The Thule (two lee) Group purchased a vacant building on Industrial Drive in the far southwest corner of Forest Park in January and began production of plastic car top cargo and ski boxes in March.
“Thule,” said Robert Ward, director of operations at the plant, “is a premier supplier of products for the active lifestyle, primarily but not exclusively for automobiles. In other locations throughout the U.S., Thule makes the roof rack systems that the cargo boxes made here fit on, bike racks, canoe racks, active strollers for new mothers interested in getting back out and active, and bags for computers and cameras.”
Thule is a Swedish corporation that employs 3,500 workers worldwide. Jerry Sweeney, the office manager of the facility on Industrial Drive, said they employ 50-60 people during the winter and add 40-50 more temporary workers during the busy summer months.
“We bring in cut sheet plastic and we thermal-form it,” Ward said, describing the manufacturing process. We clamp it around the edges, heat it until it gets soft, bring aluminum molds up to it and vacuum the plastic sheet into shape.”
He added that the cargo boxes his plant manufactures, which carry the Thule brand, are also sold by Sears and Pep Boys and used by Ford, Subaru and GM.
Ward explained that the Thule Group decided to leave its plant in Franklin Park and move to Forest Park because “we were in three separate buildings, which was inefficient in terms of material and production flow. Another reason was that the O’Hare Elgin expansion was going on right across the street from us, and, finally, we experienced flooding there five out of the last seven years.”
His company picked Forest Park because of its location. They made a map of where their employees lived, drew a circle around the locations and committed themselves to finding a site within a 10-mile radius of the center of the circle.
“Forest Park is close to the Eisenhower,” Sweeney added, “and has good access to public transportation. Forest Park is also ‘relatively close’ to the Loop, Midway Airport and even O’Hare. There were county tax advantages, too.”
The two executives were especially impressed with the support they received from Forest Park’s village government.
“Mayor Calderone was a supporter from day one,” Ward recalled. “When I reached out to him, he didn’t have anyone else call me back or use the excuse of scheduling problems. He called me directly. From the first time we talked till we closed on the building, he was very supportive of bringing this business in.”
Sweeney added that the inspection process went very smoothly, that the fire department and building inspectors were “very professional.” Regarding tax advantages, Sweeney said the mayor helped them get a 10-year “temporary” 6B tax classification with Cook County, another big incentive to relocate here.
The relocation of Thule to Industrial Drive is a win for the village in terms of tax dollars. When asked if it would also mean jobs for Forest Park residents, Ward replied that they do have a couple employees who live in Forest Park, but residents should not expect many job openings right away.
“We have a stable, trained workforce to make our products,” he explained, “so we can’t open the floodgates and hire a bunch of people.”
Sweeney added that they use REM Staffing Service right here in Forest Park on Roosevelt Road to obtain the temporary workers they need during the summer, so job seekers can explore that avenue, but he is also open to people contacting him directly at 847-455-2420 ext. 119.
“We certainly will look at the employees we bring in on a temporary basis,” Ward said, “and when we find exceptional employees, we will make the effort to keep them with us full time.”
Ward also touted how green his plant is.
“Environmentally speaking,” he noted, “this plant is very committed to sourcing materials that are environmentally friendlier. We’ve got recycling programs within the plant so that we’re doing less harm to the environment — everything from coffee grounds to separating things on the floor. We recycle all of our excess scrap plastic, so that it’s not going to the landfill.”