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2010: Dick and Liz Uihlein move Uline’s headquarters from Illinois to Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin.
2010: Dick and Liz Uihlein move Uline’s headquarters from Illinois to Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin.

 

1875: Brothers Alfred, August and Henry Uihlein, take over management and eventually ownership of the Milwaukee-based Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co.

When Elizabeth and Richard E. Uihlein closed the deal last year to build a new distribution center in Collier County for their Wisconsin-based Uline packaging supply company, they started another chapter in their family’s legacy in Southwest Florida.

Nearly a century ago, William B. Uihlein picked Naples as his family’s tropical getaway from the harsher winter climate of Milwaukee, headquarters for the Uihlein family’s Schlitz Brewing Co. Only a small, undeveloped fishing town along the Gulf of Mexico at the time, Naples lacked the basics of many communities. So, William Uihlein helped build the first town hall and oversaw construction of the first Naples water plant, using his engineering expertise in water quality honed from his days at the brewery.

1933: Post-Prohibition, beer production soared at Schlitz, now headed by Erwin C. Uihlein, youngest son of August. | 1937: William B. Uihlein, son of Alfred Uihlein, retires from Schlitz and builds one of the first homes on Gordon Drive in Naples. 

Once again, descendants of the Schlitz Brewing dynasty are helping to build Collier County, as Liz and Dick Uihlein expand their multibillion-dollar Uline empire. The nearly 1-million-square-foot distribution center just north of Interstate 75 promises more than 200 management and warehouse jobs. Collier County officials, who have made diversifying the area’s tourism and construction economy a priority, sweetened the deal with $2.2 million in incentives and more favorable impact fees.

“This is more than exciting,” Collier County Commissioner Penny Taylor told Uline representatives last year after officials approved the deal. “We look forward to you coming here.”

But Uline’s Florida addition to its growing U.S. operation is only one way the family is shaping the region: Liz and Dick Uihlein also bring their wealth and influence as one of the country’s most powerful conservative couples. Just as they have helped transform national politics as top GOP donors, the Uihleins also are leaving their mark on Southwest Florida’s political landscape.

 

1940: William Uihlein helps build the first town hall in Naples.

WHO ARE THE UIHLEINS?

The Uihleins contributed more than $50 million to national Republican efforts during the last election, with much of that money going to Super PACs working to re-elect President Donald Trump. One organization they’ve supported for several years helped organize the Washington, D.C., rally that morphed into the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

1945: William Uihlein leads Naples Water Committee, using his purification skills from Schlitz to design and build the town’s first water plant.

Some of the Super PAC money spilled into Southwest Florida. For the first time, the region’s congressional race drew millions from Super PACs as Republican candidates lined up to succeed Francis Rooney in Congress. Most of that money came from Club for Growth, a conservative organization that counts Dick Uihlein as its single largest contributor. Club for Growth spent $2.5 million to catapult former state Rep. Byron Donalds from the middle of the packed GOP primary field of nine candidates to a narrow victory.

1946: Naples town council names William Uihlein honorary mayor for life.

“There’s never been that kind of investment in that seat, ever,” says Cindy Bunyai, the Democrat Donalds easily defeated in November.

The Uihleins also have quietly supported conservative activist groups and local charities in their recently adopted Southwest Florida community. The family’s foundation has given more than $11 million since 2017 to the Naples-based Foundation for Government Accountability, which lobbies across the country against Medicaid expansion and other social service programs. They began supporting the Naples Winter Wine Festival in 2019 with a $25,000 contribution to its Naples Children and Education Foundation, donation records show.

In Everglades City, where they built a two-story, four-bedroom “fishing camp” in 2012 valued at more than $1.5 million, the Uihleins’ family foundation contributed $5,000 to improvements at a local park, and the couple also helped a nearby church after Hurricane Irma.

1947: William Uihlein, one of the architects of “Naples Plan,” to raise $300,000 in private donations for public improvements such as Cambier Park and the town’s first road paving program. | 1947: Schlitz expands to become the world’s top producer of beer.

National publications for years have described Liz and Dick Uihlein as the most powerful Republican donors you’ve never heard of, ultimately making them one of the better-known GOP couples in U.S. political circles. But their family’s legacy and growing influence in Southwest Florida have largely gone unnoticed as their Uline distribution center begins to take shape in Collier County.

That is, until now.

As a national Republican mega-donor, Dick Uihlein has put more than $100 million in recent years behind candidates committed to small government and fiscal restraint. As a businessman, he has welcomed government support in the form of taxpayer-funded incentives for his family’s company.

While the Uihleins see their Collier County distribution center as a natural fit for the company’s continued North American expansion, county leaders see the $70 million facility as a positive step toward making the area’s economy less reliant on tourism and construction.

1949: Naples incorporated as a city

“Strategically, for us, it makes a lot of sense,” says Nick Casalanguida, the former deputy county manager.

When discussions began about a year ago, Liz Uihlein made it clear she wanted to deal directly with senior county staff to ensure a quick process. That’s when Casalanguida said he stepped in to lead the talks. “Liz is very, very engaged in every little detail of the company,” he says.

Neither Liz Uihlein, the company’s president, nor Dick Uihlein, the chief executive officer, returned phone messages seeking comment for this story.

1951: The year before he died, William Uihlein loans actor Gary Cooper his boat to travel to the Everglades set of his film Distant Drums.

The couple, together for more than half a century and both in their 70s, started the family business out of the basement of their suburban Chicago home in 1980. As their shipping, packaging and industrial supply company grew, they hired relatives to help run it. Their daughter and two sons serve as vice presidents, along with Dick’s brother.

While they still live in suburban Chicago, in 2010 the Uihleins moved their company’s headquarters about 20 miles north to Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, after that state offered more than $18 million in incentives.

Since then, Uline has nearly tripled its workforce to about 7,000 employees working at 12 locations across the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Collier County officials wanted the company’s 13th location, so they offered Uline incentives to build in a special district created to attract new business, including $1.4 million in tax increment rebates. The county commission this year also approved a special impact fee category for Uline that saved the company about $800,000 in local development taxes.

But Collier County offered the Uihleins more than just an attractive deal. With two homes and decades of memories, the family has personal ties to the area.

“They’ve got some pretty deep roots here in Collier,” says Commissioner William McDaniel.

 

1957: Robert A. Uihlein Jr., grandson of August Uihlein, breaks ground for Schlitz plant in Tampa. | 1980: Richard Uihlein, great-grandson of August Uihlein, and his wife, Elizabeth, start their family business, the Uline packing supply company, out of the basement of their suburban Chicago home.

FAMILY (AND LOCAL) TIES

When William Benedict Uihlein retired from Schlitz Brewing Company in 1936, he searched for the perfect place for him and his wife, Melitta, to escape Milwaukee’s bone-chilling cold. He settled on more than 4 acres in Naples along the beach.

His father, Alfred Uihlein, was one of several brothers who took over Schlitz in the late 1800s, along with August, Dick Uihlein’s great-grandfather. The brothers turned the local Milwaukee brewery into a family business and made Schlitz one of the world’s most famous beers.

William Uihlein was 57 when he bought the Naples waterfront parcel in 1937. He and his wife were among the first to build on what later became Gordon Drive in the Port Royal neighborhood. Their winter retreat featured nine bedrooms, 12 baths, a five-car garage, a guest house and servants’ quarters.

In those early days, the town of Naples had few public utilities or services. Uihlein, who was serving on the planning board at the time, loaned municipal leaders $1,500 in 1940 to help build the first Town Hall at 735 Eighth St. S., wrote Lila Zuck in her 2013 history of the city, Naples: A Second Paradise.

1982: Schlitz is sold to the former Stroh Brewing Co., which was purchased by Pabst and Miller brewing companies in 2000. | 1995: Diane Uihlein Koestner, William Uihlein’s granddaughter, moves from Milwaukee to Naples.

As Naples continued to attract more residents, the town needed help providing basics, such as paved roads and clean water. “Naples water had a grassy taste, a slight sulfurous odor and was highly colored with traces of iron, which produced red staining on everything with which it came in contact,” Zuck wrote in her history of Naples.

Uihlein led the Naples Water Committee in 1945, using his purification skills from Schlitz to design and build the town’s first water plant. He also loaned the town $8,500 to help pay for plant improvements, according to council minutes at the time.

In 1947, Uihlein was one of the architects of the Naples Plan to raise $300,000 in private donations for public improvements, including Cambier Park and the town’s first road paving program.

Named honorary mayor for life in 1946 by the Naples town council, Uihlein died in 1952, a year after he loaned actor Gary Cooper his boat to travel to the Everglades set of his film Distant Drums, Zuck wrote.

Decades after the Uihlein family sold the Gordon Drive beach home, the property would make history in 2018 with a $48.8 million sale, recorded at the time as Collier County’s largest residential home transaction.

Richard A. Uihlein hadn’t heard the story about his distant uncle’s role in helping to build Naples before he and his wife, Lauralee, bought their TwinEagles home in 2008. He learned the history at Naples cocktail parties and fundraisers from others who recognized the family name.

2011: After making fishing trips to southern Collier County for decades, Uihleins build two-story, four-bedroom “fishing camp” in Everglades City.

That’s also where he learned he had another relative who shared his name: Richard E. Uihlein, a distant cousin who goes by Dick and was co-founder of the Uline packaging supply company best known for its 800-page catalog delivered to businesses across the country.

“I didn’t even hear about him until several years ago,” says Richard A. Uihlein, who family members call Ricky.

Their family businesses even shared similar names—the Uline name is nearly the same as the U-line refrigeration business created by Ricky Uihlein’s family in 1962. His father, who helped popularize under-counter ice makers and refrigerators, wanted the family name for the company. But people often had trouble spelling it, so he called the business U-line to make it clear the German name pronounced by many as “E-line” begins with the letter U.

The two families don’t really know each other, Ricky Uihlein said, despite their ancestors’ roles in building the Schlitz business.

 

2014: Dick Uihlein buys cottage next door for $260,000 and demolishes it, giving his Everglades City fishing camp a bigger yard and a total value of more than $1.5 million. Liz Uihlein buys $2.5 million Naples beachfront condo at The Laurentians in Coquina Sands near Lowdermilk Park.

OUT OF THE SPOTLIGHT

He’s not alone. Few people in Collier County, including other Uihleins and county commissioners, are actually familiar with the couple behind Uline.

“I don’t know them,” says Diane Uihlein Koestner, William Uihlein’s granddaughter who moved from Milwaukee to Naples in 1995.

Dick and Liz Uihlein have kept a low profile when visiting Collier County through the years. An avid sport fisherman, Dick Uihlein has traveled to Everglades City for decades—trips he started with his father, Ed Uihlein, in the 1980s, said local real estate agent Bob Wells.

Uihlein has hired local guides to fish the Gulf waters for tarpon, said Hazel Michell. Her husband, Danny Mitchell, worked as his fishing guide for six years before his death in 2017. Uihlein took a private flight to attend Mitchell’s funeral.

In 2011, Uihlein bought a single-story cottage on half an acre in Everglades City for $400,000. He and his father had admired the spot for years because of its location overlooking the Barron River as it enters Chokoloskee Bay, said Wells, who helped with the purchase.

Uihlein tore the small house down and built the family’s two-story retreat. In 2014, he bought the 1,300-square-foot cottage next door on a third of an acre for $260,000 and demolished it, giving his fishing camp a bigger yard. The house and lots are valued at more than $1.5 million, according to Collier County land records.

Locals know the family is in town when they see the red cushions returned to the patio furniture that lines the house’s wrap-around porch. Some of the town’s more than 400 residents recognize Dick Uihlein from his many years of visiting, but not Liz Uihlein, Wells said.

While not the sportfishing fan her husband is, Liz Uihlein wanted to get more involved in Everglades City. She offered suggestions for area improvements, particularly after Irma’s devastation. They were good ideas, Wells said, but others in Everglades City didn’t agree.

“This is a small town with a different approach,” he says. “She got a little attitude for it, and she’s not patient with these kinds of things. So, she pulled back a bit.”

In 2014, Liz Uihlein found a place in paradise more suited to her, using her newly created “Return to Civilization” limited liability corporation to buy a Naples beachfront condo at The Laurentians in the tony Coquina Sands neighborhood. She paid $2.5 million for the 3,000-square-foot condo near Lowdermilk Park, county land records show.

 

2016-2020: Uihleins contribute more than $50 million to national Republican election efforts. | 2017 -2020: Uihlein family foundation gives more than $11 million to Naples- based Foundation for Government Accountability. | 2018: Decades after William Uihlein family sells Gordon Drive beach home, the property sells for $48.8 million, Collier County’s largest residential home transaction until that time.

GOP GROWTH

Liz Uihlein has always said her husband is the more passionate one when it comes to politics. That passion has grown in recent years, and no one in Florida has suffered more from it than Casey Askar.

Askar, a Naples Republican businessman, loaned his campaign $3 million last year after announcing his candidacy for Southwest

Florida’s congressional seat. He was considered a favorite in a district that rewards political outsiders and businessmen such as Francis Rooney and Curt Clawson, who both stepped away from the seat in recent years.

But months after launching his campaign, Askar began battling more than just a crowded field of GOP primary competitors; one of the nation’s best funded conservative Super PACs jumped into the race. The Washington, D.C.-based Club for Growth describes itself as a “pro-growth, limited government” advocacy group promoting the concept that “prosperity and opportunity come from economic freedom.” Its political action group spent more than $66 million in the last election, and the $27 million from Dick Uihlein made him the group’s single biggest donor, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

2019: Dick and Liz Uihlein support the Naples Winter Wine Festival with a $25,000 contribution to its Naples Children and Education Foundation.

While several PACs spent money in the Southwest Florida congressional race, Club for Growth accounted for nearly two-thirds of the $4 million spent in that race. And all of its money went to help former state Rep. Byron Donalds, a Naples Republican previously trounced in an earlier bid for the congressional seat.

While Uihlein personally contributed $5,400 to Donalds’ congressional campaign, the Club for Growth PAC that he funded spent more than $2.5 million supporting Donalds and criticizing his opponents. Nearly $1 million of that money paid for ads against Askar, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In a lawsuit claiming Donalds defamed him during the campaign, Askar argued Donalds’ candidacy was “struggling to catch up” with only $335,000 in his campaign before the PAC stepped in last summer to support him with “millions of dollars to secure his victory.” The civil lawsuit is pending in state court.

2020: Uihleins close deal to build Uline’s 13th location, a nearly 1 million-square-foot distribution center, in Collier County.

Donalds, who is fighting Askar’s defamation claims, did not respond to a request for comment about Club for Growth’s support. Donalds is among dozens of Republican candidates across the country whose campaigns have been boosted by Super PACs funded by Uihlein, often endorsed by the PACS in GOP primaries as the more conservative choice. Others include U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Uihlein also has given Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his PACs more than $1.1 million, campaign finance records show.

The Uihleins’ politics didn’t go unnoticed last year during discussions about their company’s distribution center in Collier County, one of Florida’s most conservative counties. Nick Casalanguida, the former deputy county manager who led the talks, said the Uihleins’ investment here wasn’t just about good economic sense. “It was also culturally a really good fit for us,” he says.

Uihlein rarely responds to media requests to discuss his political contributions. But he summed up his rationale in a 2013 interview with Crain’s Chicago Business.

“I’m a conservative Republican, and I’m trying to help people who believe as I do in limited government and free markets. I’m not one to hide from that.”

Photo Credit: Courtesy Collier County Museum; Getty; istock; Courtesy Winter Wine Festival, Courtesy LSI Companies

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