Pleasant Prairie, Wis.
It started with a carton sizer, a hand-held tool that reduces boxes to custom dimensions. Dick Uihlein remembers his first encounter with the implement in 1980. “It was one of the neatest little tools I’d ever seen,” he says. He’d just quit his job and was looking to jump-start his career as an entrepreneur. So he began to sell carton sizers and discovered a demand for the device. Then he built a catalogue of other shipping-supply products, mailing them to business back offices and offering next-day delivery. Over time, the catalogue thickened. This year it contains more than 750 pages, and Uihlein expects to sell $5 billion in boxes, air bubbles, and packing tape. His company is called “Uline,” and he adopted the phonetic spelling of his last name for a simple reason: “There’s no way anyone looking at ‘Uihlein’ could pronounce it properly.”
His name is now becoming familiar for a different reason: Uihlein is on track to be the largest individual political donor of the 2018 election cycle, with federal contributions that currently top $25 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He seeks to help conservatives, and his giving already has shaped several Republican Senate primaries. In West Virginia, he backed Patrick Morrisey, who on May 8 became the GOP nominee in a close three-way contest. In Mississippi and Wisconsin, he has turned underdogs into viable candidates against establishment favorites. Whatever happens in November, as Republican majorities in Congress try to fend off a midterm surge of Democrats, Uihlein’s influence will be a big part of the story.
The 72-year-old Richard “Dick” Uihlein descends from the founders of Schlitz, a Milwaukee-based brewery that once sold more beer to Americans than any other company. Despite these midwestern roots, Uihlein was born in Dallas, where his father was stationed as a Navy pilot at the end of the Second World War. He grew up mainly in Lake Bluff, Ill., just north of Chicago, and attended high school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. Then he went to Stanford University, where he majored in history. He says he’s a distant relative of Peter Uihlein, the professional golfer, but they’ve never met.
By the time Uihlein graduated from Stanford in 1967, he was married and ready to move back home. He took a sales job with the General Binding Corporation, a company his father had started in Illinois. As it went public, however, he grew disenchanted. “The analysts took over,” he says. “The fun was gone.” He also aspired to run his own business: “I wanted to call the shots.” He quit GBC and started Uline, selling carton sizers and more to customers around his region and then going national. “My goal was to reach $1 billion in sales,” he says. That happened in 2007. Today, headquartered in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., the family-owned company employs more than 6,000 people, with Dick as its CEO and his wife, Liz, as the president. Each day, they commute from their home in Illinois, driving to work with their dog, Dixie, a yellow lab.
Uihlein’s first exposure to the conservative movement came around the dinner table. “My father would talk about the importance of capitalism and the evils of socialism,” he says, recalling denunciations of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. He wishes young people today received similar instruction, citing a recent poll in which nearly half of all Millennials expressed a preference for socialism over capitalism. “They’ve never been shown the total destruction done by socialist dictatorships,” he says. “Look at Venezuela. Do you want to go down there?”
Education is essential, Uihlein says, and he supports the Jack Miller Center, a Pennsylvania-based group that promotes the teaching of American political principles at colleges and universities. Off campus, he adds, people should read more. Uline will buy a subscription to the Kenosha News for any headquarters employee who wants one. The Times Digest, a daily compilation of articles from the New York Times, is available for free in the cafeteria and a fitness room. A sign on a display rack makes a pitch: “An informed employee is a valuable asset . . . take time to read.” Uihlein acknowledges the liberalism of the Times: “I wish the Wall Street Journal had a similar publication,” he says, adding that he reads its right-of-center editorial pages every day. “I’m a conservative: I’m for free speech, free markets, not just limited government but smaller government, the Second Amendment, and the sanctity of life.”
Some 15 years ago, Uihlein engaged his father in a long conversation about philanthropy. For several days, they reviewed the groups that Ed Uihlein had supported, including a series of conservative organizations such as the Leadership Institute, the Media Research Center, and the National Right to Work Committee. “He talked about ‘moving the needle,’” says Uihlein. “He knew the value of think tanks but he wanted to see things done. He was a thinker and a doer.”
As a young man in 1969, Uihlein learned about getting things done in politics when he knocked on doors for a little-known congressional candidate in a special election: Phil Crane, who won that race and whose career as a conservative in the House of Representatives lasted until 2005. “It was a huge upset and it was done through the grassroots — and that’s where a lot of my activity is now,” says Uihlein. For a long while, however, Uihlein put politics on hold. “I was so dang busy building this company,” he says. “There was so much going on.” Decades passed. When his father died, in 2005, he knew he wanted to get more involved.
Around this time, Uihlein met John Tillman, a businessman who was looking for work after selling his sporting-goods store. “I’d been getting the Uline catalogue for a while,” says Tillman. “So I wrote a letter to the owner.” They met and discussed a sales job, but soon their conversation turned to Tillman’s real passion: creating a network of freedom-minded organizations in Illinois. “Dick became my anchor donor,” says Tillman. An initial gift of $50,000 helped Tillman launch the Illinois Policy Institute, a free-market think tank. Millions followed, destined for a variety of projects, including the Liberty Justice Center, a public-interest law firm with national sway: Its Janus v. AFSCME case, which challenges the rights of labor unions to collect fees from nonmembers, is now before the Supreme Court. A ruling, expected by the end of June, has the potential to halt a major source of revenue for Democrats.
Uihlein also donated to candidates for office in Illinois, trying to strengthen the Republican presence in Springfield as well as to make the GOP caucus there more conservative. Democrats still dominate the state legislature, but Uihlein won’t bow to pessimism: “Nothing is hopeless.” He points to the election of Governor Bruce Rauner in 2014 as proof that Republicans can compete in a state that many other conservatives have written off. Yet 2017 featured tax hikes as well as Rauner’s approval of an abortion-funding bill, prompting Uihlein to break with him and donate heavily to Jeanne Ives, a conservative state lawmaker who nearly beat Rauner in a March primary. “Jeanne proved that people are hungry for change,” says Uihlein. He’s now skeptical about Rauner’s ability to deliver it but says that the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, J. B. Pritzker, would be a disaster for Illinois: “I will vote for Rauner over Pritzker.”
On the national level, too, he has tried to balance conservative principles with the practical demands of politics. During the last presidential election, for example, he supported Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin. When Walker dropped out, he switched to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Finally, there was only Donald Trump. “He took over,” says Uihlein. “And I can’t abide Hillary Clinton.” He threw himself behind the Republican nominee, and today he has almost nothing but praise for the president, admiring the tax bill, the tough talk on border security, and the recent appointment of John Bolton as national-security advisor. He’s less sure about Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, noting the dangers of trade wars for consumers and farmers as well as for Uline. Although he estimates that about 80 percent of the company’s merchandise is made in the United States, the tariffs are starting to pinch: “We’re being hurt on certain product lines.” Even so, he trusts Trump and wants to give the president a chance to make a deal. He’s also optimistic about the economy: “We’re a good barometer and our sales are strong. Companies are reinvesting and expanding.”
As for what may be the Trump administration’s biggest failure — the inability to repeal or reform Obamacare — Uihlein blames Congress. “They had it on a platter,” he says. “It’s so easy to rail against the Democrats, but when you’re in the majority and you refuse to do what you said you’d do? It’s repulsive and it’s got to stop. The country suffers because of their inability to use power.”
Uihlein admires several senators, including Cruz, Mike Lee of Utah, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. He’d like his political donations to help them secure new allies, including mainstream Republican candidates such as Morrisey in West Virginia and Josh Hawley in Missouri. Yet Uihlein also has made more controversial commitments. Last year in Alabama, for instance, he supported congressman Mo Brooks in the GOP Senate primary, but after Brooks’s defeat, he contributed to Roy Moore, the Republican nominee, who lost the special election in the wake of sex-abuse allegations. Uihlein says he thought the timing of the charges was fishy, but also admits that Moore “was not the best candidate.”
In neighboring Mississippi, Uihlein backs Chris McDaniel, a state senator and tea-party favorite, in a June 5 primary against Cindy Hyde-Smith, an incumbent who joined the Senate in April following the sudden resignation of Thad Cochran. In Wisconsin, Uihlein’s contributions have turned Kevin Nicholson, a political novice, into a serious contender for the GOP nomination, even as much of the party’s establishment appears to favor Leah Vukmir, a state senator, in the race to take on Democratic senator Tammy Baldwin.
Uihlein’s political activism has made him a person of interest in the media, even though he rarely grants interviews. Crain’s Chicago Business invoked the bogeymen of liberalism when it dubbed him “the Koch of conservative politics in Illinois.” Recent articles in Politico, the Washington Post, and elsewhere have treated him with a mix of curiosity and suspicion, and the Daily Beast even dug up a story about a woman who claims to have suffered from employment discrimination at Uline — a tale that wouldn’t have interested its editors if Uihlein weren’t a major funder of Republicans. Uihlein doesn’t relish the attention, but he recognizes its inevitability: “I’m not going to give up supporting the people who deserve it. That’s what they want me to do.”