By Kris Leonhardt
Russ Wenzel was raised in the family business. At a young age, he would accompany his father to the sausage plant. In time, this familiar playground would become a place where he labored doing what he loved.
Wenzel started by skinning hot dogs and packaging fresh bratwurst during the summers. It was not long before he was adept in every job the plant offered.
As a student, Wenzel discovered that he had a future as an entrepreneur when he became business manager for Marshfield High School’s fledgling student newspaper. By selling foot-long hot dogs, he was able to provide a future for the publication. In addition, he may have established a path for his sisters Judy and Nancy, as they would both serve as the high school’s newspaper editor and pursued postsecondary educations in journalism.
After a stint in the Army, Wenzel returned to Wenzel’s Farm, where he extended the company’s distribution area around the state and helped expand its product line. Following his father’s heart surgery in 1988, Wenzel assumed the role of the company’s chief operating officer.
Like his father, Harry J. Wenzel, Russ was active in the community. For 35 years Russ volunteered with the community theater on the University of Wisconsin-Marshfield/Wood County campus; was active with the area Jaycees, Marshfield chamber, Rotary, and the city of Marshfield; and served on the Central Wisconsin State Fair board and with the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors.
The barn turned business, Wenzel’s Farm, continued to flex and grow, changing its look and its products along the way.
In 2002 the Wenzel family began work on a 3,990-square foot expansion, which included a packaging area, cooler, storage, and loading dock addition. The work was completed the following year, the same year Harry J. passed away at the age of 81.
As CEO of the Harry C. Wenzel & Sons firm, Russ ushered in the next generation of leadership, looking for someone to provide the input and guidance his father had.
“In 2004 Russ was the active president of the company,” recalled current Wenzel’s Farm Sausage President Mark Vieth. “At that time, this is March of 2004. His dad had passed away that prior December, and his dad had a good financial mind, so Russ was looking to bring someone in with a financial background to fill the void that was left with his dad dying and also someone who could learn the business.
“I didn’t have any background in meat manufacturing. I had a little bit of a manufacturing background, but Russ really taught me about the trade.”
When Russ fell ill, Vieth stepped up to run the daily operations in his absence. Russ continued to maintain his spot at the head of the company until May 2010.
Just four days after being inducted into the Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame, alongside names such as Oscar Meyer and Patrick Cudahy, Russ would succumb to his illness at the age of 61.
Next week: Changing production