Jim Schill: A Geauga Business Legend
by Margie Wilber, Write 2 the Point
“COMMITMENT” reads the plaque hanging in the boardroom of Chem Technologies, in Middlefield, Ohio. Below this is a quote from John Quincy Adams:
“Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.”
Both offer a glimpse of the personal core values of Jim Schill, founder and current chairman of the board of Chem Technologies, a chemical dispersion and blend manufacturer and custom rubber compounder. Schill is also the previous founder and chairman of the board at Elastochem, a chemical dispersion and blend manufacturer used primarily by the rubber industry, and Gold Key Processing, a custom rubber compounding company.
All three Geauga-based manufacturing companies have become national leaders in their industries, making founder and chairman of the board, Jim Schill, a Geauga business legend.
At age 83, the convivial gentleman admits that “retirement” was never in his blood. Schill agreed to take a few minutes from his busy day at Chem Technologies and sit down with the editor of Business Magazine to answer several questions about how he became interested in business, what lessons he learned through his successful business career, and what valuable information budding entrepreneurs should know.
Q: When did you first become interested in business and can you walk us through your successful career?
A: At 18, after graduating from high school, I joined the U.S. Army in 1946, working as a medic in a large, Catholic Hospital in Munich, Germany. In addition to other responsibilities like cooking and maintenance, I gave shots, intravenous injections, and assisted the ward doctor in spinal taps, etc. – medical procedures typically handled by degreed nurses. After my service was up, I started college at John Carroll university with the intention of becoming a doctor.
At the time, I was also hired at St. John’s Hospital. On my first day, I was told to give an elderly gentleman a sponge bath and spoon-feed him breakfast. I immediately realized I did not have the compassion necessary for this career. Becoming a doctor would be a “job” for me as opposed to “helping people.” My civilian medical career lasted less than a day!
Since I was good at math in high school, I decided to major in accounting. After graduating, I went to work for an accounting firm in 1952. In 1960, I was made partner. I resigned in 1966 to work for my largest client at the time – Burton Rubber as Chief Financial Officer and Vice President of Finance. In 1979, a group of us took the knowledge we had acquired there to start Elastochem in Chardon. By the time my partners and I sold the rubber blend plant in 1996, it was the primary supplier of rubber chemical blends in the US.
I used some of the profits from this sale to found Gold Key in 1998 and Chem Technologies in 2001, serving as Chairman of the CEO for both. Gold Key was recently acquired by Hexpol. I still to serve as Chairman of CEO at Chem Technologies.
Q: Why did you choose to build your manufacturing plants in Geauga County?
A: That’s easy – the excellent available work force. My experience at Burton Rubber taught me a rural environment was advantageous because it often requires its young children to perform chores at an early age. They are no strangers to hard work as young adults.
I became familiar with the Amish community while at Burton Rubber. The Amish have a strong belief system and take care of each other. They live a Spartan lifestyle and do not have an entitlement attitude. We placed Gold Key and Chem Technologies in the heart of the Amish community because I believe the Amish make a superior work force.
Q: What else do you look for when hiring?
A: I look for a history of previously successful performance. I was responsible for hiring at the public accounting firm. I discovered often that 4.0 GPA students did not work out, but 3.3 GPA students with a lot of extra-curricular activities became excellent employees.
Hire people who are confident in their abilities but do not have an ego that demands they be first and foremost all the time. I am talking about compatibility – suppressing one’s ego is required in teamwork. This is why I like small, privately owned companies. There are frequently big egos and big ambitions in big corporations. These people often advance at the expense of other members of the organization; their objectives are personal as opposed to company advancement.
Q: In your opinion, what is the role of the chief executive officer
A: The CEO is the company cop. Once you establish good, strong policies and procedures, the CEO must enforce them. This is where a lot of companies go wrong.
The CEO must also be able to lead and make timely decisions and advance company objectives.
Q: You have experienced tremendous success in business. Are you surprised at your level of success?
A: I found it isn’t that hard to be #1 as a business if you really work at it. Everyone professes to be #1 in trade magazines, but a majority do not try that hard. When they achieve a certain level of success, there is a tendency to become complacent and lose ground. I have found that if you have good operating procedures, good people all around, and keep your focus, you will be on top.
Elastochem, Gold Key Processing, and Chem Technologies all earned excellent reputations in their respective industries. I am very proud of that.
Q: What personal business principles have served you well?
A: One of my big business principles or practices is equity participation for key employees. It instills pride and is an incentive to grow the company.
Another key business principle is having good policies and procedures in place.
I believe it is important to treat each customer as if they are the only one you have, and to treat employees like family. At all three companies, we paid 100 percent of our employees’ health care, and substantial bonuses to both our hourly and salary employees. Bonuses are a fixed percentage of profit, and we do not cap them. These practices are still in place at Chem Technologies today.
Q: What attributes are necessary to successfully establish and run a company?
A: Obviously, intelligence and good judgment are necessary. To be successful, one must also have an understanding of the industry, evaluate talent objectively, and institute and enforce sound policies and procedures that will lead to a successful operation. For example, I believe in maintaining an immaculate plant. Customers usually feel an immaculate plant connotes a dedication to quality.
I believe a business owner should have consideration for their employees but also insist on performance. Personally, I believe in a carrot-and-stick approach: penalty points for policy and procedure violations or absenteeism, as well as bonus hours that can be accumulated for 100 percent adherence to policies and procedures and good attendance.
Additionally, you need to be a risk taker. Judgment is also critical.
There must be a market to support the level of activity required to be profitable. In developing the business plan, overestimate how much it will cost and underestimate the demand. Things seldom happen as fast as you thought they would and often cost more than you expected. You have to be prepared for both possibilities.
Finally, you must be able to look at the pros and cons and judge realistically. If the pros outweigh the cons, go for it. I’ve had days and months not as good as others, but in totality, every business venture I have tried succeeded.
Q: What business model do you prefer –small, privately owned companies or large , publicly traded corporations?
A: I strongly believe in entrepreneurship and on a relatively small level. Often, when a large corporation buys a successful small, private company, they make changes that benefit the owners – not the customers or employees of the company. I always fought for the employees. If you are selling your company, ask for an agreement in writing that the buyer will maintain the situation in place for your employees. I do not believe employees should suffer because owners cash out. Who will protect those individuals who live from paycheck to paycheck?
Q: What is the most important lesson you have learned in business?
A: There are so many. One very important lesson I learned is to make certain you always have enough financing to weather the unexpected dips. Another lesson I learned is to maintain sufficient ownership equity so you will not be forced into unintended consequences.
Q: What is the hardest task you needed to do in business?
A: Terminating people. I have a great deal of empathy for terminated individuals, especially when they have to go home and tell their family they were terminated. Termination implies unworthiness. Maybe the failure was in the hiring process? Perhaps they could not do the job they were hired to do. In this case, you contributed to the failure, but the other person is paying the price.
Q: Who did you go to when you needed advice?
A: I usually seek consensus from our management and Board; seldom if ever outsiders. I go to church. I pray.
Q: What is the most rewarding aspect of your business career and life?
A: I would say the most rewarding part of my career is the satisfaction of heading up a company recognized as a leader in its industry segment. Non-career wise, my most rewarding achievement is attaining my 60th wedding anniversary with my wife Jean.
It is hard to be a successful entrepreneur/businessman and to also be a good family man. I don’t want to imply that I achieved both. My family paid a price for my success in business. Thankfully, I have a good relationship with my four children and wife, but we didn’t do all we could have – vacations, meals together, fun – that we might have. Success has its compensations, like comfort and security. I hope my family feels it’s been a fair trade off.
Q: What other advice can you give to aspiring or other business professionals?
A: Clearly, we are not born equally. I believe we are each dealt a hand, and God wants to see how well we play it.
We are all challenged to make the most of the abilities we are given. I believe that once we achieve a good standard of living, God wants us to help those less fortunate.
I am not comfortable with those who lavish the fruits of their success primarily on themselves. I believe in a life hereafter. Compared to eternity, life is but a blink of the eye.
There is nothing wrong with making money per se, and I don’t feel you have to deny yourself entirely. However, I am convinced we will all be judged on our generosity to those less fortunate. Meantime, I try to provide the people who work with me the best job possible. I find that very rewarding, and I strongly recommend it to everyone in my position.