Martin Huennekens and Nicholas Lemus display Pilgrim Imports handmade ornaments outside their beautiful building in Milwaukee.
Individuals in a village outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand have a unique relationship with Martin Huennekens in Milwaukee, who is the founder of Pilgrim Imports. This company supplies handmade products of over 1,000 different designs to retailers as well as consumers looking to purchase a custom product. These products range from ornaments, artwork, bookmarks, frames, pins and other similar items.
While Huennekens was studying abroad as a student, he met those in the village and founded the company in 1986. “I chose who I did based on who they were and how they did things,” he says. “Relatively disadvantaged people were able to use their local materials and skills and enhance their life, keeping control of the means of production.”
He was driven to start the company with these individuals based on their ability to keep their land and families together. Their honest way of creating a living was encouraging. Since founding Pilgrim Imports, the village has been able to continue to thrive based on their skills while not having to sacrifice where they live or their family relationships.
Pilgrim Imports bases their entire business process on fair trade and fair wage. With being fair trade, Huennekens believes it “attracts a person who is a little more interested in doing something that means something,” regarding the small number of employees who work at the company in Milwaukee. It also creates a similar attraction from various sales representatives and retailers that they do business with.
Over 400 individuals in Thailand provide their skills and techniques to create these various products. Through Pilgrim Imports, the lives of these families have been greatly enhanced. “That to me is one of the great honors, where the people who have started with me have been able to get better education for their children, cleaner drinking water, better healthcare, just a better life,” explains Huennekens.
In the past, Huennekens would travel to Thailand a few times a year but now Pilgrim Imports uses the abundance of technology to their advantage. While they do use the ease of technology to keep in contact with the village in Thailand, he states that he if did not start the business by spending so much time there, he would not have the same relationship with them as he does today, “I am very local there. I am not treated as the foreigner.”
As an LGBT-owned business, Huennekens joined the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce because he believes “it’s the only way things are going to get better for me or any of us in the LGBT community is when we stick together.” As he spends money for his business, he wishes for it to be spent within the community. “They’ll benefit from it,” he explains. “I would like other LGBT business owners, if they have a need for something I do, to turn to me first in their thoughts.” He hopes that others can also find members within the business community to support, do business with or encourage them.
Pilgrim Imports can be found online through www.pilgrimimports.com.