GALVA, Ill. — When Leland Pearson died in January 2006, some wondered what would become of his small company in this Henry County community and the people who worked there.
Pearson once ran one of the largest manufacturers in this area, Pearson Brothers Inc., which hit its peak in the late 1970s with more than
400 employees. After operating several other similar businesses over the years, he was owner of his last company, LMT, when he died at age 76.
LMT makes custom vacuum tanks.
But all along, some people knew he had a plan: His daughter, Natalie Pearson, and her husband, Mike Fenneman, of Iowa City, would take over his small factory, which manufactures liquid waste equipment.
That is a long way away from Fenneman’s field of expertise — 25 years with Monsanto as an information technology manager.
The transition might have been a bit awkward, but things are working out well.
Almost two years later, Fenneman and his small group of employees are getting along great, gearing up for expansion and preparing to move into a bigger facility this spring.
“They are super people,” longtime employee Betty Grieve said of Fenneman and Natalie Pearson.
Grieve, 83, worked for years with Leland Pearson.
“He was really nice to work for,” she said.
Grieve often drove Leland to doctor appointments and to the Mayo Clinic. “When he passed away, it was a shock to us.”
“When my father died unexpectantly, the day he died, the staff asked: ‘Do we come to work tomorrow?’ Natalie Pearson said. “We didn’t know if it would survive a month. We inherited a rather promising business and we are doing our best to make it successful.”
About a year into the transition, Fenneman quit his longtime job to devote full-time efforts at LMT.
Pearson said not only did she and her husband have to learn fast about the business, they also had to weigh the difference between learning from others and setting their own tone. After all, Natalie said, her father was unique.
“He did things his own way,” she said. “He started out rebuilding farm equipment on his own farm and ended up as one of the biggest manufacturers in that part of Illinois.”
Not only did Leland Pearson do things his own way, but his daughter said he “didn’t want us involved in the business while he was around. We knew very little about business.”
But they are learning.
They have implemented a series of changes to reward the employees for their years of service and work.
“He didn’t provide health insurance,” Fenneman said of his father-in-law. “When we took over the company, we realized in order to recruit or keep other people,” health insurance had to be provided. “We came through with what we thought was a pretty good plan. We started health coverage this (past) Jan. 1.”
“A long time ago, my father had big businesses in town,” Natalie Pearson said. “He lost all his businesses and started over. Since he started over, health insurance was not something he thought he could afford” because LMT is a much smaller company, employing about 14 full-timers.
But health insurance and other benefits were important to her and her husband.
“I was not going to take over the business unless we could take care of them,” she said of the employees.
For instance, Ken Gale of Galva started out working for Pearson Brothers when he was in high school in the 1960s. He has left and come back several times over the years. In fact, Gale said he returned for the fifth time on Jan. 2, 2007, as the maintenance person who also does general labor.
“The last time I left, I didn’t want to leave,” he said. “The reason I left was, (the other company) had health insurance.”
But after he learned that LMT was offering health insurance, he went to talk to Fenneman. “I asked, ‘Can I still come back?’ They said, ‘You’re on the top of our list.’ ”
Today, he is happy to be back and pleased about how the business has changed under new ownership.
“The place is cleaned up, working smoother, an all-around better place than before,” Gale said.
Health insurance is just the beginning, Fenneman said.
“We feel it is our first step,” he said. “As we grow, we also will add. Next year, we will add group term life insurance. We are paying 100 percent for all employees. We are trying to do one thing at a time.”
Last year, the company held a Christmas party and handed out small bonuses, which they are doing again this year. Last summer, the company took the entire staff to a Swing of the Quad-Cities game in Davenport.
“It was something for people to enjoy,” Fenneman said. “We plan on doing it next year. We are doing some team building. We want to make them feel like they are part of the family.”
Although she no longer works at LMT very much, Natalie Pearson is heavily involved in a program to get employees to stop smoking. A new Illinois law that goes into effect Jan. 1 prohibits smoking in any public place, including workplaces. Pearson is doing her part to help them all quit.
“Most of our employees smoke,” she said. “They won’t be able to smoke in the plant after Jan. 1. We want to give them a boost. We are paying for the cost of smoking cessation medicine.”
In addition, Pearson has issued a challenge: Anyone who quits smoking and stays smoke-free for three months will receive a $750 bonus. “I hope it works,” she said.
In the spring, the company will move across the road and about a quarter-mile back toward town in a building that Leland Pearson had used years ago. The new facility — although not new at all — had been the home of Kewanee Corp., which made windows and doors until it recently closed. Fenneman said it will give LMT a lot more space although they will keep the present building.
Overall, Fenneman and Pearson are optimistic.
“It is a good opportunity for us,” she said. “Mike is a businessman, and he finds this challenging and enjoyable.”