While it might not be a manufacturing mecca, McLean County makes more products for markets near and far than most people — even longtime residents — would realize.
“One of the reasons Mitsubishi decided to locate here is the history of manufacturing in the community,” said Dan Irvin, general manager of the Mitsubishi Motors North America plant. “There is a manufacturing tradition here. You just have to look for it.”
The Chicago & Alton Railroad Shops opened in 1855 on the west-side of Bloomington and, at its height, employed about 1,800 people to repair and build locomotives, according to Mike Matejka, co-author of “The C&A Shops.”
The shops, which closed in the 1970s, “established a tradition of skilled labor” in the county, Matejka said, and many people used what they learned there as blacksmiths, ironworkers and machinists to open other businesses.
About 4,300 people were employed in manufacturing in McLean County in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, up from 4,000 in 2010.
Mitsubishi is the largest employer in McLean County in the manufacturing sector and sixth overall, with 1,294 workers. But also among the top 20 are Bridgestone Americas and Nestle USA, which each have more than 400.
Both of them trace their roots back for decades.
The original Firestone tire plant opened in 1964 and was sold to Edwards Warren Tire Co. in 1987, the year before Firestone merged with Bridgestone. In February 1994, Bridgestone-Firestone (now Bridgestone Americas) bought the Normal plant.
The Beich candy company began in Bloomington in 1892 and was sold to the Nestle in 1984.
“We take pride in Nestle’s long history in the community and making quality confections and baking products,” Nestle spokeswoman Patricia Bowles.
At one time or another, McLean County was the home to the makers of vacuum cleaners, television sets, locomotives, cast-iron stoves and even an electric car.
Cheap gasoline prices spelled the demise of the “Henney Kilowatt” battery-operated car in 1960. How times have changed.
But what hasn’t changed is the continuing role manufacturing plays in McLean County.
Companies large and small continue to make products large and small, from a 15-foot-tall, 14,500-pound tire made by Bridgestone to a Beer Nuts peanut weighing a single gram.
Talk to manufacturers about why they make their products in McLean County and two common themes are repeated: central location and a well-educated, hard-working labor pool.
Irvin noted that the auto assembly plant is “located at the nexus of three interstate highways” and also has access to excellent rail transportation and air service. He said having two universities and a community college is also beneficial and people here have a strong work ethic.
Monty Greutman, general manager of the off road tire plant that is part of Bridgestone Americas’ manufacturing group, said the transportation system and proximity to Caterpillar — one of its primary customers — is important, but so is the workforce, who Greutman refers to as “teammates.”
“The teammates here at the plant are extraordinary,” Greutman said. “We have teammates with 35 years of service to one year of service.”
As Greutman walked through the 70-acre plant, located on a 500-acre site on Fort Jesse Road, people waved and talked.
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“This is the friendliest group of people you’ll ever see,” Greutman said.
As with many family-owned companies, Beer Nuts located here because it was the home of its founder, Russell Shirk. But location continues to be a key factor.
Jim Shirk, the founder’s son, said, the location made it easy to distribute the product to population hubs in Chicago, Indianapolis and Milwaukee in the early days. As the company has grown — Beer Nuts are available in all 50 states — the central location has continued to be an advantage, both for distribution and getting raw materials, such as peanuts from the Southeast.
Andy Shirk, the third generation involved in the plant, said the employment base and community support are other reasons why the company has stayed.
“People from Bloomington are really our best sales people,” Andy Shirk said.
That includes college students and people who spend time in McLean County for training or short assignments, he said. “They identify with Beer Nuts, then they go back across the country” and spread the word.
The retail side of the business has been growing, too, including non-food items with the Beer Nuts logo.
“It’s gained some kind of iconic status,” Jim Shirk said. “The name kind of brings a smile to the face and memories of good times.”
But while Mitsubishi, Nestle, Bridgestone and Beer Nuts may have higher profiles than other manufacturers, there are many products with a national reach.
Franmar Chemical in Bloomington was founded 25 years ago by Frank and Marilyn Sliney, starting with a soybean-based cleaning product for screen-printing.
“The main focus of the company is all-natural, environmentally friendly products that replace hazardous or petroleum products,” said Jason Davenport, Franmar’s marketing director.
Screen-printing and the home restoration continue to be the strongest markets for the company, which has about 25 employees, according to Davenport.
“A lot of our products come out of consumer requests,” Davenport said. “We typically start with soy,” he said, but also use other “environmentally friendly solutions” from corn oil to seaweed.
Alexander Manufacturing makes pens, emery boards and other products used for promotional purposes.
“We do pens for the White House for special occasions,” said Mike O’Connell, president of company, which moved its operations to Towanda in 1990, after starting in Lexington in 1943. He declined to say how many people work for the company but said it is doing well.
“One of the biggest things we produce is the pocket screwdriver,” O’Connell said. “Go to the bottom of your toolbox and you’ll probably find one. Look at the clip. It probably says, ‘Alexander.’”
Candy production in McLean County isn’t the only sweet product that traces its roots to the 19th century.
The Funk family began commercial maple syrup production in Funks Grove in 1891. Other than a brief break during World War II, Funks Grove Maple Sirup has continued to be produced in Funks Grove since then.
The Funk family is still involved, producing an average of 1,800 gallons of syrup annually.
Bridgestone has bounced back from the recession, employing about 450 people now after sinking to 250 in 2009, Greutman said. More employees will be hired when a new production area in the plant, dedicated to the largest tires, is completed.
Mitsubishi, which produces the Outlander Sport SUV crossover, expects to meet its goal of producing 50,000 vehicles at the Bloomington-Normal plant this year.