Peter D. Hansel isn’t sure he deserves to be dubbed Entrepreneur of the Year.
Hansel, the co-owner of Filtrine Manufacturing Co. in Keene — which was recently featured in Forbes magazine’s “Forbes Small Giants: The Best Small Companies Of 2019” — says he’s proud of the entrepreneurial history of his family’s business.
In 1901, inventor George Kneuper discovered and patented a new way to filter water; he founded Filtrine in Brooklyn, New York.
“He was the real entrepreneur,” Hansel says. “He took something out of nothing and made a company.”
As Kneuper grew older, he sought a buyer, and the Hansel family entered the picture. Peter Hansel’s great-grandfather, Charles Hansel, was a civil engineer and saw an opportunity to invest in a small business where his son — Charles F. Hansel, Peter’s grandfather — could work.
Hansel asserted that his great-grandfather became another entrepreneur, as he took over a fledgling business in 1918 and built upon its foundation to create something even bigger.
This first generation of Hansels recognized that Filtrine could do more than purify drinking water. The company began producing electric coolers and tanks used inside condensing units for central air systems. This new line of products opened up new possibilities for the company to explore how to use water to cool down equipment, such as in bakeries for dough and in MRIs.
In the 1950s, Hansel’s father, John P. Hansel, worked with his brother, Charles F. Hansel Jr., to move the business to a larger facility in Waldwick, New Jersey.
John ran the company until his retirement in 2012 when he was 88.
A FAMILY OF ENTREPRENEURS
Hansel, a father of four adult children and an avid outdoorsman, walks through a room at Filtrine dedicated to the company’s history, with portraits of the men who built the business.
“I know people have different thoughts about what an entrepreneur is,” Hansel says, “but I look at those types of people as my heroes when I think of entrepreneurship.”
Born in New Jersey, Peter Hansel was raised in Riverside, Connecticut, near Greenwich and Stanford. After prep school, he attended Princeton University and majored in environmental studies.
He helped move Filtrine to Cheshire Mills in Harrisville in 1971 before taking a position with an environmental consulting company in Philadelphia, where Hansel met his future wife, Elizabeth (better known as Bridget).
“If you were a geology major in those days, you really didn’t have a lot of choices,” he says.
The options were essentially between a low-paying environmental consulting firm or an oil company, which Hansel had no interest in.
So, after a brief stint with a Camden, New Jersey company, he joined the family business in 1973 making coolers on the factory floor.
“[My father] wanted me to know our product inside-out before I started to try to sell it … and that was a good experience for me,” he says.
Hansel worked in the factory for a year before moving to San Francisco to establish a one-person sales office for northern California and the northwest United States. Running a bureau alone, thousands of miles from the company and across the bay from a major competitor challenged Hansel at his first major job, but he managed it and overcame.
He and his wife spent four years in San Francisco and another year in Pasadena, California. Two of their daughters were born on the West Coast.
Upon returning in 1979, he and Bridget moved to Keene — he pointed to her city upbringing and, laughing, says Harrisville would’ve been a bit too remote for her.
Hansel wore many hats when he came back to Filtrine’s home base: sales, personnel, whatever the company needed at the time. While his father was the owner and president, his older brother, Parker, handled outside sales from an office in Beverly, Massachusetts, and Hansel managed in-house sales.
“But we were always kind of making decisions between the three family members,” he says. “My father, he ran it, there was no question about that. But we were all involved in management in one way or another.”
Then, Parker left the company in 1990, which led to a dramatic shift. Hansel stepped up and took over his brother’s role in engineering as well as the sales of processed water.
Before that, Hansel had worked with the company’s drinking water filters, and now he needed to learn the ins and outs of the other half of Filtrine’s business.
“The engineering side of it I really had no clue,” he says, laughing. “But you know, I had some science background in college, so it wasn’t too onerous a learning curve.”
In the mid-1990s, Hansel became the president of Filtrine in title only, as he called it.
“He was still very much in charge,” he says of his father, who became board chairman.
Around the same time, another brother joined the business: Turner Hansel.
After 28 years in Harrisville, the family determined Filtrine had outgrown and advanced beyond the mill. The old structure had five levels, Hansel says, which was inefficient for the company’s manufacturing needs. There also wasn’t enough parking at the property, and he notes it was becoming increasingly difficult to recruit people to work in Harrisville.
In 1999, the company moved to its current home at 15 Kit St., off Route 10 in Keene.
With more room than needed in the new building, Hansel assumed the responsibility of managing the facility and renting out office and warehouse space to other businesses.
“The operation of the buildings was important in my mind, and I started to get into trying to make our footprint a little more sustainable,” he says.
Gradually his father began to pull back, Hansel says, and concentrated primarily on drinking water products.
HANSELS AT THE HELM
Around 2005 or so, another brother, David, joined Filtrine, and a few years later the Hansels had an epiphany. The family realized they didn’t know the profitability of the company’s different sectors, so they split the business into three independent divisions: Turner managed sales for processed water, David was at the helm of drinking water sales, with John’s help, and Hansel focused on the engineering and manufacturing.
At about the same time, in 2008, David’s son, George S. Hansel, began working with Filtrine, stepping in as the family’s next generation. Peter Hansel noted that George also started on the factory floor.
After John retired in 2012, Peter Hansel took over as president and owner of Filtrine — “officially,” he quips.
With any family business, Hansel says, conflicts arise as different personalities clash. He and his father struggled in the leadership transition, too. But the unique part about family-owned companies is the people involved are more inclined to work through the rough patches because of their relationships to one another, Hansel notes.
Not every family business survives multiple generations, he says, noting that finding someone to pass the torch to can be a struggle.
“We’ve seen company after company decide that it’s not for them,” he says. “That’s unfortunately been the case for many companies all around the country but also here in Keene. And it’s a challenge to find a way to make the succession work.”
But there are numerous benefits to having several Hansels at the helm, he adds. The satisfaction in the work feels fuller, and there’s more flexibility.
“You can mold this company into what you want it to be, within reason. The customers have something to say about that,” he says with a smile. “But you can take it in new directions that, if you were working for a big company, somebody would be making that decision far away in a big board room somewhere.”
For his part, Hansel has tried to involve Filtrine in the community as much as possible, bringing his business in tow as he volunteers for local nonprofit organizations and city committees, including the Monadnock United Way and Keene’s energy and climate committee.
As much as he loves his work and his family’s company, Hansel says retirement is in the near future.
“I’ve given my two brothers and nephew a horizon, which is not too far away, where they’re gonna have to not count on me being here, and that will be within the next few years,” he says.
Between now and then, he’s working on transferring his skills to other people and prepare the business for his departure. Within the next six months or so, he plans to cover the roof at Filtrine with solar panels, checking off another to-do item before he leaves.
He knows what he wants for his family’s legacy, for the business launched by an inventor in New York and grown through generations of Hansels — he wants Filtrine to keep innovating without losing what makes it special.
“I want us to be high quality, high profitability,” says Hansel, “but small enough to maintain a close management style within our organization.” T