Ron Wanek. Photo: Ashley Furniture
Ron Wanek. Photo: Ashley Furniture

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Ron Wanek, founder and chairman of Ashley Furniture Industries, will receive a 2020 Horatio Alger Award.

The announcement was made Dec. 10. For more than 70 years, the Horatio Alger Award has been annually bestowed upon individuals who have succeeded despite facing adversities, and who have remained committed to higher education and charitable efforts in their communities. Wanek is one of 14 business, civic and cultural leaders from across North America to receive the 2020 honors. The induction will take place during the association’s 73rd Horatio Alger Award Induction Ceremonies, April 2-4 in Washington, D.C.

“I understand the important role education plays in changing the trajectory of one’s life, but I also know what it feels like to not be able to attend college due to rising costs,” said Wanek said. “To be inducted into an organization that works tirelessly to support thousands of young people each year, lessening the financial burden of obtaining a degree, is a true honor. The mission of the Horatio Alger Association is a critical one, and I look forward to helping to advance it.”

“Ronald Wanek lives by the guiding principle that a rising tide raises all boats,” said Terrence J. Giroux, executive director, Horatio Alger Assn. “He is a philanthropist in the truest sense of the word, not to mention he built his business from the ground up.”

Wanek has been previously honored as a Wood Industry Market Leader for his professional and personal achievements. He is also a member of the American Home Furnishings Hall of Fame.

Wanek grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota, where his family farmed as sharecroppers. The home he lived in for much of his childhood did not have electricity or running water. When he was eight years old, Wanek began working on the farm, earning 25 cents per week. Growing up, he watched his grandfather and great uncle build furniture as a hobby, which would ultimately inspire his career.

After graduating high school, he immediately entered the workforce as a laborer at the Winona Industries factory. His hard work and ambition were noticed by the owners of the factory, who mentored him and taught him every aspect of the manufacturing business.

In 1963, Wanek became involved with the start-up and management of a new operation in Red Wing, Minnesota. Seven years later, he and a group of investors formed Arcadia Furniture Corp., and Wanek managed the day-to-day operations. Ultimately, Arcadia Furniture merged with another company, Ashley Furniture, to become Ashley Furniture Industries Inc.

Ashley Furniture is the largest furniture manufacturer in the world and its retail operations, Ashley HomeStore, is the largest retail furniture store brand in North America and among the world’s best-selling furniture store brands, with more than 1,000 locations in 56 countries. The company currently employs more than 30,000 people and has more than $6 billion in sales annually.

Philanthropic endeavors

In 1988, Wanek and his wife, Joyce, established the Ronald & Joyce Wanek Foundation which provides funding to a variety of causes including education, the arts and medicine. The Wanek family also provided a $50 million cornerstone foundation grant to The City of Hope to find a cure for Type 1 Diabetes by 2023. In addition to the substantial contributions made by the Todd and Karen Wanek Foundation, Ron Wanek has personally donated millions to Mayo Clinic to assist their research efforts to cure heart disease.

Among his many philanthropic contributions, in 1990, Wanek established and continues to be the benefactor of Soldier’s Walk at Memorial Park in Arcadia, Wisconsin. For nearly three decades, he has contributed millions of dollars and thousands of hours of service by hand sculpting and designing more than 25 monuments in the 500-meter walk that captures all U.S. wars. Soldier’s Walk has been recognized as the nation’s premiere war memorial, outside of Washington D.C. 

About the organization

Founded in 1947, the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans Inc. is a nonprofit educational organization that honors the achievements of outstanding individuals and encourages youth to pursue their dreams through higher education. The association awards need-based scholarships to outstanding high school students who are committed to pursuing higher education and giving back to their communities. Since the scholarship program was established in 1984, the Horatio Alger Assn. has provided more than $180 million to 27,000 students in need, all of which has been funded solely through association members and friends.

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