The Helm Group of today bears only a slight resemblance to our founding as Freeport Blacktop in 1946. Gone are the triangle logos with FBT in the middle and, with the exception of some seal coat projects each summer, the last 70 years have brought change after change in the type of work we do and the regions in which we work. I imagine many of our employees get the same question that I get, “Why keep your corporate offices in Freeport?” Sure, Freeport is part of the company history, but if we look at the revenue we earn, only about 5% of our volume is work completed in Stephenson County, which surrounds Freeport. That 5% even includes work in the Freeport fabrication shop, most of which is being sent outside of Freeport. If we look at the geographic center of our work, Civil’s center would probably be Sterling and Mechanical’s would be Schaumburg. Maybe DeKalb is a better place for our corporate offices if minimizing travel were the only issue.
So why do we stay in Freeport? What does it say about us as a company and what does it mean for our future? I think our tie to Freeport is a result of the extraordinary work ethic of people in the area, the recruiting of talent, and the ability for us to contribute to a community.
Starting with work ethic, this company was built by people with the same smart, honest-days-work attitude of the farmers and manufacturers that built Freeport. Our small-town work ethic has transferred to other big city offices also. When we’re hiring in Cleveland, Chicago, or Milwaukee, we know who will fit into the company based on whether they would fit in Freeport. The culture of working hard and smart is something that is hard to define, but you sure know it when you see it. An industry executive that knows our company very well recently visited our office in Freeport. Her comment to her peers was, “How do they get so many great employees…they’re in the middle of nowhere and I mean nowhere.” That’s just what we do, but we couldn’t do it without being in a community like Freeport.
When we combine being a good solid company with being in a small community, a town like Freeport also allows us to recruit very well. This may seem counter-intuitive because we don’t see the number of applicants that we’d like, but it is quick and easy to hire the best candidate available. The Helm Group is like a big fish in a small pond and everyone wants to work for the big fish. Our competitors in bigger markets don’t have nearly the percentage of hires that are still with us years later and that would be rated as A-players. We recruit well because we have a great reputation, but just as importantly, if we don’t know the applicant, we know someone who knows the applicant.
Finally, there is the idea of being a good corporate citizen. We stay in business because we get work at the right price and execute at the lowest cost, but we are in business for more than this. We want to provide good jobs to our employees, we want to have good relationships with our customers and partners, and we want to support the communities in which we work. It is very fulfilling to be a part of a community like Freeport that has a lot of good people and needs the Helm Group as much or more than the Helm Group needs the town. If we were in Cook County, we would be in the top 1,000 employers. In Stephenson County, we are probably in the top 10. Being in the position as a major employer gives us a responsibility to give back to the community. When this contribution is recognized as it was this year as the Freeport Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year, it makes the responsibility even more apparent going forward.
One of our first decisions 70 years ago was where to start our business. As with every decision, it is worthwhile to question and evaluate whether we should continue doing what we are doing. We will probably continue to get the question “Why Freeport?” but for now, I think our reasons for staying are solid and our place in Freeport is safe.
by: Brian Helm