In 1984, Behlen Manufacturing in Columbus was on the verge of closing.
Owned by Wickes Corp., Behlen, which was founded by Columbus resident Walt Behlen in 1936, was unprofitable. Going through their own bankruptcy proceedings, Wickes executives told Tony “TR” Raimondo Sr. that they would have to close Behlen if they couldn’t sell it.
With a group of managing partners, Raimondo bought Behlen from Wickes, saving at least 300 jobs in the process and returning the company to local ownership.
Behlen manufactures farm and ranch equipment and other products. The company now employs about 1,100 people, including 700 in Columbus.
Until his retirement in 2019, Raimondo emphasized an employee-centric culture that included the elimination of time clocks in favor of trusting his employees to track their own hours.
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“He just really cared about people,” his son, Tony Raimondo Jr., said Friday. “He would make time for everyone. He would get to know them. He would remember their names.”
Tony Raimondo Sr. died Wednesday at age 83 at his home in Lakewood Ranch, Florida, from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Raimondo’s reach and contributions stretched far beyond Columbus. Ben Nelson, the former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator, formed a close friendship with Raimondo after meeting him in 1990. Raimondo, a longtime Republican, accompanied the Democrat on international trade missions.
Noting that he and Raimondo both were the only child in their respective families, Nelson said “each of us became the other’s brother that we didn’t have.”
Raimondo held numerous board positions and earned many accolades, including a 1999 induction into the Nebraska Business Hall of Fame.
Bryan Slone, president of the Nebraska State Chamber of Commerce & Industry, called Raimondo a role model for businesspeople.
“He very much created that culture of hometown business leaders who run global businesses from anywhere in Nebraska,” Slone said.
In 2004, Raimondo was selected by President George W. Bush to serve as the manufacturing czar for the assistant secretary of commerce for manufacturing and services, but he later withdrew when Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry seized on Raimondo’s factory in China as a campaign issue, portraying Raimondo as a CEO who had outsourced U.S. jobs. At the time, Raimondo said he didn’t outsource because the factory he set up in China served Asian markets.
In late 2007, Raimondo switched his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat and declared his candidacy for U.S. Senate in the 2008 election cycle. He finished second in the Democratic primary to Scott Kleeb.
Raimondo drew respect from across the political spectrum.
In a statement, Gov.-elect Jim Pillen, a Republican, called Raimondo’s death “a huge loss for the community of Columbus and the state of Nebraska.”
“The loss of Tony … and his son, Phil, last year have left a void,” Pillen said. “He, his family, and his team persevered and built an incredibly vibrant and global business.”
Raimondo was preceded in death by his wife of nearly 59 years, Jeanne, and his son Phil.
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