- Grove City, Pennsylvania

November 8, 2013

Wendell August’s gift to itself: A fresh new start

By Monica Pryts/Staff Writer
Allied News

SPRINGFIELD TOWNSHIP — New beginnings, a fresh start, a second chance.

No matter what you call it, Will Knecht is excited that Wendell August is finally ready to start the next chapter of what’s been quite a journey for the metal forge business, a beloved local company that was devastated by an accidental fire in early 2010 at its original Grove City location.

“We built something even better,” Knecht, owner and president, said of the company itself.

Wendell August, which has dropped “Forge” from its name -- which he says better reflects the unique giftware and presentation pieces it creates -- is about two weeks away from completion at its new home on state Route 208 in Springfield Township.

“Wesex is doing a phenomenal job,” Knecht said Monday afternoon of the developer as he walked around the building. “It’s all new to me.”

Part of the building is covered in concrete designed to look like wood siding -- one of many interesting features Knecht helped select, inside and out.

“We’re unique. We’re a little off the beaten path,” he said, also referring to the fact that the building doesn’t sit right up against the road, also known as Leesburg-Grove City Road; there’s potential for restaurants and other businesses to develop on the surrounding vacant lots.

The first beams went up in May, so construction has been moving along as scheduled, and a ribbon-cutting ceremony and grand opening is planned for 11:30 a.m. Oct. 29.

“It’s going to be a great celebration,” he said, adding it will include local, county and state representatives and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, who were instrumental in helping the business move forward.

But Knecht is really looking forward to honoring and recognizing his employees and community members, who held things together and supported the company when it was needed the most: after the fire.

Founded in 1923 in Brockway by Wendell McMinn August, who moved the business to Madison Avenue, Grove City, in 1932, the historic facility caught fire March 6, 2010, after a small spark in a paint booth ignited some lacquer and the fire suppression unit didn’t work.

Other businesses in similar situations might have stopped there, choosing instead to hang up their hats after such a tragedy, but Knecht vowed to carry on, especially since it’s also his father’s legacy; F.W. “Bill” Knecht III ran the business from 1978 until his death in 2004.

“I think he’d be really proud. I miss my dad terribly,” Knecht said as he walked around the 40,000-square-foot workshop and distribution center, which is adjacent to My Brother’s Place restaurant.

And Knecht figured only time would tell if Wendell August’s retail end would continue to be successful while plans for a new workshop, distribution center and store were in the works.

All of that was divided up into temporary locations - the main store in Pine Township, and office space, workshop and distribution center in Grove City, in the former Bessemer building.

“It’s been a real balancing act,” he said of making the transition from the old to the new with minimal interruption to production and customer service.

But everything has been falling into place and he can’t thank the customers, employees and community enough for standing behind Wendell August, through the good and the bad.

“This is something special,” Knecht said of that bond.

He’s confident the company will continue to make the Grove City area and Mercer County proud, and the new place even has room to grow with additional storage shelves and extra office space.

“One of our goals is to be one of the top 100 places to work in America,” he said; Wendell August has about 110 employees, and its store at Grove City Premium Outlets will remain open.

The new store is about 4,500 square feet, roughly twice the size of the original Grove City store, and the retail space is being decorated and sectioned off into different areas according to giftware: wedding, jewelry, purses, sports items and holiday.

“This will be our man cave,” Knecht said of a small room that will include comfortable chairs, a faux fireplace and televisions.

A separate room will be the history room, and it will display various items including Wendell August antiques as well as videos of the company’s story.

Some equipment, dies and other pieces were salvaged from the fire, including the gates, which will be used to frame out the die vault once everything’s in place; they were made by Alcoa in the 1920s, so they’re an important part of the design, he said.

“For us, this is the opening of a new chapter,” Knecht said.

This whole experience has served as a reminder for Knecht that it’s important for his company to make quality products, especially since Wendell August is believed to be the largest metal crafting business in the country.

“We’ve got to be smarter. That’s how we’re going to win over the long haul,” he said of his father’s “made in America ethos.”

Knecht, a father of three who lives with his wife and kids in Wilmington, N.C., said his family understands this is a busy time in his life, especially since they realize how much it means to him to be a part of a company that creates custom giftware that’s treasured for years.

“We don’t take that lightly,” he said.

When asked what he is most excited to see come to life in the new building, Knecht said customers will again be able to tour the workshop, a behind-the-scenes feature the company hasn’t been able to offer over the last 3èyears.

“Our guests will be able to walk through and see the process,” he said.

He can’t wait to get back to business, but noted nothing would have been possible without God. He has played an important role in seeing Knecht through the last several years and allowed him to keep moving forward.

“He’s guided us every step of the way,” he said.

This story was published Oct. 16, 2013