Building on a 100-year legacyPublished 11:31am Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Wagner Construction has built its name by constructing communities
Living in a tent on the banks of the Cedar River near where River Oaks Golf Club is today, Nicholas Wagner moved to Austin from Hastings, Minn., exactly 100 years ago to build a barn for his cousin.
He did such a good job, that other farmers asked him to build their barns. By the 1920s, his reputation grew, and he began constructing churches for the Catholic diocese of Winona and Dubuque, Iowa.
That, according to a 1987 article in the Austin Daily Herald, was how the founder of Wagner Construction got his start.
His son, 84-year-old John Wagner, corroborates the story of a man who started by building barns for farmers, and through a solid reputation, began constructing many of the Catholic churches that now dot the countryside and small towns across southern Minnesota and northern Iowa. But soon, they weren’t just constructing Catholic churches. In Austin, Wagner Construction built the Queen of Angels Catholic church, the First Baptist church, the Church of Latter Day Saints, an addition at St. Augustine and its steeple.
In the words of John Wagner, his dad was one hell-of-a-good church builder.
“Dad got a kick out of it,” John recalled. “He said he was in with the bishop. A church team would say, ‘We’d like to build a new church.’ And the bishop would say, ‘Well, contact Nick Wagner in Austin, Minn.’ So he got the jobs.”
A century later, the general contracting firm Wagner Construction is run by the third generation of the Wagner clan and can lay claim to dozens of churches, schools, and other historic landmarks throughout Austin.
When Nicholas died in 1962, seven of his sons took over, and by 1964, it was run by John and his brother, David, as three of Nicholas’ sons left to form Tri-Masonry in Texas, and Joe Wagner branched off to found the Joseph Company with Dale Beckel.
“Everyone thought there was a fight, but it was amicable,” Brendhan said. “First of all, the work wasn’t there. It was just easier to go off in different directions.”
David — who all the Wagners said was an integral part of the company’s success — died in 2007, and while John is still the president/CEO, the company is run by John’s sons, Brendhan and Matthew, and David’s sons, Tim and Terry. The four are vice presidents and project managers, and Matthew is also the secretary.
For the third generation, keeping Wagner Construction going comes back to maintaining its reputation.
From the ground up
It’s hard to drive through Austin and not pass a building constructed by Wagner.
The long list of Wagner-built structures includes the aforementioned churches, the Paramount Theatre, International Paper, various Hormel projects, Oak Park Mall, Shopko, Hy-Vee, Austin Utilities, Brick Furniture, the Mower County courthouse, the original hospital, Gerard Academy, schools such as Pacelli, Sumner and Neveln, and the list goes on. And that’s just Austin. Brendhan estimates only about 30 percent of their work takes place there. In the 1980s, Wagner Construction was running up and down Interstate 90 building Walmarts and Shopkos and other large structures. For nearly all of its 100-year history, Wagner has left its mark on towns within a 75-mile radius of Austin.
For Brendhan, being able to admire those projects is the most rewarding part of the job.
“It’s hard work but it’s instant gratification,” he said. “I just remember as a little kid driving around with dad, and him pointing to (everything they built). And I do the same thing with my boys.”
For John, there’s nothing more beautiful than taking a set of plans, watching the structure come out of the ground and seeing it to fruition.
“My father always said that you want to look at the project through the eyes of the owner,” John said. “If the owner is happy, we’re happy. You never leave an owner dissatisfied because you can do one bad job and it’s all over town.”
That’s been the motto of Wagner Construction for 100 years, and Brendhan said that’s the main reason they’re still in business. Still, he said it’s hard to believe they’ve been around for a century, even though they’ve discussed the milestone before.
“(My dad) jumped in around the 40th anniversary,” Brendhan said. “I always remembered when I was a kid, my dad talking about 100 years in 2012, which seemed like 1,000 years away. But that’s always been our goal.”
With 100 years in the books, John likes where it’s headed.
“We have a good nucleus of people involved,” he said. “I’m quite certain they enjoy their work, so I see no reason why they wouldn’t keep it going.”
Times are changing
A lot has changed for Wagner Construction since Nicholas Wagner founded it in 1912.
Nicholas’ son, John, remembers when he was a kid, he watched a construction crew in the 1930s excavate the foundation for the original Queen of Angels church with a team of horses. Now, he said, everything is done with machines.
Back then, they estimate they had about 100 workers, where now they have about 15 to 20 full-time employees.
“It’s really changed,” Brendhan said. “Back then, labor was cheap. It’s hard to find someone my dad’s age or older who doesn’t say ‘I worked for Wagner Construction.’ It’s amazing the amount of people it took.”
Wagner, now almost entirely a general contract firm, did everything on a job in the first few decades it existed.
“Now, a general contractor is kind of specific,” Brendhan said. “Obviously the heating and plumbing is done by subcontractors. Back then, they just had a guy on their crew who knew how to do that stuff. So it’s definitely gotten more specialized.”
Leaving a legacy
Brendhan can’t remember a time he didn’t want to be a part of Wagner Construction.
Now 44 years old, he started part-time in high school and college, and by 1988 he was working full-time for his father’s company. Since then, he has led dozens of projects in Austin alone, but for him, one sticks out.
Brendhan led a Wagner crew that built much of Gerard Academy, a treatment center for teenage boys. In 2011, Wagner built Gerard’s gymnasium and recreation center, in 2007 they built the dormitories and kitchen, and in 2005 they constructed the entire school, which was once a mansion for Jay C. Hormel, former Hormel Foods Corp. president and CEO. But for Brendhan, the most significant fact is who built the original mansion over eight decades earlier: Nicholas Wagner.
“It’s just such a pride thing,” he said. “Here I am third generation, back where my grandfather walked. It’s just so neat to (be a part of work) spanning 80 years, still there doing work on the same ground.
“I spent three and a half years of my life there, and to think grandpa built that beautiful mansion, and now I’m back there.”
Brendhan, John and the rest of Wagner Construction management say stories like that are what keep them going. Right now, Wagner is in charge of renovations at Thorne Crest Retirement Community in Albert Lea, is renovating the Mitchell County Regional Health Center in Osage, Iowa, and is building the $1.37-million expansion at Woodson Kindergarten Center.
“It’s turning out to be a great start to the next 100,” Brendhan said. “When we jumped in it seemed like forever to get to this point, and then all of a sudden you’re there. Not many companies get there.”
WAGNER CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS IN AUSTIN
•Neveln School and renovations
•Shaw Elementary School and gym
•Sumner Elementary School and renovations
•St. Edwards’ Apple Lane Child Care Center
•Pacelli Catholic School
•Queen of Angels School
•Woodson Kindergarten Center expansion of 2012
•Gerard School, gym and dorms
•Riverland renovation of 1991
•Queen of Angels
•First Baptist Church
•St. Olaf’s narthex
•St. Augustine’s steeple
•St. Augustine addition
•Church of Latter Day Saints
•Hormel research and development
•Various Hormel projects
•Tempo Mall (APC)
•Oak Park Mall
•Cedar Valley Services
•Hy-Vee Foods and gas station
•Mower County courthouse
•Leighton-Meany-Cotter & Enger law firm
•St. Olaf Hospital
•Jay C. Hormel home (now Gerard Academy)
•YMCA super gym
•Plager building (at the Mower County fairgrounds)
•Three livestock buildings at the Mower County Fairgrounds
•Historical Society building
•Municipal swimming pool
•National Guard armory