Elkay Manufacturing continues to thrive in Oak Brook

Officials at Oak Brook-based Elkay Manufacturing are happy with the numbers they see.

The maker of sinks, cabinets, water fountains and water fillers has sales figures almost back at their high point of 2005-06, but housing starts are only half of what they were then.

Tim Jahnke, president and chief executive officer, attributes that to finding different customers and broadening the business, making it stronger overall.

He said the company weathered the economic downtown of 2008-10 better than competitors.

“It is still pretty rough,” Jahnke said of the economic climate. “We could have sat back and waited, but we jumped in sooner, faster and stronger than our competitors.”

People may know the Elkay name from stopping to get a drink at a water fountain in a store, shopping mall or theme park, but individuals in the trades know the firm’s name for its sinks and cabinets as well. The creator of Yorktowne, Schuler and Medallion cabinets, as well as the American Cabinetry Collection at Sears, Elkay generates half of its overall sales from cabinets.

The firm has 4,000 employees globally, with manufacturing facilities in Broadview and 12 other locations, including Washington, Utah, Minnesota, China and Mexico. The facilities in China and Mexico manufacture specific products for those countries.

The recent promotion of two Elkay executives, who have both been with the company more than 10 years, is a testament to the company’s retention ability.

Jahnke said the family-owned business holds its employees in high regard.

“Every employee is special,” said Jahnke, who joined Elkay in 2007. “Our work forces are employed with us for a long time. In the Broadview facility, longevity ranges from a few years to some with up to 40 years. We just had an employee mark his 40th year with the company and we have a handful right behind him. We have a lot of longtime employees.”

Jahnke will never forget his early tenure at Elkay, when the economy headed south.

“It was a brutal time for any company that makes products for new residences and remodeling. We were hit hard,” said Jahnke, who joined Elkay after 22 years at Newell Rubbermaid. “In 24 months, we lost about half of our cabinet volume and the market declined by two-thirds.

“The challenge was to rally, to get focused on things that matter. We survived it and came out of it stronger.”

Jahnke said Elkay weathered the economic storm because the firm was fundamentally strong to begin with and, being family-owned, its culture was to be conservative and not overspend.

“We did not take on debt. We had a strong balance sheet,” Jahnke said. “We could survive longer than other companies when it was tough to make money. We did not have investors looking over our shoulder which allowed us to start investing back into the business, to get to customers with new products.”

Elkay’s president said the company examined its products and service need, and then looked at its customer base. The company was able to lock in major players, expanding into Home Depot, Lowe’s and Menards.

He said having 1,500 dealers carrying Elkay cabinets “helped us as the market picked up.”

Jahnke said the business has had some sales partners for more than 70 years. He noted Elkay has a third-generation partner in some cases, having worked with the grandfather and father of the current business owner.

He expects steady growth for Elkay as the remodeling market improves and housing starts are “reasonably strong” from the next four to six years.

“I am really proud to be at a company that has been privately held for 94 years,” Jahnke said. “We take great pride in that. The company has great owners, great employees and our products sold here are manufactured in the United States, produced with American labor.”

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