Elgin Industries celebrates 100 years in business
Elgin Industries celebrates 100 years in business
It is remarkable enough that Elgin Industries -- formerly known as Elgin Machine Works -- has survived for 100 years. That's likely the second-longest life of any Elgin manufacturer, exceeded only by the 105-year-old Elgin Sweeper Co.
But maybe just as noteworthy is that 33 of its 170 employees have stuck with the privately-owned auto parts maker for 20 years or more, including three executives from outside the owning family who have been there for more than four decades. One retiree, 95-year-old amateur golf champion Bob Thoren, served the company as a salesman for 48 years before leaving for the country club.
The key to both of those achievements is the same, Senior Vice President Cheryl Hogrewe believes.
"I think it's that we create a family type of atmosphere here," she said. "When our dads went to work, people stayed with the same company. They don't anymore, but our workforce is unique that way."
Bill Skok, president of Elgin Industries, agrees.
"That doesn't mean you always get along, because you don't," he said. "You don't inside your real family, either. But without that feeling, you're done."
All in the family
At the top has always been a literal family -- the same family. Elgin Machine Works was founded in 1919 by a Czech immigrant named Martin Skok. It continued through the mid and late 20th centuries under the ownership of his son, Martin Skok Jr., who renamed it "Elgin Industries."
Today, it is owned and run by Martin Jr.'s four children -- Bill Skok, the 56-year-old president; sister Cheryl Hogrewe, the 66-year-old senior vice president; brother Tom Skok, the 59-year-old vice president; and 64-year-old brother John Skok, who has retired from the business's day-to-day operations.
The exact 100th anniversary won't come until September, but the Skoks celebrated their centennial in style on a recent sunny day.
They released those 170 workers from their production lines and offices a half day early and served them a catered lunch under a tent while guests from two antique car clubs displayed 30 vintage autos, trucks and tractors that likely used Elgin Industries parts.
The vehicles on display ranged from a 1919 Ford Model T truck to a 1952 Chevrolet Woodie station wagon to a 2007 Porsche Boxter supercar.
"The 1919 Model T is exactly what Martin Skok Sr. started making piston pins for 100 years ago," company historian Scott Stier told the crowd of employees and guests.
Born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1886, Martin Skok Sr. was left behind with grandparents in Europe when his parents emigrated to America and landed in Illinois. When he was 9, his father died and his mother sent for him to cross the Atlantic. The Skoks say that, according to family legend, the little boy was "shipped" with a parcel post stamp from the Atlantic coast to Chicago by the U.S. Postal Service.
In 1918, Martin came to Elgin to work at an Elgin car dealership. It was there, Bill said, that he got the idea for a product that would be in high demand.
Americans were going crazy for the Ford Model T, the first car cheap enough for the common family to afford. But the Model T's Achilles' heel was the little metal pins that held its pistons onto the rods that passed the engine's thrust on to the drive shaft.
"These pins would wear out long before the rest of the engine," Bill said.
So Skok figured a way to make tougher piston pins. In September 1919, he rented space in a carriage house at 408 N. Crystal Ave. and started the Elgin Machine Works, with himself as the only employee. In its first year, it made and sold 36,000 of those piston pins.
Building a business
In 1920, Skok moved into the same building at 62 N. Grove Ave. occupied by the car dealership where he had worked -- a building that later would be razed to make way for the new Highland Avenue Bridge. In the mid 1920s, Skok built his own factory at the Southwest corner of State and Wing streets.
By 1935, Elgin Machine Works had 50 employees and was making 2.5 million piston pins a year. The Great Depression left many people unable to afford new cars, but that just gave them more incentive to repair their old ones with Elgin auto parts.
New products and plants came on line -- a piston factory on the other side of Wing Street and a cardboard box factory known as "Mar-Sko Box Co." on the other side of State Street.
Martin Sr. suffered a stroke in the 1950s and Martin Jr. took over the management.
In 1982, all the plants were combined into the present modern factory, hidden away behind trees near the southeast corner of Big Timber and Randall roads. The third generation eased into management as Martin Jr. retired and passed away in 2015.
The box division finally closed. But Bill said the engine product line has expanded drastically beyond those original piston pins. Engine push rods are one of the biggest product lines now. But Elgin Industries also makes complete valve train packages, camshafts, valves, timing gears and chains, rocker arms, oil pumps, engine pre-lube and more.
As well as going to the "aftermarket" of repair garages and shade-tree mechanics, parts were sent to original-equipment manufacturers like GM, Ford, Navistar and John Deere. The company began exporting to places like Latin America and Saudi Arabia.
The company has also started a "PRO-STOCK" line of high-performance parts aimed at the racing market, hailing back to when Martin Sr.'s "Elgin Piston Pin Special" cars raced in 11 Indianapolis 500s.
Asked to name the firm's best and worst times, Bill said the worst came in the 2008-2009 Great Recession, when General Motors went through bankruptcy and Elgin Industries had to lay off many workers.
"We usually have been able to weather bad times because we're in so many different markets," he said. "If people weren't buying new cars, they'd be fixing old ones. We are into agriculture and racing and buses and motorcycles. But 2009 was uniquely bad because everything collapsed at the same time. There have been quite a few good times. (We are) always reinventing ourselves and bringing in new technologies."
This includes a new way of toughening metal by freezing it to 300 degrees below zero.
"Chances are that all of us have ridden in at least one vehicle that has Elgin parts," Stier said.
Bill agrees. "About 50% of school buses are powered by Navistar engines that contain parts we make right here," he said. "Every John Deere tractor has our parts, so we are helping to feed the world."
The biggest future challenges, Bill said, are to keep up with the constantly changing technology and to deal with Illinois state government, which he said is "not business-friendly." But he said Elgin Industries will not leave the state where it was born.
"After all, he said. "That's where our family is."