July 16, 2015
by Herb Meeker, Effingham Teutopolis News Report
Over the past 45 years, Tom Wegman has done all kinds of work inside the Stevens Industries plant.
Those duties have included engineer, salesman, owner and president/CEO.
But his connection to the Teutopolis manufacturing facility dates back long before the building was constructed on those 30 acres.
"A lot of people don't realize my Dad and I used to farm this ground for beans and corn for the owners. I got to know all the sinkholes on that property. When I got stuck, my Dad let me hear about it, too," said Wegman.
When Wegman started at Stevens in 1970, he was working in the concrete block building at the corner of Main and Race streets, now used by ARC Enterprises. He was hired by company founder Chuck Stevens to help develop new product lines. The company workforce at the time numbered 12. The company now numbers 450 working under a plant and warehousing that covers 10 acres.
Wegman was not a rookie in the cabinet-making business, which Stevens was known for at the time.
"I grew up on a farm by Montrose, After moving from the farm, my Dad had a cabinet shop in a big garage behind our house. I sanded most of the parts and helped my dad construct them, so I know something about cabinets," Wegman said.
Tom had loftier goals when he went to Rose Hulman Institute of Technology to learn mechanical engineering. His father died two years before his graduation from the renowned engineering school at Terre Haute and that sent the farm kid with the engineering degree to a job with McDonnell Douglas at St. Louis.
"I worked on the Phantoms jets they were building during the war in Vietnam. And I worked on Skylab. I worked on the test module, but because of money problems they actually sent that one into orbit. My kids once told me, 'Great, Dad, you worked on something that fell out of the sky,'" Wegman recalled.
Wegman was anxious to get back to the world he used to know in Effingham County. So he accepted the offer from Chuck Stevens to come on board at the cabinet business.
"Chuck had started out like my Dad did in a garage. He opened Stevens Cabinets in 1956. It was very humble beginnings," Wegman recalled. "Chuck needed an engineer to help him expand into different product lines. That's why he hired me."
Some of Wegman's previous work had gone around the world; for he and Stevens would travel the globe for technologies to change how business was done in the Teutopolis facility.
"The watershed moment for Stevens was when we started traveling to Germany, Italy and Japan to learn about the latest technology for woodworking. We eventually adopted laminating technologies that set us apart in this country," Wegman said. "Within a short time, we had machines that could run out materials for one week's production. That made it possible to expand the market, selling to office furniture manufacturers and a variety of other companies." with office furniture and more. That gave us a much wider market."
Of course, the expansion of products drew in more employees and the need for additional facilities, which expanded in increments from the northwest corner of Race and Main through the years. And as Chuck and Tom went on their trips, the Stevens employees got used to what was coming down the line to Teutopolis.
"The employees used to joke, 'They went on a trip again so we'll be moving some machinery around when they get back,'" Wegman recalled with a grin.
The evidence of the global trips is evident on the plant floor at Stevens today. In every section, there are machines working wood, laminating, cutting and sorting on a continuous basis. There is another world effect at Stevens, too.
"Everything is metric here. We have to with these machines because of where they are made. I learned that as an engineering student. You can't accurately convert from English measure to metric without losing accuracy," Wegman said.
As he walked around the plant floor, Wegman waved or talked with different employees. One joked about how he thought Tom was retired, and Wegman refers to some remaining chores like cleaning out his desk.
Wegman takes pride in how Stevens was a leader for this region by establishing an employee stock ownership plan or commonly known as an ESOP, that provides commitment among the workers. It instills a sense of pride and commitment to excellence as well because they do own the company.
"All that we did here at Stevens was possible because our workers are committed to it. They made it happen. It wouldn't have been possible without them. We can think it, but they have to execute it," Wegman said.
When Chuck Stevens offered Wegman his ownership in the company to Wegman in 1998, Wegman explained it placed new responsibilities on his shoulders.
"At 52, a lot of people are considering when they'll be hanging it up. And I was starting over and putting it all on the line," he said. "When I would meet the employees' families at the company picnics, it hit me right in the face. I was responsible for making sure those people had good stable jobs to depend on."
It was a good choice. Stevens Industries is one of the top employers in Effingham County. It produces 700 cabinets per shift, over 100,000 parts per week, along with up to 33,000 laminated panels weekly. Four to railroad cars are necessary to keep the Stevens plant supplied with wood panels and products to keep the production lines working.
"What Chuck Stevens started, and I was fortunate to continue was to make sure the company has a quality-centered and entrepreneurial culture. I have now completed the final transfer of my ownership to a 100 percent ESOP company with local ownership and management," Wegman explained. and other products each day so the production lines continue working.
Wegman's role has been reduced over the last five years as he prepared for the transition.
"After 45 years, I leave here confident in the staff, management and all our employee owners that Stevens Industries will thrive and succeed in the future," said Wegman.
He is thankful for all the Lord has blessed he and his family with over this 45-year journey.
Republished with permission. For more information, visit www.etnewsreport.com