Ramirez Follows Father’s Footsteps at HUSCO

The Business Journal by Rich Rovito, Reporter

Date: Friday, November 4, 2011, 5:00am CDT

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Taking over the day-to-day leadership at Husco International Inc. from his father hadn’t always been in the cards for Austin Ramirez.

“When I left for college, I didn’t ever expect to move back to Milwaukee or spend a single day working at Husco,” Ramirez said.

In July, he succeeded his father, Agustin Ramirez, who has served as Waukesha-based HUSCO’s chief executive officer for the past 25 years.

Ramirez, 33, began having a change of heart about a career at Husco when he returned home after graduating from the University of Virginia and spending two years working as a consultant at the San Francisco office of McKinsey & Co., a global management consulting firm.

“I realized there was a lot of appeal working some place where you have some skin in the game, so I decided to come back and give Husco a try,” he said. “But I really wasn’t sure I was going to like the industry or that I’d be able to cope with dealing with my dad on a daily basis.”

Ramirez worked for a year as a project manager at Husco, which produces hydraulic controls for automotive, agricultural and construction equipment. He then headed off to graduate school at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

After going through what he described as a “soul searching process,” Ramirez decided he could make a career working at Husco. Ramirez admitted that he still had some reservations about returning to the Milwaukee area to live. “I love the Bay Area and I really wrestled with whether I wanted to make my life in the city of Milwaukee,” he said. Now, Ramirez, who resides along the city’s lakefront, is quick to proclaim the benefits of Milwaukee. “I love living downtown. I love the city and the cultural and arts offerings,’ he said.

When Ramirez returned to the Milwaukee area for good in 2006, it was then that he began having discussions with his father about a succession plan. “He’s continued to put me in jobs that were just a little bit above my head, so I was stretched,” he said. “I never felt micromanaged. He’s always given me plenty of rope to make decisions and learn from my mistakes.”

A native of Brookfield, Ramirez became CEO of Husco’s automotive business in 2008 and eventually also took responsibility for its off-highway business along the way to taking over the day-to-day leadership of the entire company.

Ramirez insisted that he’s not trying to set himself apart from his father, who continues to serve as the company’s executive chairman, when it comes to leading Husco.

“He’s an incredible guy, and an incredible business and community leader,” he said. “I think about emulating him more than trying to differentiate my leadership style from him.”

Agustin Ramirez noted in announcing his son’s promotion that the organizational change is part of a transition process that has been ongoing for five years. Husco’s accelerated business growth and the retirement of other key executives created the ideal timing for a change in overall leadership, he said.

The two have had almost daily contact concerning business matters since then.

“He defers decision making to me, but he’s still aware of everything that is going on,” Austin Ramirez said.

Jim Clark, president and chief executive officer of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, described Ramirez, who serves on the organization’s board of directors, as “extremely insightful and very intellectual.”

“He provides a tremendous level of engagement on our board,” said Clark, who will lead the Altanta-based Boys & Girls Clubs of America beginning in January 2012. “He listens carefully to information and provides meaningful feedback to help our organization advance and serve its mission and provide a greater impact for kids who need us most in Milwaukee.”

As CEO of Husco, Ramirez is overseeing a company that is expected to achieve record-high revenue of about $300 million this year, an increase of about 45 percent over last year. This comes just two years after Husco suffered through the only year in its history in which it lost money, had its largest automotive customer file for bankruptcy and saw its sales plummet by 50 percent.

Ramirez described 2009 as “a real year of crisis for Husco.”

The company laid off 40 percent of its global work force that year before business began rebounding in 2010. This year’s performance comes despite North American and European markets that haven’t fully recovered, Ramirez said.

The business growth has resulted in aggressive hiring that has expanded Husco’s work force to levels above where it stood prior to the recession.

Husco currently has about 1,200 employees worldwide, including 490 at its Wisconsin plants in Waukesha and Whitewater. The company also has facilities in Maquoketa, Iowa; the United Kingdom; India; China; and Brazil.

“We’ve got a lot of growth ahead of us over the next five years and our automotive business is one of the big drivers of that,” Ramirez
said. We’re 100 percent focused on improving fuel efficiency without sacrificing driving performance and without putting a whole lot of costs into the car.”

Personal File

  • Age: 33
  • Title: President and chief executive officer, Husco International Inc., Waukesha
  • Education: Bachelor of science degree in systems engineering and
    economics, University of Virginia; master’s degree in business
    administration, Stanford University
  • Family: Married to Heather Van Vugt Ramirez, executive director of
    Centro Legal, a Milwaukee organization that provides legal services to
    the poor. They reside in downtown Milwaukee.

Judgment Calls

  • Best business decision: “Coming back to Husco”
  • Toughest business decision: “In general, dealing with the recession.
    We had people who worked for 35 years at Husco that we had to let go.
    There’s nothing more difficult than that.”
  • What do you like best about your job?: “Working with my dad is very special.”
  • What do you like least about your job?: “The 16-hour flights to India, which I have to do pretty frequently.”

True Confessions

  • Favorite thing about Milwaukee? “The lakefront”
  • Most recently read book: “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand
  • First car: “Ford Taurus with 150,000 miles on it that had belonged to a former Husco sales guy.”
  • First job: “Painting the Husco building.”
  • What’s on your car stereo?: “NPR”
  • Hobbies: “I love to surf and downhill ski. I’ve also taken up cross country skiing and I’ve done triathlons.”