Southern Illinois is known for coal mining and agriculture, but it also is home to a diverse community of small manufacturing businesses. Products as diverse as baseball bats and hot sauce or military gloves and performance fuel injectors get their start in Southern Illinois.
Dinger Bat Company, Ridgway
Niche markets exist in baseball.
Dinger Bat Company in Ridgway has been exploiting this fact since 2001 when Randy Drone and his son Kyle founded the firm.
The bats are highest quality hardwood. The equipment that shapes them is state of the art. A family business that employs five full time workers, Dinger produces about 20,000 bats a year. By comparison, Louisville Slugger produces a million and a half bats each year.
"We are smaller and more nimble," said Randy. "We can fill a special order faster and easier."
His son Kyle runs the day to day operations of the company. Kyle came up with the idea of starting the company in 2000 while playing baseball with a Cubs farm club in Tennessee. The players were complaining about the quality of the wood bats they were getting and Kyle thought he and his dad could meet that specialized market demand.
They succeeded and have been growing the business ever since.
"Our long term goal is to grow at a steady pace. We didn't want to just build it and sell it," said Randy.
"We have hired two sales reps for the states of Arizona and Florida in order to market to the pros. We have built a new website. It is www.dingerbats.com."
Pro baseball is only a small part of their market. They sell to schools all over the country.
"The high schools in New Mexico, North Dakota, New York State and many junior colleges out west are all switching to wooden bats. If we start with these markets and grow with them we should do all right," said Randy. "Rapid growth can be dangerous," he said.
"Our main contacts are equipment managers for clubs and schools. We deal with players agents as well. We rarely deal directly with players."
Nationwide Glove Co., Inc., Harrisburg
Thousands of U.S. service men and women keep their hands warm and dry with gloves manufactured in Harrisburg at Nationwide Glove Co., Inc. The firm was created in Chicago in 1917 and has evolved at many locations in both Wisconsin and Illinois to its present factory location at 925 Bauman Lane, Harrisburg.
Due to the Obama administration's military cutbacks, the firm, which works exclusively for the Department of Defense, is seeing a reduction in its orders according to Terry Clark, president and general manager. Clark has had to close down two other facilities recently, one in Carrier Mills and one in Metropolis.
Page 2 of 3 - The factory has 49 employees currently and 24,000 square feet of manufacturing space. It produces tens of thousands of pairs of gloves each year depending on the needs of the military. One type of glove is leather and intended for manual labor. Another style is for pilots in cold weather. The firm produces four different gloves under its present contracts, said Clark.
"Some of our employees have been with us for thirty years," she said. "It is hard to find good employees. So many of them quit after two weeks or so. In spite of this economy and the shortage of jobs, I can report that we have trouble finding workers," she said.
The starting pay is minimum wage, but a worker can rise above that quickly if they can produce. They run on a piece work system. The more one produces the more one gets paid. Some earn as much as $13 per hour.
"We take a lot of pride in our work. Whenever the military comes on national TV we look to see if they are wearing our gloves. We have received quality awards from the government. In 2005 we had an Army colonel come visit us to deliver an award," she said.
On Dec. 6, 2012, there was a quality inspector for the government at the plant. Clark said he had dropped in unannounced, which is standard procedure.
"We also help out the community. We donate gloves to firefighters, police and rescue workers. During the tornado we gave out thousands of pairs of gloves," she said.
M&R Bowstrings, Harrisburg
M&R Bowstrings, 5210 U.S. route 45, Harrisburg was founded in 2000 by Roger Snodgrass who had been making bowstrings in Kentucky and decided to form his own company. In 2004 he bought out his partner and moved the firm from Sturgis, Ky., to Harrisburg.
The company manufactures bowstrings and bow cables for archery equipment. They use a blend of synthetic materials for the strings and cables. These sturdy materials are also used in body armor.
They sell bows, but are moving toward selling only strings and cables. Forty percent of their business is repairs, 40 percent is bow strings and 20 per cent is retail.
Wilson Kitchens, Inc., Harrisburg
Founded in 1946 by his father Eugene Wilson, Harold Wilson's business has expanded to tackle projects far more ambitious than a family kitchen. The firm is doing the casework for an Army barracks in Alaska, medical facilities like the Poplar Bluff Medical Center in Missouri, a child development center in Hawaii and two embassies for the U.S. Department of State in Mexico.
The company works in all 50 states creating architectural millwork-cabinets and counters.
They have 40 to 50 employees and 40,000 square feet of space.
Devil's Breath Chile Company, Broughton
Page 3 of 3 - Bill Barker was unemployed, but had a love for chile peppers and some acreage.
He also had a recipe for hot sauce.
Now he is managing a hot sauce firm with growing sales and an expanding product line.
Founded in 2007, he grew his own peppers and made his own hot sauce from a secret recipe. He marketed his product at flea markets and local festivals making a few hundred dollars here and there. He kept at it. Today he sells relish, hot sauce and is waiting for FDA approval on a turkey jerky made with his Werewolf Sauce.
His first product, Devils Breath Hot Sauce is a steady seller but the Werewolf Sauce is his best seller. He also produces bread and butter jalepinos which are said to be addictive.
He won the 2010 Fiery Food Challenge in Ft. Worth, Texas.
Kroger and Schnuck's food stores carry his products. He employs three people and is considering buying his peppers from outside sources instead of growing his own.
He is looking for local produce growers to grow peppers.
TLF Performance Parts, Harrisburg
In 2002 Thomas Folder founded TLF Performance Parts in Chatham, 5 minutes south of Springfield. The company — now relocated to Harrisburg — remanufactures fuel injectors and flow matches them in sets of 4, 6, 8 and 10 depending on the motors for which they are intended.
Each of the injectors in a set performs in nearly identical fashion to the others in the set. The result is increased power and economy. That is a combination that is hard to beat and many new vehicle owners immediately remove the factory injectors from their engines and replace them with Folder's flow matched injectors. The injectors are good for 200,000 miles and come with a one year warranty.
Amazon and E-Bay have both given TLF Performance Parts awards for sales volume.
Who uses TLF injectors? NASCAR drivers, high-performance vehicle owners and the average driver who really knows his fuel system. Folder says the injectors are superior to factory parts.
NASCAR and the National Hotrod Association both use his products, Folder said.
His building is deceptively small for such a high-volume business and he keeps a lot of stock on hand to meet orders quickly.
TLF makes injectors for motorcycles, boats and jet skis as well.