Manufacturers highlighted as economic ‘backbone’
Jamar Ector moves some of the containers of lubricant for shipping at IRMCO in Evanston on Sept. 20. | Dan Luedert~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 28, 2012 8:53AM
EVANSTON — Longtime IRMCO employee Jim Arteaga, dressed in a white lab coat and wearing blue gloves, is at work as the company’s master blender one Thursday morning.
Upstairs in the company’s super clean assembly room, Arteaga is leaning over what looks like a giant-sized mixing bowl.
“He’s assembling a batch right now,” says Frank Kenny, the company’s vice president and director of research and development, watching Arteaga mix the trademark lubricant.
IRMCO is a lean and green company, long before that term was popular. From its site at 2114 Greenleaf, the company ships its unique water-based lubricants to some 35 countries.
The company, in the same building in Evanston for nearly a century, will be hosting an open house on Oct. 3 to celebrate National Manufacturing Day. The open house is scheduled from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and is open to the community.
The company will be one of a half dozen manufacturing companies to be showcased. The others, part of Evanston’s newly-named West End, include Pneufast, Allegra, Collin Brothers, Thermal Luminating. Ward’s Manufacturing, located farther south, is also to be highlighted.
The Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International (FMA), the U.S. Commerce Department’s Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and other groups sponsor Manufacturer’s Day.
Industry leaders hope to use the day to highlight manufacturing, once the backbone of cities like Evanston, and now gaining reviving attention again as a sure economic producer in a quixotic economy.
Local officials showed recognition of manufacturing’s importance last year, approving $700,000 in Tax Increment Finance funds to Ward Manufacturing, 2222 Main Street.
The company, a steel-stamping business, sought the assistance to build a new warehouse and fuel expansion
The expansion was necessary for the business to expand and remain competitive, bucking the notion that manufacturing was dying, Michael Ward, one of the owners, told officials at the time.
About 12 million people across the country work in manufacturing, said Ed Youdell, president of the Rockford-based Fabricators & Manufacturers Association.
The U.S. is the world’s largest manufacturing economy, he said, producing 21 percent of global manufactured products.
China ranks next, at 15 percent, and Japan is third, at 12 percent, according to statistics kept by the National Association of Manufacturers.
Manufacturing “is the purest form of productivity and innovation in the world,” he said, “because if you figure out how to make something a little faster and improve your process, all that money drops to the bottom line.”
He said manufacturing also supports other opportunities; for every manufacturing job, that job will support about 2.3 other jobs in the community, he said.
Youdell expressed hope that Manufacturing Day will serve as sort of “coming out party’’ for manufacturing.
The association is encouraging manufacturers to open their doors to local school kids, community college students and others to they can might consider careers in manufacturing.
IRMCO would seem a showcase for the Association’s claims. William O. Jeffery, after a successful career in sales, founded the company in 1914 in Philadelphia, Pa. In 1917, the company moved to Evanston, taking on the name of International Refining and Manufacturing Company.
The company is owned by the fourth generation of the Jeffery family, said Jennifer Kalas, the company’s president.
In the 1960s, the company moved from emphasis on paste products to a new line of lubricants and gels, and took on its present name.
The company’s gels and lubricants are used in manufacturing components ranging from automobiles and light and heavy trucks to sinks and lawnmowers.
The company’s market is about 85 percent domestic and 15 percent worldwide, Kenny said.
He said the Oil Embargo of the 1970s “was a shock to the system,’’ prompting the company to move to a different base for its lubricants.
In 1979, the company introduced first water-based metal stamping lubricants.
“Oils work great as a lubricant but there’s a lot of downside,” Kenny said.
For one, they are hard to clean, he said, “and that additional cleaning (using chemicals) costs time and money. Our stuff just comes off with soap and water.”
The company is lean, with 12 employees at its Evanston site, and 35 overall, said Kalas. Most of the employees have logged 10 or more years. “Live and Die for the Big I,” is the company’s slogan, harkening to a company loyalty atmosphere that has slipped away in many other fields.
Long before “green” became such an important title, the company was practicing conservation, Kenny said. “We always called it continuous improvement.”
Much of the company’s product is in concentrated form, he noted. Were it the other way, he said, “we would have to take on additional materials, (it would mean), additional shipping for us, additional storage.”
By being located in the Chicago area, the company has no problem receiving raw materials and so can turn around fast on orders.
Also, with Lake Michigan water as the key ingredient, the plant has none of the smell you might associate with a heavy- duty oil-based process.
“Even up here there is no smell,” Kenny says to his visitors, in the wood-planked room that serves as the mixing center.“We’re right next door to a food manufacturer, a drink manufacturer, and down the street we’ve got a bakery.
“You’re more likely to smell cookies.”