in our society, but we try to live that here. We had one female when I first got here, and probably over 50 percent of our workforce is female now.”
Today, the company employs about 110 people, Hanawalt said.
It’s important to be proactive, Hanawalt said.
“The other thing I always talk about — I’m not a very tactical person — I try to look for changes that are coming at us — I call them paradigm shifts,” he said. “Whether it’s societal or governmental. you never want to forget the details because if you’re managing a company, you have to look on the horizon. It’s a lot easier to be proactive than reactive.”
UEA never has been more vibrant than it is today, and its strength is a reflection of the Cedar Valley economy, Hanawalt noted.
“I’ve been involved in the business community on a statewide basis, and I hear very good compliments about this area,” he said. “I think Eastern Iowa is recognized as the manufacturing driver of Iowa. Being a manufacturer ourselves, we’re right in that wheelhouse. We not only have the big people, like John Deere, but the little people like UEA.”
Area companies support each other, which enhances the region’s economic vitality, Hanawalt noted.
“We competed more against each other years ago; now, we buy a lot of things from each other, and there’s a great synergy of opportunity here in Northeast Iowa,” he said. “The only negative for not only this area but all the state is population; we just need to figure out how to get more people here because, essentially, we’re hiring people away from each other. It’s problematic from the standpoint of an available resource.”
Hanawalt recently turned 65, but he has no immediate plans to slow down.
“I’m not sure my wife wants me to,” he cracked.
After all, there’s a third generation to groom to take over the company, Hanawalt noted.
“We’re very much involved in a third generation, and part of the process of the succession, as I call it, because I’ve been thinking about succession since I was about 50,” he said. “You get serious and start making plans around 55 and start putting those plans in place around 60. My current plan is to be fairly involved on a day-to-day basis through about age 70. Part of that is succession-driven.”
One of Hanawalt’s four sons, Daniel, eventually will take over leadership of the firm.
“He’s sharp; he’s completing his MBA program at (the University of) Iowa in January 2018, so he’s in the home stretch,” Hanawalt said. “He’s been a great asset for the company.”
Then he laughed.
“I’m glad I didn’t scare him away like I did my first three sons,” he said.
Photo by Brandon Pollock, Courier Staff Photographer