You're not likely to catch Tom Wheeler bemoaning difficult times for his business on this, the 75th anniversary of Wheeler Associates.

His father, Hugh Wheeler, founded the Duluth-based business in 1934, at a time when the nation was attempting to close the book on one of the most painful economic chapters in its history -- the Great Depression.

Eager to relieve his family of the costs of college tuition and to make his own way in the world, Hugh Wheeler dropped out of Northwestern University to enter the insurance business. The following year, in 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt rolled out a new federal safety-net program called Social Security.

"Lots of people thought it would be the death knell of the personal insurance industry," Tom Wheeler said. "The question was: Who's going to need insurance now, let alone be able to afford it?"

If ever he slips toward self-pity, Wheeler tries to put himself in the shoes of his young father at that time, working against the tide to launch a career in insurance.

Hugh Wheeler
Hugh Wheeler

"If we think times are tough now, how would you like those odds?" Wheeler asked. But Hugh Wheeler's hard work, frugality and perseverance pulled the firm through difficult times, according to his son.

The recent economic downturn has presented a lesser challenge, Wheeler said.

"A recession can actually be a good time for our business," he said, explaining that it often prompts people to scrutinize and re-examine their expenses, as well as the benefits they receive from those investments.

Wheeler Associates handles insurance, pension and 401(k) plans for more than 250 employers throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin, but the majority of the firm's clients are in the Twin Ports area.

The company also advises or handles the accounts of about 1,500 individuals.

Moline Machinery of Duluth has used Wheeler Associates to manage retirement and insurance benefits since 1992.

"They certainly go above and beyond to provide service," said Kevin Boreen, Moline's vice president and chief operating officer. "It's been nice that they've always been willing to step up and be the middleman, when we're working with large insurance companies or 401(k) fund managers."

Wheeler Associates was affiliated with New England Mutual Life Insurance until last year, when it left to join the Commonwealth Financial Network.

"They are an independent, and we are not the captive audience of any one carrier," Wheeler said. "We can go to whoever has the best mousetrap."

Wheeler Associates now has four partners, all part of the Wheeler family: Tom, 63, Hugh's eldest son; Jim, 54, Hugh's youngest son; Andy, Tom's son; and Patrick Heffernan, Tom's son-in-law. The company also employs four additional staff members in its offices.

"We've been able to evolve, based on our clients' needs and desires. We're pretty nimble," Jim Wheeler said.

He pointed out that the firm has a reputation for recognizing and seizing new opportunities. Jim Wheeler said this dates back to his father, whom he described as a regional pioneer in the development of retirement plans.

Although a third generation of Wheelers now is active in the business and appears poised to assume a greater leadership role in the future, Tom Wheeler said there has never been an assumption the business would be handed down to certain family members.

"We have a rule that any new family member joining the firm has to spend at least three years somewhere else in a related business," Tom Wheeler said. The policy ensures the company remains current with business trends and that its new recruits are capable.

"If they can't make it somewhere else, we don't want them cluttering up our office," he said.

Tom Wheeler said that many family businesses struggle and falter when operations are passed from one generation to another, especially when a sense of complacency or entitlement develops.

"If anything, I think the next generation of our family in this business knows that we expect more out of them," he said. "They have to work harder than anyone else."

Patrick Heffernan, Tom's son-in-law who joined the firm in 2003, said he heartily approves of being put to the test.

"We've had to prove we were qualified," he said. "Both Andy and I are aware of the high expectations they have of us, and we strive to meet and exceed those expectations."

At the end of the day, however, the firm's four partners have learned to pool their talents, Heffernan said. Although different individuals may serve as primary contacts for clients, he said: "All of our clients are all of our clients. It takes a total team effort to serve them."