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RACINE — In 2004, when Brian Leadingham left BRP to start his own firm, he didn’t choose a name that ended in Co., Corp. or Inc.

Instead, Leadingham named his new company, which is now located in Downtown Racine, Design Department, a name that connotes being a piece of something larger.

“A lot of times, how we view our business is an extension to other corporate entities,” explained Leadingham, who had been a product designer at Sturtevant-based BRP. “We view ourselves as an extension of their design department.”

The “we” in those sentences includes Leadingham’s equal business partner, Patrick Tetzlaff, another BRP veteran; Tetzlaff left there as project manager to join Leadingham in January 2011. Leadingham is president and Tetzlaff general manager of the company housed at 141 Main St., the Harbor at State and Main building.

Their large space, which they moved into in fall 2017, has a few examples of the company’s work, including three sleek, black Evinrude outboard engines. Running along the engine heads are curved, pebbled handles. They were made for the U.S. military so Navy seals, for example, can take the engines off or put them back on a boat.

Design Department has done work many times for BRP, for Bradley Corp., for Cardinal Health, a medical distributor; for the Curt Group of Eau Claire, a manufacturer of trailer hitches and other truck accessories; for Tire Profiles; and for Lansinoh, a maker of mother- and baby-care products.

Until 2017, Leadingham, and later the partners, worked from home and/or garage, depending on the project. About half of the things they have designed have been medical devices, such as the breast pump prototypes they produced in hurry-up mode.

“Our customer approached us about two weeks before they had a major focus-group event on the calendar,” Leadingham said. “They realized that their internal engineering team was not able to pull the pumps together in time to make it for that focus group, so in a common but last-minute effort they approached us and asked us if we could do it.”

They did. The pumps Design Department produced were comprised partly of 3-D printed parts printed in their own shop, for the housings. Each pump included electronic parts from the customer and a sourced, injection-molded touch interface to engage the controls.

The partners hand-delivered the fully functional, realistic breast pumps a few hours before the event — then were able to observe the women participants’ favorable reactions.

“It was a big success,” Leadingham said. “The attendees of the focus group really liked the pump — compact, quiet, intuitive.”

Another time, working in Leadingham’s garage, the partners designed and built two concept motorcycles for Eric Buell Racing, in just two months.

Coming to Downtown

By 2017, the partners had decided to open an office someplace about midway between Leadingham’s Pleasant Prairie home and Tetzlaff’s Caledonia home. They found Downtown Racine and their spacious quarters at State and Main attractive for the atmosphere, the lakefront and having restaurants and coffee shops within walking distance.

After finding their space in the State and Main building, Design Department’s skills came in handy in furnishing it. They knew they wanted a conference-room table and started shopping around at traditional office furniture stores.

“We just really weren’t thrilled with any of the options,” Tetzlaff said. “Not many of them within our budget had any character.

“I was discussing this with a friend of mine and just kind of lamenting that we couldn’t find a good conference room table, and he said, ‘Well, you guys design things; why don’t you design a conference room table?’ ”

So, they went through the same process they use for their clients to design and build a handsome, unique, 10-seat table made of wood, glass, aluminum and steel.

“It was a lot of fun, really rewarding, and we got a really nice showpiece for our office out of the deal,” Tetzlaff said.

The table fits in well with the colorful, warm, open and flexible office space Leadingham and Tetzlaff created. Their interior walls are all on wheels for maximum flexibility.

“We were really going for, certainly, a nontraditional office environment,” Tetzlaff said. “We need a place where, when we’re working and when our customers come to visit us, that they feel like they’re in that creative mindset: that they can put some of the noise of the day-to-day behind them and really start talking and dreaming and creating — ‘What’s next, what’s in the future, what cool things are we going to do together?’”

Growth plan

Design Department is currently an extremely lean operation: just the two partners and one mechanical engineer, Alex Gruber, in a total of about 5,350 square feet of space, about half of that the office side.

Tetzlaff said about the company’s growth plan, “At this point in time we’re taking a very methodical approach to growth. … I think you could see us, within the next couple of years, getting to something like six or eight people here in house.

“But we want to be really cautious about expanding our overhead too quickly,” he continued. “When you’re in consulting, the flow of business isn’t quite as steady as you might always like.”

“We’re really excited about the future,” Tetzlaff added, “and moving into this new office in Downtown Racine has been a big step forward for us and our business.”

“A lot of times, how we view our business is an extension to other corporate entities. We view ourselves as an extension of their design department.” Brian Leadingham, founder of Racine-based Design Department

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Michael "Mick" Burke covers business and the Village of Sturtevant. He is the proud father of two daughters and owner of a fantastic, although rug-chewing, German shepherd dog.

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