Member Spotlight: Colder’s Hits a Cool 80

Colder’s was just getting started in the 1940s, back when it was known as the Henry Cooler Company.

A Milwaukee mainstay marks an 80-year milestone

By Andy Kriege

Colder’s is a third-generation, family-owned business that has been serving the greater Milwaukee area for decades.

The store’s humble beginnings trace back to the post-World War II suburban boom, when electric refrigerators were just beginning to hit the masses. The founders of the business, the Felker brothers, seized on burgeoning refrigeration demand and began a cold storage business that would eventually expand to an entire line of household goods.

The modest beginnings of the store date back to 1942, when Henry Felker left the family farm and began a one-man business peddling freezers during the Second World War. Working from the back of his truck, he began selling and delivering coolers to neighborhoods throughout Milwaukee. Brother Harry joined the business after returning home from the war and convinced Henry to assemble a mass display of name-brand appliances under one roof, so a shopper could see them all at once and compare them. Henry’s third brother Walter would eventually join the fledgling operation.

Colder’s concept of building an assortment of major brands for comparison under one roof was a bit of a novel idea in the early 1950s.

The business continues to grow to this day and currently employs over 150 people in four retail locations in and around Milwaukee. The combined retail footprint is more than 240,000 square feet, and Colder’s maintains an additional 275,000 square feet of warehouse space to house its merchandise.

Given the company’s history, Colder is obviously not the family name. How the business came to be known as Colder’s, however, makes for an interesting story. It was originally known as the Henry Cooler Company, derived from the first name of founder Henry Felker, who primarily sold his coolers to grocery stores and meat markets. But an advertisement in the local paper misspelled the company name, which appeared as the Henry Colder Company. The timing of the misprint was fortuitous though, as the company was beginning the transition into freezers and the “Colder” handle fit perfectly.

The misprint also made for a great transition into retail, as the company was known to bundle a side of beef with the sale of a freezer as an added incentive. 

Though its beginnings were humble, the addition of three more retail stores transformed Colder’s into a regional powerhouse. Indeed, its massive, iconic showrooms, fed by expansive and well-stocked warehouses, host the largest display of furniture, appliances and mattresses in the state of Wisconsin.

The founders’ work ethic and pride extend three generations to Walter’s grandson Randy Felker, who prominently displays a picture of his grandfather in his office and is constantly reminded of his legacy. “As I walk around the store, I am reminded of the work that went into building this business and the pride my grandfather and his brothers instilled in all of us to this day,” Randy said.

Debbie Felker Balistreri, daughter of founding brother Harry, concurred. Having worked in the family business since high school, she recalled the early years when her father was so engrossed in the business, she rarely saw him. “Some days I only saw him when he came home for lunch and mowed the lawn in his suit and tie,” she told YSN.

Fittingly, the stores are currently holding an 80th Anniversary Celebration, which includes an “80 Gifts for 80 Years” promotion. Prizes include furniture, mattresses, and kitchen appliances, as well as an 80-percent-off shopping spree.

In addition to product giveaways, Colder’s is marking its 80th anniversary with a number of in-store specials including its popular DoubleBack promotion, in which customers get $2 back for every $1 they spend.

In addition, the BrandSource dealer has partnered with local TV personality and celebrity storyteller John McGivern, who has collaborated with Colder’s on a series of videos showcasing the company’s 80-year history. The videos are posted on the retailer’s website and shared on social media, creating a buzz around the promotion.

Debbie’s husband Tom Balistreri, a BrandSource Hall of Fame member who serves as Colder’s Vice President of Merchandising, reflected on the company’s long legacy. “Many family-owned businesses do not make it past the first or second generation,” he said. “The fact that we are in the third generation is a testament to the Felker brothers’ leadership.”

YSN gives a tip of the cap to the entire Colder’s team for an incredible 80 years and wishes them continued success in the many years to come.

BrandSource, a unit of YSN publisher AVB Inc., is a nationwide buying group for independent appliance, mattress, furniture, and CE dealers.