Where it Began for BCI Burke and What They Do Today

The J.E. Burke Company was incorporated in 1920 by John E. Burke as a weatherstripping business that quickly evolved into designer radiator covers and then playground equipment.

Long before John Edward and Ethlyn Burke built playgrounds, they farmed the fruitful land at 660 Sheridan Drive (now known as Van Dyne Road) in Fond du Lac, Wis. - the same property where the BCI Burke company stands today. In fact, John's pony shed is still used as a storage facility.

Although John was a farmer by occupation, he was an inventor and entrepreneur at heart. From the beginning, the J.E. Burke Company was known for exceptional quality and innovation. While J.E. dedicated his time and talent to creating products, Ethlyn also had an active role in the business, creating catalogs and advertisements while maintaining the books for the start-up business.

Business flourished, and in 1926, a state-of-the-art sheet metal manufacturing plant was built on the farm property. It featured an indoor showroom, a virtually unheard-of feature at the time. A new modern family ranch home was built next to the factory, where children William John, John Edward Jr., and Patricia were raised.

In the mid-1920s, a family friend who lived on the shores of Lake Winnebago asked J.E. to fabricate a slide. J.E. loved to invent and design new products, and the slide was the first of many to come. He began spending the majority of his time creating, designing, engineering, and manufacturing playground equipment. That included slides, see-saws, swings, carousels, and chinning bars. Soon playground orders far surpassed the radiator cover business, and the showroom featured swingsets and slides. During warm weather, playgrounds were showcased on the lawn, inviting curious passersby to stop to investigate and let their children play on the playgrounds.

In the 1930s, the Swing King, a premium quality residential line of play equipment, was introduced. 

These were the years marking the perfecting of the engineering of the J.E. Burke product. The advertising rhyme, plenty of play the Swing King way, quickly became a household jingle. J.E.'s innovative mind also produced products such as the Swimming Wheel and the Toboggan Slide.

Quality, innovation, and exceptional customer services have always been hallmarks of the company. J.E. strongly believed in treating people with integrity, honesty, and fairness. To that end, he created a playground maintenance service. For as little as $5 a year, Burke Company maintained and repaired the customer's playground. A Burke red truck was outfitted with playground tools, supplies, and parts and traveled the countryside inspecting playgrounds and making needed repairs. This incomparable level of customer service set Burke apart from the onset to the present.

In the 1940s the company also helped WWII efforts by creating a self-contained ammunition cart housing a 75MM Howitzer machine gun, winning the Excellence in War Production citation.

A devastating fire broke out at the factory in the winter of 1943 that destroyed the Burke facility. Fortunately, J.E. and his family, whose home was situated on the same property as the factory, were not harmed. The catastrophe just seemed to fuel J.E.'s own fire to rebuild the factory, which is exactly what he did. The rebuilt version is the current BCI Burke Company headquarters with the former family home transformed into a laboratory for the Burke product development professionals and engineers.

With the fire and war behind them, J.E. and Ethlyn renewed their commitment to building the same high-quality playground equipment for which the Burke name had become well known. They added other park and recreation equipment such as picnic tables, benches, grills, trash containers, and sports equipment. The use of wood began to be shown on park and recreation products, and Burke hired woodworkers to complement their pipe-bending and sheet metal workers.

J.E. was constantly striving for imaginative and fun play experiences for children, including the design and manufacture of jungle gyms that resembled modes of transportation such as a firetruck, rocket, dump truck, or car. Some of these classic climbers are still played on throughout the United States today.

Burke has undergone many changes over the years, with a second plant built in the 1950s in New Brunswick, NJ, to meet demands for playgrounds on the East Coast. That plant later closed for expansion of the headquarters in Fond du Lac, Wis.

The second generation of Burkes then became more involved with William (Bill) taking over operations at the home plant in Fond du Lac. Younger son, John Jr., operated the plant in New Jersey and began focusing on company growth through aggressive marketing and sales practices. Soon, the Burke name became as prominent in the East as it was in the Midwest. Daughter Patty Burke assisted the growing company with various office skills.

In 1966, J.E. passed away, and Bill and John E. took over with Patty staying on in the office. Business surged, and more expansion took place in Fond du Lac. More colorful equipment with themes emerged. The 1970s saw more expansion as well as more innovations, and J.E. Burke's motto, Burke Better Built remained.

The 1980s brought the purchase of the company by the third generation of Burkes when Greg, Bill's son, took over. Greg was a visionary as his grandfather was and continued the tradition of quality and innovation. The CPSC guidelines were formed in the 1990s, and BCI Burke was first to invent play systems for specific age groups. Series 2000 was introduced, and sales soared, which of course led to more expansion.

After a short decade in the playground business, Greg Burke - grandson of founder J.E. Burke - decided it was time to find a successor to take the Burke business into the 21st Century. He looked for a progressive buyer who would carry on the Burke reputation for incomparable quality, exceptional customer service, committed child development, and exemplary safety. Although he knew that his successor would not be a family member, he looked for those same stalwart traits that had escalated the previous three generations of Burkes to great business success a passionate understanding of integrity, respect, innovation, teamwork, leadership, and performance. His quest led him to Tim Ahern, the next president and CEO of BCI Burke.

Ahern had always wanted to own and run his own business and came from a successful business background. Mark Sondergard then came on board as Ahern's partner in 1998, after serving as the company accountant for many years. Ahern and Sondergard worked together to establish strong core values with the company's employees.

In 1999, BCI Burke encountered difficult challenges. Although the company had a solid reputation in the industry, high-quality products, and a committed workforce, many of the processes and procedures were outdated. Much of the plant and office equipment had not been updated and inventory management was not automated. As orders began to increase to record numbers, the factory was not equipped to meet the new demand. Production stalled and the company had difficulty meeting its committed ship dates.

The entire Burke team accepted the challenge to bring Burke to its present state with a streamlined manufacturing process and improvements in shipping and inventory systems. Burke is committed to the principle of "100% complete, correct, and on time." Product innovation continues with many new products including Little Buddies, Nature Play, and Circuit Play.

In addition to its commitment to child safety and becoming ISO 9001:2000 Certified, Burke is a founding member of the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA). All Burke products go through the IPEMA independent 3rd party testing and certification process. Burke past President Tim Ahern sat on the IPEMA Board of Directors and Engineering Manager Scott Liebelt served on the IPEMA Certification Committee. Both Ahern and Liebelt attended ASTM and IPEMA meetings to participate in writing, revising, and interpreting the IPEMA procedures and ASTM-1487 standard.

BCI Burke continues to forge ahead in providing exceptional quality playground options for its customers. With Burke's standards of excellence in place and in practice, the sky is the limit on what they can provide in quality, selection and service.