Many things about Richards-Wilcox have not changed since it opened in 1880. It still operates in the same original building and site in Aurora, IL. The company started out making barn door hardware like hinges and track for sliding doors - still does. Richards-Wilcox expanded to make conveyor systems and steel storage such as shelving and metal cabinetry. The technology of sliding doors, conveyor systems, and steel storage hasn’t changed much since that first year of production, jokes CEO Bob McMurtry.
“We've been building overhead conveyors since the 1910s or something,” McMurtry says. “But conveyors today, well, literally they perform the same function, right? They're either overhead or inverted and mounted on the floor, but they move product through a factory or an operation.”
So to stay relevant, the 143-year-old company adapts to the changing technology surrounding the products they make as an original equipment manufacturer.
“One of our niche markets is zoos and aquariums, and we've been doing zoo animal enclosures for more than 60 years,” notes McMurtry. “We just completed a project for SeaWorld in Abu Dhabi. It's the first SeaWorld built in 30 years and the only one ever built outside of the United States. It will be the largest aquarium in the world containing 6.6 million gallons of saltwater housing 68,000 marine animals. Richards-Wilcox was responsible for all of the animal enclosure gates, and all of the hardware was built here in Aurora … almost all of that hardware was unique and newly custom designed for SeaWorld to work with the animal caregivers, the architects, and the contractors to design new hardware to support that monumental development.”
Supply Chain Woes
McMurtry has also addressed multiple challenges facing Richards-Wilcox, namely supply chain issues, the economic and political environment of Illinois, and continuing to stay relevant. Even though the pandemic highlighted the supply chain challenges of the manufacturing industry across the country, McMurtry argues those challenges persist.
“The thing that we hear the most about is semiconductors,” McMurtry adds. “The government has made great efforts to pour tons of money, hundreds of millions of dollars, into semiconductors. But that's not the only industry that suffered. I think that while the highlighting of supply chain issues, has been recognized by the government, I don't think they're doing enough yet to try to make us manufacturers competitive.”
According to McMurtry, Illinois has notably high barriers of entry for manufacturers which has sent companies to other states such as Texas and Arizona, proclaimed business-friendly states.
“Our unemployment cost structure is dramatically higher than our neighbor states, Wisconsin, and Indiana,” says McMurtry. “Comparing worker's comp, insurance cost in Illinois versus Indiana, it's more than double in Illinois than it is in Indiana, for example, that's a significant economic barrier.”
Benefits of an Illinois Base
While McMurtry notes the challenges of operating in Illinois. He also emphasizes the opportunities celebrated in Illinois that his company might not try if it operated in other states.
“We have a deregulated utility structure, so we can buy electrical and get natural gas on a competitive market nationwide, and that allows us to have very favorable utility costs,” McMurtry says. “I think another thing that we are currently evaluating is Illinois has some of the most aggressive alternative and energy credits tax credits in place right now. So we are looking to install solar energy to try to help supplement our utility costs, and obviously, be a better corporate citizen and reduce our carbon footprint. We already recycle steel, recycle corrugated [cardboard], we have an environmentally friendly paint that we paint all our products with.”
According to McMurtry, most of Richards-Wilcox’s materials come from local distributors. With local sourcing, Richards-Wilcox has some products available within days of ordering while other, more complex projects may take eight to 12 weeks. Finally, McMurtry believes the company’s culture, history, and quality will continue to help Richards-Wilcox thrive in the future.
“We have three divisions under one roof, all manufactured in the same factory with union labor here in Aurora, Illinois,” McMurtry echoes. “It consists of those three divisions: the Aurora Storage Products division, Richards-Wilcox conveyors, and Richards-Wilcox hardware. … It's just a great legacy brand that has been a key corporate citizen in this area for 140 years. And, you know, I'm proud to be part of it, but I want to see this legacy continue for another 140 years.”