Remembering a Special Friend to the UHP: Harold R. Wing
Employees at Little Giant Ladder Systems know these words very well. They see them every time they walk in the front door. They are the words of Harold R. Wing, or simply “Hal” as he was known to most people. Hal Wing was the founder and chairman of Wing Enterprises, Inc. and Little Giant Ladder Systems, a business he started building in 1972 with his wife and children by his side.
Hal, born in Springville, Utah in 1940, was raised on a farm situated on the city’s western fields. Hal always credited the time he spent working shoulder to shoulder with his father in the corn fields as one of the keys to his future success. Throughout his life, Hal believed his father, Arthur Wing, was the wisest man he had ever known.
From his youth through his entire life, Hal had an indomitable, entrepreneurial spirit. He started early; his first successful business venture consisted of selling Christmas cards to the neighborhood out of his red Radio Flyer.
Overcoming Trials with Hard Work
After high school, Hal joined the U.S. Army, eventually serving in Germany, where he met Brigitte Mayer, who would be the true center of Hal’s world for the rest of his life. But like everything else good in his life, Hal had to work hard to get what he wanted. In those days, German girls in Brigitte’s community didn’t date American GIs. But with love and a lot of persistence, Hal won over his sweetheart and then her parents. In 2011, Hal and Brigitte celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary surrounded by hundreds of friends and loved ones.
But life wasn’t always easy for the Wing family. When Hal’s brother passed away, leaving his three children as orphans. With four young children of their own, Hal and Brigitte adopted the three children and raised them as their own. At the young age of 25, Hal and Brigitte found themselves parents of seven children under the age of nine.
Hal worked three jobs to make ends meet, at times seeing his family for only a few hours on Sunday. During this difficult time, Hal would often think back to the days working in the fields with his father, remembering the wisdom his father shared. Hal wanted the same opportunity to work with his children. He would continue to seek for such an opportunity as he moved his family back to Germany to work as a civilian serving members of the armed forces.
One day in Germany he found that opportunity. A friend introduced Hal to a German painter who had invented a new kind of ladder. This early prototype constructed of wood and steel still hangs in Little Giant’s demo room. The moment Hal saw the ladder he knew he had found something unique. And most importantly, he saw what he had been looking for: an opportunity to work with his children.
As he did when making every important decision of his life, Hal discussed the idea with Brigitte. They always made the big decisions together. Brigitte simply said, “You’ve never let me go hungry yet.”
Hal first started importing ladders from Germany, but when supply problems arose and exchange rate fluctuations made it difficult to maintain steady pricing, Hal decided he could improve quality and avoid supply problems if he fabricated the ladders himself. Wing Enterprises was started in a carport, because Wing family didn’t own a garage. But capital was an issue. Hal said with his typical wry humor, “I was a great salesman! I sold my car. I sold my house. I sold my boat to get the money we needed to start the business.”
The family started the business from scratch, assembling ladders in their carport and working on smaller components at the kitchen table. As Hal once said, “We had to poor-boy it all the way, had to be creative to keep alive.” Hal taught himself to weld aluminum, then he taught his sons, and they all taught the employees who came later. Little Giant still uses today some of the fixtures Hal and sons Art and Doug improvised back in the beginning in the manufacturing process. They modified inexpensive tools to meet their needs, and bought used manufacturing equipment and personally refurbished it.
The Ladder Man
In addition to manufacturing the ladders, Hal was the first and only person marketing the ladders. For several years, Hal traveled at least half the year from home and garden shows to state fairs selling his unique Little Giant ladder. In a station wagon loaded with ladders, Hal and his sons traversed the United States in the summer time—sleeping in the back of the car on top of a stack of ladders.
One particular day early in the company’s life when money was tight, Hal knew he had to sell three ladders each day to get enough money to pay the bills and get home. The show at which he was demonstrating was not going well; people would not stop and listen to his pitch. Not knowing what else to do, Hal climbed to the top of his ladder donning traditional German lederhosen and started yodeling. People were too stunned to move past, and Hal would jump on the opportunity to show them “the world’s greatest ladder.”
Hal soon learned to sell the ladder without yodeling and the company started to build a foundation. The demonstration Hal developed in those early years is still the core of Little Giant’s value proposition today. Soon, the company signed its first dealer, and then came the first of many government contracts, and the Little Giant family began to grow.
In 2004, Hal starred in the first of several Little Giant Ladder Systems infomercials, which were a stunning success, catapulting the company to 700 percent growth in just two years. The company added hundreds of employees, a swing shift, and moved to a larger building to keep up with demand. Little Giant has continued to grow and expand into new markets all across the world, all from a humble beginning in the Wing family’s carport.
A Body in Motion
Anyone who knew Hal, knows that he lived life at a fast pace. Hal was an avid reader and was almost never idle, usually sleeping only a few hours each day. In addition to running a multimillion dollar manufacturing business, Hal was elected Mayor of Springville, Utah in 1997. Hal also served in both Ronald Reagan’s and George H.W. Bush’s administrations as a representative at several national conferences on small business. Hal was named the National Republican Party Committee’s Businessman of the Year in 2003 and again in 2006. He received the 2006 National Entrepreneur of the Year award from Ernest & Young and the Business of the Year award from the Utah County Commission for his company’s contributions to the Utah economy.
In October 2010, Hal became only the fourth person inducted into the Utah Entrepreneurial Hall of Fame. Hal served on the local Wells Fargo board of directors and regularly spoke at university and education institutions. In May 2011, Hal was awarded an honorary doctorate of business by Utah Valley University. Hal was also an avid motorcycle racer, and right up until his last days had a standing offer of $1,000 to anyone who could pass him on a motorcycle in the desert. He also farmed 63 acres, “on the side,” for relaxation and balance. \
In the midst of this growth and change, one thing remained a constant: Hal’s believe that his family and his employees were the greatest blessings in his life. “Most people don’t understand It’s not the bricks and mortar. It’s not the machines. It’s not the products; not the patents. It’s the people. The most valuable asset any business owner has is the people.”
Throughout his career, Hal shared the wisdom he learned from his father and from his experience to others. His employees remember fondly many of his signature sayings:
“My dad always taught me three things about business: Don’t be lazy. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. If you can manage those three things, everything else will work out.”
“Surround yourself with good people that don’t know what can’t be done – who don’t know their limitations. Gather good people, then treat them right.”
“We tend to judge people at the finish line and forget about where they started. Until you understand where someone came from and what they have been through in life, you can’t understand who they are.”
And one that he told his employees nearly every day, “You people make me look like a hero every day of my life.”
The one constant with all of these sayings, and with much of what Hal did, was the fact that Hal valued people. He believed that each person he encountered had great value in the eyes of God, and he had the gift of seeing that value. After Hal’s passing on August 6, 2012, his family was surprised and moved by the number of people who came to pay their respects. Many of these people shared touching personal stories of difficult times in their lives and how Hal and Brigitte Wing had been there to help them.
The Utah Highway Patrol’s Honoring Heroes Foundation is one of Hal and Brigitte’s favorite charities. Hal felt a special bond with UHP, and he and Brigitte had a special place in their hearts not only for the heroes who have fallen in the line of duty, but especially for the loved-ones they left behind. Hal and his sons Art and Doug looked forward every year to the Utah Fast Pass event; and in their father’s memory, they will continue the Wing family’s special connection to the Utah Highway Patrol.
Of all of Hal’s favorite aphorisms, perhaps this one best ref lects his attitude toward his success: “When they close the casket, it isn’t going to make a bit of difference how much money I have stacked up in the bank. I believe the only value of money is how much good you can do with it.”