State of suburbs: Investors pump new life into business

After weathering several years of stagnation, suburban economic development leaders and business experts like what they see when it comes to business expansion.

"Investors are coming back to the suburbs in a way that we haven't seen in years," said Karla Harmon, senior vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle. "I'm very optimistic. Things are good," said Harmon, who focuses on leasing in the Oak Brook and Naperville areas. She believes the economic environment is improving, tenants are expanding and new business is coming in.

Josh Grodzin is the director of development and marketing for Elk Grove Village.

"There is a lot going on in the area of manufacturing and logistics," he said. "That's the bread and butter of Elk Grove Village."

Ceva Logistics, Panattoni Development and Forsythe Data Centers are all in the expansion mode, he said, adding that a number of older buildings were torn down last year and developers are building new.

The local economy started climbing again in 2013, he said. "The vacancy rate in the industrial segment went from 12.5 in 2010 to 6 percent now."

Michael H. Stevens, president & CEO of Lake County Partners, is seeing the same positive signs.

Two sectors in particular that have been growing in Lake County are biopharma and precision manufacturing, he said. In biopharma, companies like Horizon Pharma in Deerfield and Fresenius Kabi in Lake Zurich are both growing significantly in sales and head count. Both have made a number of acquisitions over the last few years.

"Abbott and AbbVie have grown since splitting in 2013, and we are excited about the same opportunity for Baxter and Baxalta," Stevens said.

Companies in the precision manufacturing sector that have seen growth include LMT Onsrud in Waukegan, Dynacoil in Zion, and Zeller Plastik in Libertyville, he added.

DuPage County is seeing similar growth, according to Bryan Gay, economic development director for Choose DuPage. "We're at about 20 percent growth in new projects here. This includes new or expanded businesses adding at least 50 new jobs and $1 million in investment," Gay said.

"We've seen continued growth here mainly in manufacturing, retail, health care and education," he said.

Christine D. Jeffries, president of Naperville Development Partnership, also is optimistic. "New retail developments are going up throughout the city. Two new hotels are under construction; the Embassy Suites opening ... with a new convention center and Indigo on the Riverwalk in downtown Naperville," she said.

Along with hospitality, other strong industries are retail - including auto sales and office, she said.

Going forward, companies' ability to attract and retain talented employees is going to be the most important economic development issue for communities, experts say.

The economy has rebounded, employment numbers are good and companies are growing their workforce again, Jeffries said.

Stern Pinball

Stern Pinball Inc. moved and expanded into Elk Grove Village in the spring, making the suburb a global hub for the next generation of iconic pinball games.

Believed to be the oldest and largest pinball company in the world, Stern expanded to a 110,000-square-foot building that consolidated its Melrose Park headquarters and a warehouse near O'Hare International Airport.

With about 250 employees, President Gary Stern said the company plans to hire workers, roll out new technology and pursue new markets, including China and India.

"Stern has been the king of production," said Mark Steinman, director of operations for the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association. "Stern has been No. 1 in putting out new games."

Winergy Drive Systems

Nestled in Elgin's manufacturing area is Winergy Drive Systems Corp., a global player in the clean energy movement and the first company to supply gearboxes to wind turbine producers.

The Elgin location is growing and has reached a milestone in the industry by being the first company in its category to surpass 100 gigawatts of energy globally. That's the sum of all the energy captured by Winergy's gearboxes since the company's founding in 1981. Winergy also has sites in China, Europe and India.

The facility supplies gearboxes to more than a third of all wind turbines in the world.

Wind turbine technology kicked off in 1980, with early versions of it first seen on the West Coast. In 1981, Flender, a 100-year-old German industrial company, launched Winergy Drive Systems. Twenty years later, Flender incorporated Winergy's U.S. division in Elgin. Siemens acquired Flender and the Winergy business about 10 years ago. About 200 employees work at the Elgin site.

Zurich expands

Zurich American Insurance's 2,500 employees and contractors in Schaumburg, now at 1400 and 1450 American Lane, will move to the existing Motorola Solutions campus in Schaumburg.

Zurich has been in Schaumburg since 1980. Zurich is building its 750,000-square-foot North American headquarters not far from the iconic office towers Zurich plans to vacate in 2016.

Construction began during the third quarter of 2014 and will create as many as 700 construction jobs.

Schaumburg officials believe the appeal of the new location includes proximity to the Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel and Convention Center and better improved access to the Jane Addams Tollway at Roselle and Meacham roads.

Medline, CDW thrive

Two prominent Lake County companies plan to move some of their sizable staffs this year.

CDW, the computer retail giant based in Vernon Hills, and Medline Industries, a medical supply company headquartered in Mundelein, are eyeing office space in Lincolnshire.

CDW is leasing two five-story towers in the Tri-State International Office Center, which is west of the Tri-State Tollway and south of Route 22.

The company will keep its headquarters in Vernon Hills, including its financial management and warehouse, village officials said.

The company, which employs 7,200, also leases office space across the street from its headquarters. Last year, the company reported $12 billion in net sales. About 1,000 workers could move to Lincolnshire by year's end.

Medline purchased the former Aon Hewitt campus west of the Tri-State and north of Route 22 in January.

The 38-acre site has 269,000 square feet of office space in three buildings. Aon Hewitt still operates a data center there and will continue to do so, officials said.

"We are excited about expanding our corporate footprint and bringing more good jobs to the area," Medline spokeswoman Vivika Panagiotakakos said.

In exchange for a $17.5 million tax-incentive deal with the state, Medline agreed last year to expand in Lake County and to keep its headquarters in Illinois, to expand in Mundelein and to open another office in a new location in Lake County. That's the Lincolnshire site.

Medline is Mundelein's largest employer and one of the biggest in the suburbs. The firm has about 12,000 workers worldwide, including about 1,600 in Mundelein.

Wintrust steady growth

Wintrust Financial Corp. based in Rosemont continues to report growth in net income. The company, which saw second-quarter increases of nearly 15 percent, also is in a growth mode.

"Wintrust is continuing on its stated approach of consistent and steady growth in all pertinent financial metrics and the franchise itself," President and CEO Edward J. Wehmer said. "In the third quarter, we expect to add nearly a billion dollars of assets to the balance sheet through the closing of our previously announced acquisitions. These acquisitions will result in material cost savings opportunities, which will allow us to leverage our existing infrastructure," he said. Recent acquisitions include Chicago-based North Bank and Delavan Bancshares Inc., a Wisconsin state chartered bank, which operates four banks in southeastern Wisconsin.

Middleby on fast track

• Elgin-based Middleby Corp. is heating up. The publicly traded company, which started as a manufacturer of ovens, continues to make huge acquisitions.

Middleby acquired Viking Range a while back and says it is on a fast track to increase the company's market share and profit margins. It agreed to buy Aga Rangemaster Group for $202 million earlier this summer and also recently acquired Concordia Coffee Company, a manufacturer of automated and self-service coffee and espresso machines used in the commercial food service industry.

Downtown Libertyville a destination

• Downtown Libertyville is seeing a "problem" that most towns would love to have. A proliferation of restaurants with more on the way has put a squeeze on parking that at times frustrates patrons.

About 600 more restaurant seats recently opened or are in the works. Mickey Finn's recently expanded, Salerno's Ristorante & Pizzeria announced a move to 602 N. Milwaukee Ave. in the former home of Trattoria Pomigliano, which is preparing a new location a few blocks away on Cook Avenue.

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  CEO Gary Stern of Stern Pinball expanded operations in Elk Grove Village. Bob Chwedyk/, April 2015
Nestled in Elgin's manufacturing area is Winergy Drive Systems Corp., a global player in the clean energy movement and the first company to supply gearboxes to wind turbine producers. Courtesy of Winergy
Zurich American Insurance is building its new headquarters on the Motorola Solutions campus. The planned 750,000-square-foot headquarters will sit at the northwest corner of Meacham Road and the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway. Rendering courtesy of the village of Schaumburg
  CDW, based in Vernon Hills, is leasing more space in Lincolnshire. Paul Valade/

Check out our series on the State of the Suburbs. We took a macro look at how we're faring in the wake of the Great Recession. You can find out stories covering topics ranging from schools and government to entertainment and malls at <a href=""></a>

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