Ask most gear manufacturers about the company’s assets and you’ll get a list of the grinders, shapers, and cutters found on their shop floor. Ask Mike McKernin — sales manager for Circle Gear & Machine Company, Inc. — and the answer is different. “It’s our employees,” he says.
“When we hire somebody we do our best to train them, and to keep them. When one of our customers calls with a repeat order, there’s a pretty good chance that the machinist who produced their original piece will be working on it again,” McKernin says. “They know what needs to be done for that particular client, and it’s hard to put a price on that kind of service and expertise. You can have all the equipment in the world, but it’s the people producing the product that makes a company successful.”
On average, employees have spent 15 years with the company. Founded in 1951, Circle Gear was originally located just west of downtown Chicago before moving to the south side of the city. In 1993 Circle purchased the property of one of its vendors, Scot Forge, which resulted in its move to Cicero, Illinois, where it is currently based. In addition the company has grown physically, due in part to its acquisition of companies such as Lee Tool — which performed gear tooth grinding — in 2002, and the gearbox rebuilding company Quality Reducer Services in 2003. “These acquisitions were a perfect match for us, because it allowed us to marry our own experience in loose gearing with expanded rebuild services,” says McKernin. “So we can handle just about anything that our customers might need, whether that be manufacturing gearing according to their specifications or reverse-engineering existing gears or gearboxes. Plus, being based just outside of Chicago, any additional services we need, such as heat treating or specialized machining, are all just a stone’s throw away.”
Of the many things the company is known for, two are its breakdown repair service and reverse-engineered products, both enhanced by the employee’s aggregate experience. “A customer can bring us a shaft that’s worn down and out of operation, and we have the ability to calculate the dimensions of the part–including its size and tolerance — and expedite the job in order to get them back to work in no time. Part of the reason we’re so good at that is because of the experience found in the engineering department,” McKernin says. “Ed Kaske heads up engineering, and his contribution has been key to our continued success. Ed’s experience with reverse-engineered parts sets us apart from our competition.”
In addition to its employees, the company’s team consists of Al Knez — owner, president, and son-in-law of Frank Reid, who purchased Circle Gear in 1967 — and Scott Reid, the founder’s grandson, who’s involved in production and has been with the company for the past 23 years. “The management team at Circle can run every machine on the floor, so we’re able to step in and help out whenever it’s necessary,” McKernin says.
With more than 45,000 square feet of manufacturing space, and customers found coast to coast, Circle Gear is poised to make the most of an improving economic environment. “We survived the hard times after September 11th, and during that time we reviewed our entire operation to figure out exactly where we stood–what areas we were doing well in, as well as where we could stand to improve things a little, including working toward ISO certification,” McKernin says. “In a period where most companies were stagnant, we expanded our capacity and started to plan for the future. The fact is that if you’re not moving forward, you’re dead in the water, and we always want to be streamlining our processes so that we’re working as intelligently and efficiently as possible. At the same time, you want to be looking for new opportunities, too, in terms of the areas you’d like to move into.”
One area of growth that Circle Gear has high hopes for involves producing straight and spiral bevel gears. “A couple of years ago we purchased all of the machines, tooling, and inspection equipment we’d need to produce these gears,” he says, “so we can now cut bevels up to 24 inches in diameter. And it’s just amazing how that sector of our business has taken off. We want to be very cautious while we’re moving into this–to learn what we need to along the way in order to manufacture the best possible product–but we can already see straight and spiral bevel gears becoming a pretty significant part of our production activities.”
No matter how the company grows, or in which direction, there’s one thing its leaders will keep in mind: “This is a gear manufacturing company, that’s what we do,” McKernin says, “and we’ll never lose sight of that. But you’ve got to be flexible and keep your eyes open for new opportunities because things are always changing, and you’ve got to be able to respond to those changes.”