Local companies inspire foreign visitors

BY WYNN KOEBEL
FOSTER

STAFF
WRITER

Is manufacturing innovation alive and well in the area? Sure it is. What’s more, it’s gaining an international reputation.

Recently, more than 50 Ukrainian executives working toward their masters’ degrees in business management spent a week studying at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, in Evanston. During their stay, they visited four Chicago area firms noted for innovation. Two of the chosen firms are just blocks from each other – Winzeler Gear, 7355 W. Wilson Ave., in Harwood Heights, and Eli’s Cheesecake World, 6701 W. Forest Preserve Drive, in Chicago.

Winzeler Gear and Eli’s were in heady company. The other two businesses on the students’ Chicago area itinerary were Ford and Motorola. From Chicago, the students flew to California’s Silicon Valley, where they toured the IBM Almaden Research Center, Xerox and Intel.

“I expected to be inspired by Motorola,” said Maksym Pryima, chief editor at ITC Publishing, “but after seeing Winzeler Gear, Motorola is going to have to work really hard to impress me.”

Among the students were business owners and executives from leading Ukrainian and international businesses, some with very familiar names – Kraft Foods Ukraina, AIG Insurance Company, Kodak Ukraine, Owens-Illinois USA-Italy and McDonald’s Ukraine Ltd.

On average, the students were 33 years old, with six years of managerial experience. Sixty-nine percent of them were men; 31 percent, women.

Thirty-eight percent of them had technical undergraduate and graduate degrees; 23 percent, economic; 19 percent, managerial, 12 percent, humanitarian; and 4 percent each, legal and medical.

Their first Chicago stop was at Winzeler Gear, where President John Winzeler explained the modern art on his company’s walls and windows, the sculpture in its backyard garden and gallery, and the fashion photography it its lobby.

“We’re trying to mess with your head – to change the paradigm,” he said. “We believe this space attracts a different type of customer, a different type of employee.”

Racing model

To that end, he added, “We interact with photographers, with artists. Our senior engineer is 77 years old. My model is racing. I once raced hydroplanes.”

From $1.5 million in sales in 1990, his third-generation firm has grown to $10 million in sales with a staff of 40. His goal is $20 million in sales, with the same staff in the same space.

“Our customers want millions of parts with no defects. Most of our equipment is European,” Winzeler acknowledged. “We’ve formed strategic partnerships with my alma mater, Bradley University, in Peoria, and with DuPont, which has supplied 90 percent of our raw materials since the 1960s.”

Could the same sort of firm flourish in Ukraine?

“We can import the technology,” said Sergiy Koba, a liquor distribution director, “but we’d need more favorable laws, too, and our investors should feel safe. It’s hard to get this sort of commitment in Slavic countries.”

Koba was impressed by Winzeler’s use of robotics and automation. Just 19 people are involved in direct labor at the firm.

“You can feel the energy here,” he said. “It’s inspirational – very spiritual. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

At Eli’s Cheesecake World, the students heard President Marc Schulman explain how his grandfather emigrated in 1907 from an area near the Russian/Polish border. His father started in the restaurant business in 1940 and created a cheesecake as the signature dessert for his restaurant, Eli’s the Place for Steak, in Chicago.

Pieces of cake

“I’ve been making cheesecake for 21 years,” he said. “For the past nine years, I’ve been making them at this facility, which we built in 1996. The process is a combination of art and science.”

The ability of small businesses to effect social change is very great, Schulman added.

“We are involved in charitable causes,” he explained, “and we partner with education. Eli’s gives us the platform we need.”

The students toured the Eli’s plant, where 20,000 cheesecakes and more are baked daily. Then they adjourned to the Cafe, where they discussed what they’d seen and sampled a variety of cheesecakes. The taste and texture were unfamiliar to many.

Oleg Petrik is general manager of Euro Foods GB Ukraine, which manufactures dehydrated products under the trademark “Gallina Blanca,” for a Spanish company.

“Our soups are similar to your Knorr’s,” he explained. “You can buy them on your West Coast.”

As a food manufacturer, Petrik was most interested in the process used at Eli’s to produce cheesecakes.

“It’s quite impressive,” he said. “It’s a very delicate combination of hot and cold. I like the cheesecake, too, but I have no real point of reference – nothing to compare it with.”

No one sells cheesecake in his city, Petrik added.

“They said Eli’s is available in Moscow now, though,” he said, hopefully. “If that’s true, it won’t be long before we can find it in Kiev.”