Whether the name “Iola Industries, Inc.” is familiar to every person in town, every Iolan has in some way been touched by its impact.
Formed in the summer of 1955 by 12 area businessmen dedicated to promoting Iola as a good place to do and build business, the group’s charter — “to benefit the community by increasing employment, payroll, [and] business volume…” — has been a success by any measure.
According to longtime board member Jim Gilpin, the volunteer-led group has been involved “with every local industry in Iola, with the exception of one or two, either by selling them the ground or the building or both.”
Even a partial list of the companies the group has drawn to Iola — Columbia Metal, Gates Corporation, Klein Tools, Haldex, Tramec, M & W Manufacturing, Russell Stover Candies, Herff Jones, Precision Pump, Sonic Equipment Company, Catalyst — reads like a primer on the recent industrial history of southeast Kansas.
Even with this successful track record, Gilpin understands the risks implied when you invite large-scale manufacturing employers to an area.
“The concern we have is that, like every place over the last hundred years who has had manufacturing, we will lose one of our major employers engaged in this sector every five to seven years, for one reason or another — changing consumer taste, a glut in that particular product, any number of reasons.
“The whole purpose of Iola Industries, then, was to create jobs and bring in new ones, recognizing that that phenomenon was going to be an ongoing concern. Our main goal was to provide low-cost overhead for startups or turnkey sites for existing industries.”
“We facilitate things,” said John McRae, the board’s president. “We make it happen. We don’t really care how it happens, as long as it happens. And once it’s underway, we step out of the way and start looking for something else to work on. That’s our sole role. If we create jobs, then we feel we’ve been successful.”
However, a worry that surfaces at Iola Industries’ monthly meetings — and a potential impediment to the goal of bringing in new jobs — is the current shortfall of qualified workers to fill jobs already here.
“Our concern is that if our employers can’t find workers, sooner or later they’re going to go someplace else,” McRae said. “Within the last year or so we’ve had several plant managers express concern: ‘Do you really want to bring a new business into town, because our labor market is pretty well saturated?’”
“Since Russell Stover came, we’ve been at full employment.”
“You hear some people around here saying ‘We need more jobs.’ Hell no,” Gilpin said, laughing. “What we need is more people!”
The memory of Haldex is fresh in the minds of many Iolans. The brake plant subtracted hundreds of jobs from the local economy when it shut its doors in 2010.
Neither of them worry that Gates or Russell Stover will follow suit anytime soon, but the fact that both companies’ owners are headquartered elsewhere, doesn’t make either McRae or Gilpin sleep any easier.
“We’ve asked repeatedly if we’re vulnerable,” said Gilpin, “and we get the feedback: ‘No, you’re not.’ But you have to wonder.”
DESPITE ITS mid-century beginnings, Iola Industries has been nimble in adjusting to the changing times.
For starters, said Gilpin, two years ago the group recognized the increasing burden being placed on its all-volunteer staff and decided to hire — in conjunction with the City and the County — David Toland and Thrive Allen County to be an agent for economic development in the area.
“It’s essential if you want to reinvent yourself, to have qualified and full-time help, and we were just lucky that David had the credentials he did. It’s been wonderful. Every month we get an update on the files that have been opened and the projects they’re working on.”
The association with Thrive also signals a recent move in the life of Iola Industries, toward a more countywide outlook.
“I think we need to expand our base,” reasons McRae. “I think the bigger your base is, the more assets you can sell to people.”
“Different parts of the county have different strengths,” said Gilpin. He lists Moran’s active rail line, LaHarpe’s citywide fiber optic Internet service, Humboldt’s active volunteer base as well as its rail access to the Monarch cement plant. “So working together as a county, if we would lose a major employer — which we will, just as we have in the last 60 years — we will be in a position, as a county, to replace that employer with another one.”
However, what that next employer looks like — given the shared anxiety of entrusting a community’s economic health to a corporation whose decisions are made half a world away — may change.
According to Gilpin, two years ago Iola Industries hired a consultant to do a study of the business climate in the area. “His conclusion was that, as a county and a community, we’d be better served by trying to grow our own new jobs rather than spend lots of money pursuing big employers as we have in the past.
We like family-owned businesses here. Looking back, it’s been the people who have started their own business that have been our best corporate citizens. Our model is B&W Trailer Hitches, which was a local operation. Joe Works started that in his garage and now has 350 people working out there.”
Allen County College’s new entrepreneurship program (see Thursday’s Iola Register) was launched, in large part, on the basis of this study.
If the strategies employed by Iola Industries have changed, its mission of creating and sustaining jobs in Iola hasn’t. And neither has the loyalty of its volunteers, who, like Gilpin, reject in all of their efforts the easy fatalism that said rural towns are dying.
“Small towns are challenged, sure — just like every city. Detroit has the same problem that Iola does. Every generation has to provide the leadership and creativity to reinvent itself. And some do a good job at it; a lot of them don’t. We’re no different than the rest of the world.”
(Tuesday: Local industries often struggle to find suitable employees.)