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After 98 years in Chicago, Midland Metal Products moves to Hammond without 'looking back'

by Joseph S. Pete, The Times

An immigrant from Czechoslovakia came to the United States and founded Midland Metal Products at 700 S. Wabash Ave. in Chicago in 1921.

The metal fabrication company is now in its fourth generation of family leadership. Midland Metal Products, which uses American-made steel to make point-of-sale display cases for retail stores, has made a number of products over the years, such as display cases for cigarettes, hockey goalie masks and baseball umpire masks.

The company, which now focuses on display cases for products like gift cards, snack bars and pop bottles, recently relocated from Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood to Hammond. It took over the former Lear Corp. seat-making plant on 165th Street after the auto parts supplier relocated to a larger location in Hammond earlier this year.

"Nobody in my family looked back at Chicago," CEO Suzanne McDonald said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday. "We love the business environment here and the opportunities we have. Moving here was the best decision we ever (made)."

Midland Metal Products invested $7 million in the 112,000-square-foot plant, which it expanded by 15,000 square feet to add powder coating and printing operations. It employs about 135 workers there and is still hiring.

"We consider everybody who works for us, no matter nationality, race, sex or interest, to be family," she said. "I think that's what made us successful."

Midland Metal Products President Marcus McDonald said the company "desperately needed a new location" in order to continue to deliver products on time and at the right price to customers. He said the company faced too much uncertainty about its costs in Illinois.

"This location and this facility were the perfect solution," he said.

The company is one of just 2% of family-owned businesses that make it all the way to the fourth generation, McDonald said.

"According to the statistics, we're an anomaly," he said. "We're in a class of our own. We've been in three different locations in Chicago, so it appears every generation had to move once and I'm glad my job was done."

The company has persevered over the years by sticking to its values, he said.

"I don't consider myself as an owner of the company so much as a steward of ideas that pass through the family," he said. "Dedicate yourself to something great, work hard, please customers, treat employees with respect, reward those around you who make things happen. After 98 years, so far so good.

"We've simply moved this idea through history — the Great Depression, World War II, Korea, man on the moon, Vietnam, the Cold War, 9/11, the financial crisis. Through it all, the people of Midland were here making metal. That's pretty impressive. I'm confident we picked the right location to catapult us into the future."

Midland Metals Product Operations and Facilities Director BJ McDonald said the company has hired salespeople to look outside its current core business of retail sales displays, given the rise in ecommerce and the ongoing decline in brick-and-mortar stores. He said it has an efficient manufacturing operation and talented workforce that easily could serve other markets, such as potentially the automotive industry.

"That's how we stay in business," he said. "We have to not get too comfortable and be challenged all the time. You have to love change and not get stuck in a moat."

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said Midland Metal Product's arrival was a big win for the city.

"It was a huge accomplishment to keep Lear in our city when they were shopping around for a new location to put everything under one roof," he said. "Other communities were fighting for that. But it left another issue: what are we going to do with an excellent building left behind on 165th Street?

"This occupies a large industrial building that could have sat empty for months or for years, which is my greatest fear. Instead, we have a perfect example of how attractive Hammond is to investors and how business-friendly we are to development."

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