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WisBusiness.com:†'The Menards Man' Still a Midwest Icon at 79

By Brian E. Clark

ANTIGO - Ray Szmanda, aka "The Menards Man,'' is a local legend even after retirement.

Szmanda, who gained an almost cult-like following his many years with the Eau Claire-based home improvement chain, signed autographs and photographs the evening of Feb. 13 at the grand opening of a Menards' Mega Store in Antigo -- his home since the 1950s. † He retired as pitchman for the company two years ago, but to many in the Midwest he's still the face of Menards.

Though Szmanda will turn 80 in June and recently hurt his back moving a rocking chair, the former radio and television broadcaster's voice remains buttery smooth. (Listen to him at http://www.menardsguy.com/Sounds.htm)

"Generally, I am in good health," Szmanda, a native of Milwaukee, said in mid-February. "But I'm happily retired. I'll do another opening for Menards in Wausau soon, but that's it.

"The company is in 10 states now and has more than 200 stores," he said. "Doing other openings would mean a lot of travel, and I don't want to do that anymore."

Fred Berner, the long-time editor of the Antigo Daily Journal, said that retired or not, he couldn't imagine Menards opening a store in Antigo (pop. 9,000) without Ray Szmanda being part of the festivities.

† "He has been here almost all of his adult life and is widely admired," said Berner. "I've known his family ever since I was a kid and people around here think it's fun to see him in his role as the Menards guy."

Though Szmanda is known throughout the Midwest for touting Menards bargains, Berner said he had a long career before he hooked up with the company in the mid-1970s.

He said Szmanda came to Antigo in 1952 as a radio personality on WATK-900 because his late wife wanted to return to her hometown.

The couple met when Szmanda's musical group - the Mandy Ray Trio - was on tour in northern Wisconsin. (Szmanda was a drummer and piano player.) Szmanda and his wife raised seven children in Antigo, and several of them became doctors, Berner said.

Szmanda also worked for years as a freelance announcer and producer, doing productions for many regional companies. He also ran the Trans American Broadcasting School in Wausau for 20 years.

(In 1978 - not long after he signed on with Menards - he made a foray into the movies, playing the role of a general in the low-budget film, "The Alpha Incident." In the flick, a microorganism from Mars, brought to Earth by a space probe, terrorizes passengers in a railroad office.)

"There has always been the question of whether Menards grew so much because of Ray, or if Ray grew because of Menard's success," Berner said.

"The answer, most likely, is a combination of both," he said. "Ray is like the guy next door who is telling you about hardware store deals. For whatever reason, he registered with the public."

Deborah Mitchell, a senior lecturer in the marketing department at the UW-Madison Business School, said Szmanda became a kind of human logo for Menards.

"They made him a celebrity, but he also helped make them successful," she said. "I know their advertising works because the Menards' jingle is stuck in my head."

Mitchell said that feat is no easy task.

"Home Depot, a competitor of Menards, certainly never had a Ray Szmanda," she said.

And while no one can quantify how many people bought products at Menards because of Szmanda, she said the company must have been happy with him because it kept him as its frontman for nearly three decades.

"Brand awareness increases as the spokesman becomes more of a celebrity," she said. "And if you believe that brand awareness is related to sales, you'd have to believe he was a key component to that company's success."

Tammy Polzin, the broadcast advertising manager for Menards, worked with Szmanda for a dozen years and called him "absolutely awesome."

Said Polzin: "He was always professional and kind to everyone involved in the production. His level of commitment and energy for promoting the company was exemplary."

Polzin said she believes he clicked with the public because of his sincerity.

"He truly believed in the product he was selling and in Menards and that sincerity was evidenced by his enthusiasm for the company and our products," she said.

Polzin described Szmanda's voice as "energetic and infectious. Even little children copy his style."

She said Szmanda's was an important part of Menards' success.

"I think a big impact Ray had was in effectively communicating to people that you really could `Save Big Money at Menards,'" she said. "Everyone wants to hear him say it."

Szmanda said he was approached by Menards in 1976 when the company had but six or seven stores.

"They were looking for a Pat Summerall-type to be their spokesman," Szmanda recalled. Summerall - a long-time football broadcaster - was then the pitchman for True Value Hardware.

"Jack Crowley, the program director for Channel 7 (in Wausau), suggested they come see me," he said. "And the rest, I guess, is history. It's been great all around."

Though Szmanda was a journalist first and a fan of Edward R. Murrow, he found his niche doing freelance commercial work.

He said his slogan for Menards was like a hit record than never left the top of the charts.

"I preferred freelance," he said. "I got to work for myself and turned it into a fairly lucrative career, enough to raise a family. Eventually, I got so busy, I had to sell the broadcast school."

But Szmanda acknowledged that he will forever be connected with Menards.

"They kept me busy three to five days a week for 27 years," he said. "I don't know how many grand openings I've done. But the activity grew as the company grew. I was more than just on-camera talent."

Szmanda said he is not sure why he caught on with Menards or the public.

"It's a strange thing how that all works," he said. "You never know if you will take. But I did, and I'm happy for that."

Szmanda said his television persona evolved over the years.

And while the timbre of his voice is similar to Summerall's, Szmanda said he tried to be more energetic.

"I put a lot of enthusiasm into what I did," he said. "Normally, I'm kind of laid back. But when I'm selling something, or doing my music, I get excited.

"And for whatever reason, people responded to that," he said.

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