SBJ March 2013 Cover

An old adage says big things come in small packages, but does the cliché carry over to the real world of business? A number of entrepreneurs, manufacturers and business leaders maintain that it does, and the proof, they say, can be found in dozens of stores, operations and facilities that are doing big business from the small towns of Southern Illinois.

“Rural communities provide a good home for companies and manufacturing firms,” Jim Nelson, vice president of the Illinois Manufacturers Association, says. “Many times, companies locate in these places because owners prefer their own small-town environments as a place to live and work. Other benefits include easy access to the marketplace, to transportation and to suppliers.”

For owners of many rural manufacturers, location is simply a matter of starting a business where they live or continuing business where it started, but other benefits often become apparent.

“We were born and raised here, both personally and as a company,” explains Kyle Drone of Dinger Bats in Ridgway. The wooden baseball bat manufacturer has been in the small Gallatin County community since Drone and his father, Randy, started the company.

“You’d think there would be drawbacks to our location, but there really aren’t any,” the elder Drone explains. “We have everything we need, and it’s less expensive to do business here. Plus, we have the Internet and all of the shipping companies come through town every day. You can be in business any place in the world today.”

Like Dinger, many companies choose to stay in the small communities of Southern Illinois. Despite doing business in 42 countries around the globe, Care Trak International, a maker of telemetry-based tracking devices for people with certain medical conditions or special needs, makes its home in Murphysboro.

“Why not?” asks Care Trak International Vice President Mike Chylewski. “We can ship anywhere in the world. A move to somewhere else wouldn’t make any sense.”

Chylewski adds that there are certain advantages of doing business in small communities.

“You employ local people and provide jobs in what could be a depressed area,” he explains. “There’s no traffic, it takes 10 minutes to get to work and parking is easier. There are lots of small-town advantages.”

Craig Williams, owner of Pinckneyville’s Craig Williams Creative and CommunityLink, says there also are competitive advantages for rural-based enterprises. His 50-employee company publishes maps and promotional guides for chambers of commerce nationwide. He says his company has an advantage that comes from a small-town mindset.

“We know our neighbors. We attend each other’s get-togethers. We sit next to each other at basketball games,” he says. “What that does is create a real sense of what matters to communities, so that when we go into other places, such as Auburn, Ala., Fulton, Mo., Decorah, Iowa, or Orange, Texas, I feel like we know them a lot better than our competition from Chi-cago, Philadelphia or Atlanta is likely to know them.”

Even in a retail setting, businesses in small towns can thrive by knowing their customers, according to Kelly Thornburg, owner of Tickled Pink, a boutique and gift shop in Carbondale.

“Just like my customers want to be special, I want to be special, too,” she explains. “I want to put my own touch into things, and I am able to differentiate our shop so much better in a small town. It really works well.”

She says being a small business in a smaller community forces an increased focus on the little things.

“We have to focus on customer service and doing the things that the other stores don’t do. Often, too, it’s a matter of finding your niche,” she says.

One way companies in communities like Pinckneyville find their niche, Williams says, is by embracing the strong worth ethic evident in local residents.

“In a small town, there aren’t always the same number of opportunities that there are in the big cities, so people are grateful for the jobs they have,” he explains. “They work hard and they value their reputations. That means they are included to protect that reputation by doing what they say they’re going to do, and that extends to the workforce. In the large cities, I don’t think you’ll find the work ethic that you do here.”

The benefits of work ethic carry over into some of the region’s largest employers, too, says Benny Harmse, vice president of manufacturing for Continental Tire North America. He says he’s been impressed with the attitude and drive he has seen in workers at Continental’s Mount Vernon facility.

“This is a very business-friendly community, and we find a very dedicated and motivated work-force,” he says. “The people are different from what you might find in a metropolitan area. The work ethic is different; as in a rural, farming community, the people tend to be able to think for themselves, and they are very dedicated. They are used to hard work.”

Harmse says the plant’s employees come from a 65-mile radius from Mount Vernon. He adds that the location of the facility in the community has been mutually beneficial.

“Being here has been really good for Continental Tire, and I think Continental Tire has been good for Mount Vernon,” he adds.

Companies often develop a sort of emotional attachment to their communities. Tom Welge, vice president of technical sales and general counsel for Gilster-Mary Lee, says the relationship between a business and its town can be reciprocal in nature.

“As a private company, you have the luxury of considering more than just dollars and cents on every decision. We realize that our facilities are important to these small towns and know that it has been a mutually beneficial relationship for us,” he says. “We’ve provided employment and we’ve had a very strong workforce in return. Our communities really partner with us and work to solve any issues that may come up.”

Welge’s company, a private label food manufacturer, is based in Chester and has downstate Illinois facilities in Centralia and Steeleville. Gilster-Mary Lee employs 3,500 people company-wide, 1,600 of them in Illinois. Welge says doing business in small communities is not without challenges, however.

“Sometimes, if you’re in a growth mode, finding enough of a workforce can be a challenge. Other times, there could be issues with utilities or infrastructure, but we’ve always had good relationships with our communities and have always been able to find solutions that are good for the town and the company,” he says.

Harmse says the rural location of his facility can make attracting professional or highly technical employees a little more difficult because those people often seek employment in more metropolitan areas.

Williams adds that Internet bandwidth can be harder to come by in rural areas, but finding high-quality talented people has not been an issue for him.

“If you’re not finding good people in Southern Illinois, then you’re either not looking hard enough or promoting your opportunity well enough,” he says.

He does feel, however, that earning new business from a Southern Illinois location must be handled differently.

“You have to sell a little bit differently,” he adds. “You can’t expect people to stumble across your threshold and buy what you are selling. You have to be prepared to really get out and sell.”

Williams says that’s not usually a problem for Southern Illinoisans, however.

“We were brought up in this part of the world selling because we’ve always had to. We’re selling ourselves, we’re selling our schools, we’re selling our communities and we’re selling our region as a whole.”

LES O’DELL of Carbondale is a frequent contributor to Southern Business Journal and The Southern Illinoisan.

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