ILMO Invests, Innovates and Adjusts To Keep Growing in its Second Century

By Charles McChesney

Before there were LED automobile headlights or HID headlights or plain-old electric incandescent headlights, there were gas headlights. Invented by Frenchman Louis Bleriot to replace dim and smoky kerosene head – lamps, Bleriot lamps burned acetylene

The earliest Bleriot lamps included a canister attached to the car’s running board. A motorist would put calcium carbide in the bottom portion and water into the top. The water would drip down and, as every GAWDA member knows, acetylene would be produced. That acetylene ran through a line to the headlamps, lighting the way.

The system evolved and, in time, the canister was replaced by a gas cylinder, leaving the motorist only the tasks of turning a valve and lighting the headlamps. A hundred years ago, Illinois Tire and Vulcanizing Co. was the place to buy the gas needed to make night driving less dangerous in Jacksonville, Ill.

That was the start for what is now ILMO Products Company, a gases and welding supplies distributor headquartered in Jacksonville that has grown to nine locations in central and southern Illinois as well as eastern Missouri.

Henry J. Floreth and his son, D.O. Floreth, started the business in 1913, selling batteries, tires and headlamp gas. Over time, the company focused more and more on the gas side of the business, adding welding equipment and oxygen in 1926. By 1948, the company left the automotive supply business to focus on welding. To reflect that, the company changed its name to Illinois Missouri Welding Products Co. In 2003, the firm changed its name again, this time to ILMO Products Company. Ten years later, ILMO celebrated its 100th anniversary with a series of events, including giving each employee $100, tax-free, on the 100th day of the year and a company outing to see the St. Louis Cardinals play.

TO THE NEXT 100 YEARS

Today, the company is run by CEO Linda Floreth Standley and President Brad Floreth, cousins who are fourth-generation descendants of Henry J. Floreth. They joined the company as the 1970s turned into the 1980s and took on their leadership roles later that decade when their fathers, R. Dean Floreth and Earl Floreth, retired.

Brad Floreth also worked for the company some as a teenager, “painting cylinders and such,” he recalls. When he joined the business full time, he came up on the sales and operations side. Linda Standley worked on the business side, serving as controller before being named president and, later, CEO.

The company has expanded over the decades, adding branches in the 1960s and 1980s. In the first decade of this century, ILMO added a branch in Peoria, Ill., home to Caterpillar Inc., and crossed the state line into Missouri with a branch in St. Louis

Currently, the company is finding growth despite a prolonged recession that has affected industries that supply agriculture and the coal mining industry. Caterpillar and many of its suppliers are ILMO clients. The heavy equipment maker has seen sales fall more than 40 percent in the past four years.

“The last eight or nine years haven’t been that great,” Brad says, so the company has been stressing efficiency. “We’ve got a few fewer people now. We’ve improved our operations and procedures anywhere we can to get more efficient and get better at what we do,” he adds. “We’ve been tweaking all the little stuff to maintain a level of profitability.”

PROPANE-POWERED GROWTH

ILMO hasn’t just been playing defense. The company has long provided propane in 33-pound cylinders for customers who use forklifts. Spotting growing demand about a decade ago, ILMO launched an effort to serve homeowners, farmers and contractors who use bulk propane for heating and cooking, Standley explains. The expansion created a new type of customer for ILMO. “Now we were selling people their utilities,” Standley says. “That’s exciting to us.”

The success of the rollout – which included new managers and administrators as well as technical people to handle the demand – prompts Brad to say that he expects ILMO will continue to expand propane service across its 30,000-square-mile footprint.

FROM LANDLOCKED TO ALL NEW

By the end of the 20th century, the company had outgrown its 1950s-era facility in Jacksonville and was unable to expand onto neighboring lots. “We were landlocked,” Brad says. So, the company built an all-new 40,000-squarefoot
facility on the other end of town. As part of the upgrade, ILMO decided to purchase an automated fill plant. The plant, with components supplied by GAWDA Member Weldcoa, allowed the company to palletize its entire operation. That action made filling procedures go faster and reduced the need for personnel. Brad says that though pallets require maintenance and, eventually, replacement, “you come out ahead. You can load a truck in a fraction of the time.”

Last year, the company reinvested in the 15-year-old plant, again turning to Weldcoa and updating all the electronics. “The automated fill plant has paid for itself over and over,” Director of Production Matt Renouf observed. “It was time to give it some love and attention.” The decision provided another tweak to the profitability of the operation. While the company doesn’t have a lot of waste, reducing it an additional 1 to 2 percent could generate annual savings of $15,000-$20,000, the company reasoned. The return on the recirculation-system investment of less than five years was another factor in moving ahead. And finally, the installation opened up significant floor space, making for a neater,
safer and more pleasant work area, Renouf reports.

The update supports expectations for the next 10 to 15 years in the specialty gases arena, one that has been successful for ILMO. The company, which has long been ISO/IEC 17025:2005 accredited and achieved a ISO Guide 34:2009 accreditation in 2014, supplies just about every spec gas needed, and has been investing in equipment, personnel and training to be able to better serve the market, Brad says. Specialty gases are vital for medical facilities, many modern fabrication shops and other industries, including power plants. “Anytime you see a smokestack, they are testing for emissions and they are testing the emissions against a calibration gas like we would sell — so they use a lot of spec gas,” Brad points out.

THE FUTURE WORK FORCE

Jacksonville, Ill., is nearly four hours from Chicago and two hours from St. Louis. While once larger than Chicago and a regular stop for a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, the city now has a population of fewer than 20,000. It can be a challenge to recruit skilled workers to the area, Brad says.

On the other hand, Standley says, the size of the company, its culture and its commitment to growth is attractive to some, particularly those from large companies. “They can make a difference,” she says. “You can almost see it kind of dawn on them. ‘Oh, I’ll get to see the results of what I’m doing.’”

To face the challenge of developing a work force and the expected challenge of generational turnover that many in the industry anticipate, ILMO has begun to take the first steps in succession planning. “We’ve got a lot of young people here,” says Brad. “These are people we need to be considering for other things and start training them.”

Kim Mullinix, a human resources generalist at ILMO, has been meeting with each of ILMO’s 92 employees to identify and discuss potential career paths. There have been surprises, such as employees expressing interest in moving to other departments within the company, and there have been employees who have made it clear they are happy in their current position and want to stay put. Standley notes that the company “works hard to match people to career paths where they can be successful.”

For those who would like to continue to grow within the company, the next task is employee development to help provide them with the necessary skills. For that, ILMO will begin by having the employee take a profile assessment to identify if the employee is a fit for their desired career path, according to Mullinix. In addition, ILMO encourages employees to further themselves, offering company-sponsored training and tuition reimbursement for those whose development includes college course work.

The company uses a formal process, complete with an outside facilitator, to set out plans for the future. Being a “knowledge company” and being easy to do business with were part of the most recent plan. Looking to the next planning session, Standley says ILMO may continue to stress those twin themes while also looking at enlarging the company’s footprint. She says those plans remain consistent with the company’s combination of stability from a century of doing business and the emphasis on growth that has given ILMO, “a culture of constant change.”

EPILOGUE

ILMO’s willingness to invest and its workers’ willingness to learn new things brings us back to Bleriot, the man whose gas headlight helped give birth to ILMO. He used his earnings from the lamp to become an early developer and builder of airplanes and he trained himself as a pilot. In July 1909, he made history as the first person to fly an airplane across the Atlantic Ocean, traveling from Calais, France to Dover, England in 36 minutes and 30 seconds.