As he tries to grow Carlson Products’ business, new president and CEO Austin Peterson can look to the company’s history for inspiration.
Founded in the 1950s as a door manufacturer, the company started making bakeware for a little startup called Pizza Hut.
“The original Pizza Hut pizza pan was the circular window cutout of an aluminum door, a stockroom door,” Peterson said. “It’s a great story.”
That launched Carlson into commercial bakeware in a big way. The company still makes doors, as well as components for lawnmowers, skeet shooting machines, pumps, nozzles and numerous other products.
Peterson is part of a group that bought Carlson this summer. Born and raised in Wichita, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Kansas and then a law degree from the University of Chicago before going to work for a large law firm, where he specialized in mergers and acquisitions.
“I was working on a lot of business deals and I kind of realized that while I didn’t mind the stuff I was doing, I really got the itch to jump over to the business side of things, get in there, roll up my sleeves and run a company,” he said.
He declined to name his partners but called them a “successful group of Wichita people” who can advise him in any challenges he faces in the day-to-day running of the business.
Carlson is located at 45th and Tyler in Maize, in two buildings with about 100,000 square feet of space. It employs about 90 people.
“What kind of sold me and my partners on it was really the people that are here out in the shop, actually fabricating those parts and stamping the commercial bakeware,” Peterson said.
The company offers engineering and design as well as production.
“We provide solutions to the challenges that are faced by our customers,” Peterson said. “That’s how we add value. It’s more than we just get a print from the customer and make that part.”
Among Carlson’s products are commercial bakeware for Taco Bell, Chili’s and other restaurant chains and the swinging doors that separate back rooms from public areas of thousands of businesses – as well as doors for dogs.
“We actually make about the best pet door there is in the industry,” Peterson said.
Carlson sells some products under its own name, mostly through middlemen. Establishing a retail presence of its own could be one avenue for expansion.
Peterson says he doesn’t regret the decision to leave the law books behind.
“The legal business is necessary, but it’s a lot of pushing paper and distributing value,” he said. “Here I really feel I have a chance to create value. Picking up something your company has made is very satisfying.”