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Employees the focus at Richmond’s Watlow

Published: Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Kyle Grillot – kgrillot@shawmedia.com)
Jessica Diaz of Woodstock works on the production floor at Watlow in Richmond. The electric heater, sensor and controller maker has been successful teaching the "Watlow Way" and providing onsite education classes that allow employees to work toward an associate's degree from McHenry County College.

RICHMOND – Watlow clearly scores high marks with its customers as the global designer and manufacturer of heaters, temperature sensors, controllers and supporting software continues to expand. 

It also scores exceptional marks with its employees, who, excluding temps, number about 296 in Richmond, and roughly 2,400 companywide. Its continual focus on employee development, as well as product and work environment innovation, helped Watlow rise to the top among finalists for the McHenry County Economic Development Corp. Business Champion Awards this year. 

Watlow, with a 100,000-square-foot facility on Route 173 just west of Route 12, was the top pick among employers with between 100 and 299 employees. 

“Watlow has done a lot over the years to make them stand out,” said Pam Cumpata, MCEDC president. “They are really incredible at developing their people. They cross-train them and give them the skills to help them succeed.

“They also are looking at efficiencies within their organization, understanding the health of their employees and the ergonomics of how cells are set up.”

Founded in 1922, Watlow bought the former Claud S. Gordon Co. in Richmond in 1985. Since then, output has quadrupled or quintupled, said Nathan Frost, director of operations. The company hired 35 people just this year, and sales are up 50 percent since 2006. The majority of people working at the Richmond site – where temperature sensors and wire are made – are directly involved in manufacturing. 

“We are currently producing 34,000 units per week [and] 600,000 feet of wire per week,” Frost said.

Watlow’s products wind up in everything from commercial deep fryers to diesel engines and aerospace technology.

Sensor sales are projected to grow to $60 million in 2014 from $55 million this year, said Frost and John Huber, who is a continuous improvement sensei. 

Both men said Watlow’s focus on employee training, designated weeklong innovation sessions and promoting from within makes for a highly productive, loyal workforce.

Donna Kruzan, employee training specialist, said the company reinstated two years ago a program in which employees can take fast-track MCC classes onsite that will enable them to obtain an associate’s degree in manufacturing management. 

“Watlow’s culture is built around always learning and improving,” she said, adding that 17 employees currently are enrolled and are two years into a four-year program.

Among those enrolled is Dina Cabrera, who lives in Woodstock with her husband, Carlos, and three 14-year-old daughters.

“It’s a great opportunity,” said Cabrera, a lead operator for one of the company’s hybrid work cells. She keeps an eye on customer demand and ensures that a sufficient number of employees is on the line at any given time. 

Taking the course work is a time commitment, to be sure. After putting in an eight- or 10-hour shift, Cabrera and her classmates stay at Watlow from 4:30 to 8:20 p.m. Mondays for class. 

“My kids are so proud of me, even though they don’t like me to be absent,” Cabrera said, adding that if she had to include travel time from work to school, she might not be pursuing her degree. Watlow also pays for the tuition and books up front, requiring employees to return some money only if they fail to achieve an A or B grade.

“We work very closely between the students and the school to make sure they’re getting a good learning experience out of it,” Kruzan said. “And the teachers have been so good about coming in early or staying late.”

Cabrera said she foresees a long career with Watlow.

“I like the place,” she said, “and I feel like I should appreciate what the company is doing for me.”

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