OTTO celebrates 50 years of success, giving back
It was 1961, and Jack Roeser had grown tired of working for someone else.
So the Barrington resident walked away from the engineering job that paid him $32,000 a year -- a very tidy sum in those days -- to take a chance on his version of the American dream.
With $5,000 in his pocket, Roeser formed OTTO Controls out of his Park Ridge basement and made switches for Cook Electric, his first client. Otto was his father's name.
Business was slow for a while, so he supplemented his income with consulting jobs. The company struggled in those early days and some suppliers waited for as long as a year to get paid, Roeser said.
"I made a buck anyway I could," he said.
Still, Roeser, 87, who runs the company today with his son Tom, somehow knew it would all work out.
Fifty years later, OTTO, now based in Carpentersville, is a $100 million company and the largest employer in the village with more than 500 workers.
The family-owned business has added two-way radio accessories, joysticks and operator controls to its original arsenal of control switches. OTTO's business comes from the military, aerospace, public safety, industrial and hospitality worlds. Some of its biggest clients are Motorola, Boeing and John Deere.
In 1968, the elder Roeser took a chance on Carpentersville by moving his company headquarters there from Morton Grove. It set up shop in what used to be the Star Manufacturing Company.
"The building was old, but it was sound," the elder Roeser said.
Back then, the area surrounding OTTO was run down with overgrown weeds, abandoned property, old train rails and a swamp.
"I thought that it was going to become a ghetto," Jack Roeser said.
Almost from the start, he did his part to make sure that didn't happen and formed the Old Town Association for people with a stake in the community. Carpentersville's renaissance in that area started with many Old Town members fixing up their own homes. Most recently, the business underwent a renovation of its own that began three years ago, has cost millions of dollars and should be completed this summer. Among other things, the project fixed the roofs, cleaned the bricks and redid the floors.
Those efforts have helped transform the area that the younger Roeser dubbed a "slum" into a picturesque gateway into Carpentersville. Village President Ed Ritter has seen the progress from his perch across the street.
"It's maybe the best thing that's happened in Carpentersville," Ritter said. "It's become a symbol of the village with the look along the river and what the future of our village will be, which is a riverwalk town."
OTTO hasn't limited its generosity to its physical plant. The younger Roeser is also rehabbing abandoned homes elsewhere in the village near Route 68, another village gateway, Ritter said.
Earlier this month, Carpentersville honored OTTO for its 50th anniversary with a proclamation and has dedicated the entire month of June to the company.
So while making the switch from employee to employer was difficult, the Roesers wouldn't have it any other way.
"I think we always expected to win," the elder Roeser said. "We're optimists. We're entrepreneurs. We're engineers. We expected to find and solve problems."