Insights: Chicago | Business Spotlight | Spring 2018

Ellis Corp. & Huntington: dedicated to superb customer service

Ellis Corp. builds and sells big machines, but its people make the difference

People make the difference at Ellis Corp.
By Erik Cassano

At Ellis Corp., there is always a better way. The Itasca, Illinois-based industrial products and systems company, founded in 1898 as Ellis Drier Co., has been innovating, adapting and improving its products and systems from its beginning.

The first Ellis product was a clothes dryer manufactured with an English-made system originally used for drying grain. Ellis was the first American company to utilize the technology, salvaged from English boats that had been shipwrecked on the Great Lakes.

But by the early years of the 20th century, Ellis Corp. was already building a better machine. At the end of the 19th century, most industrial washing machines turned clothes in a wooden cylinder. But Ellis looked beyond that model and began manufacturing washing cylinders out of monel -- a corrosion-resistant nickel alloy invented in 1901 -- making its machines more durable.

It was the birth of the company’s culture of continuous improvement, which guides the company to this day. “It’s something that really has been an integral part of our company since the beginning,” says Bob Fesmire, great-great-grandson of the company’s founder, Wynn Edward Ellis, and Ellis’ current president. “We actively seek a better way to do everything. If someone here says, ‘This is how we’ve always done it,’ we challenge that thinking. We ask why.”

Innovation doesn't happen without talent, intellectual capacity and manpower. Fesmire and his father, CEO Bob Fesmire Sr., realize that while their company manufactures and sells mechanical products, it’s their people -- and the culture those people embrace -- that have built Ellis Corp. into a successful company. They’re proud of new products and innovations, but without the collective efforts of their people, none of it would be possible.

“If someone here says, ‘This is how we’ve always done it,’ we challenge that thinking. We ask why.” —Bob Fesmire, president, Ellis Corp.

Relying on manpower

Countless companies profess to operate by the Golden Rule, saying that they treat others as they would want to be treated. That means conducting business ethically, treating customers and employees with respect, and many other good business practices. But at Ellis Corp., it means something beyond that. It means understanding their customers -- how they conduct business, who they serve, and their goals and pain points. And then, once they understand all of that, they find ways to help their customers address those areas.

“We’re successful because we understand our customers’ businesses,” Fesmire Sr. says. “They’re in service industries. They have to provide clean sheets, linens and uniforms to their own customers. Our job is to help them do that.” Ultimately, Ellis Corp. is in the business of making its customers’ businesses easier to run. The Fesmires know that by doing that, they will maintain a longstanding base of loyal repeat customers, and continually find new ones. And that is why Ellis Corp.’s success hinges on the people who walk through the company’s doors every day.

“We have three core values: commitment to ourselves, constant improvement and integrity,” the younger Fesmire says. “And that all comes back to our people. We are very confident in the quality and performance of what we sell, but it’s our people that go above and beyond. It’s as much the service behind the products that we’re selling.

“We once had a component that failed in an installation. It wasn’t even a component we had manufactured, but because we had performed the installation, we got on the phone, found a new component and flew it out to the customer that day. Their production would have been down without that machine, so we realized we had to act fast. That’s our people in action.”

Bob Fesmire, president, Ellis Corp.
Bob Fesmire, president, Ellis Corp. (Photography by Sara Stathas)

Finding great people

It’s easy to say you want to employ great people, but finding them is another matter. Because talent is so critical to their company’s success, the Fesmires maintain a rigorous vetting process for new hires. “Applicants have to pass three separate culture tests that basically tell us if they're a good fit,” Fesmire says. “If they pass those tests, they have to take an aptitude tests that aligns with the job they’re applying for. If they pass that test, then we’ll interview them.”

Everything the company does points back to those three core values of commitment, continuous improvement and integrity. New hires will either strengthen or weaken those core values, which is why potential hires are so thoroughly vetted. “We live by those core values,” Fesmire Sr. says. “If somebody here doesn’t live by those values, it damages us. We can’t have that. That’s why we treat every hire in every part of the company as if our future is riding on it. Because, in a way, it really is.”

The extra banking mile

Ellis Corp. has made a name for itself by going above and beyond for its customers. Company president Bob Fesmire and his father, CEO Bob Fesmire Sr., understand that service is what separates their company from the competition. Huntington operates with the same guiding principles, paving the way for the bank and Ellis Corp.’s great business relationship.

“We’ve had six or seven banks in the past 50 years, and our relationship with Huntington has been the best we’ve had,” Fesmire says. The people at Ellis Corp. pride themselves on quick responses to customer questions and concerns, and they place a high value on a bank that can do the same. “They pride themselves on service, just like us,” Fesmire Sr. says. “If we need something, they’re here.

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