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November 9, 2014 - A New Century

Mechanical Devices turns 100, prepares for transition

Pat Shaver, The Pantagraph
November 9, 2014

BLOOMINGTON – Families fight, argue and forgive.

The siblings who run Mechanical Devices Company in Bloomington and their children admit they fight, but agree that at the dinner table, the fighting ends.

The family business turns 100 this year and will enter into a fourth generation of family ownership. It was started by Frank Earl Sperry in 1914 in Aurora. The company moved to Bloomington in 1928.

Now, Mechanical Devices is run by Carol Kant, Linda Fillingham and Mark Sperry, siblings who grew up in the business started by their grandfather. Carol Kant’s daughter, Austin Herring, 29, Linda Fillingham’s son, Chas Fillingham, 27, and Mark Sperry’s son, Tyler Sperry, 24, plan to take over the business in the next eight years.

“If you can’t yell and scream at each other and then go out to dinner that night, you’re not successful,” Linda Fillingham said.

The company, located at 2005 G.E. Road, Bloomington, has about 270 employees who run machines that make parts for trains, semi-trucks, tractors and elevators, supplying to companies like Caterpillar, Inc.

Not only are there relatives running the company, about 42 percent of their employees are related to someone else who works at Mechanical Devices.

“Our parents taught us to really have respect for our employees,” Mark Sperry said. “We work out our differences. I think the three of us work so well together. Our past experiences have helped a lot.”

It has been tough for the company to hire employees locally, though.

Vocational schools, trade schools and manufacturing companies that had apprenticeships have stopped offering them, Linda Fillingham said, making it difficult to find workers in Bloomington-Normal.

About 75 percent of their employees live outside of Bloomington-Normal in surrounding communities.

“Our government has pushed everybody to go to college. There are people who like to do hands-on work. Not everybody is cut out for college,” she said.

In 2010, the company started it own training program called Mechanical Devices University with a professor. The class teaches hands-on training and allows new employees to shadow supervisors.

“I grew up and had a lot of pride in the business. It interested me a lot. It’s a unique experience walking into a company knowing that you could one day own it,” Tyler Sperry said.

The siblings agreed that they would hand over the business when they turn 70. The first one, Linda Fillingham, turns 70 in eight years.

“It is going to be hard for us to transition out,” Mark Sperry said.

The cousins all went to college before starting to work at the family business.

“Our grandpa was a huge inventor and entrepreneur. I’d like us to be a part of that legacy and try to fill his shoes, but they are big shoes to fill,” Austin Herring said.

Frank Earl Sperry died in 1955. Ownership of the company was eventually passed on to Daniel Sperry, who is still involved in the company, and his wife M. Irene Sperry, parents of Mark Sperry, Linda Fillingham and Carol Kant.

“We tried not to pressure our kids to follow in our footsteps. We want them to have the passion for this,” Mark Sperry said.

In the early years, Frank Early Sperry designed and built three-color inking attachments for letter-presses. He also designed the “Battle Hand Pump.” which was a rotary box piston pump for a vacuum.

Between 1928 and 1935, Mechanical Devices worked with C.U. Williams of Williams Oil-O-Matic, later known as The Eureka Company, where he helped engineer pumps for oil burners and did machining for the company.

In 1989, with 38 employees, Mechanical Devices moved from 915 E. Oakland Avenue to a new 75,000 square-foot factory on 20 acres on G.E. Road.

Sam Price has been with the company for 38 years.

The computer numeric control operator said he’s had a positive experience working there.

In 1968 he lost an arm in an accident and said he couldn’t find a job.

“I had trouble getting a job and these people gave me a job. I really appreciate it,” Price said.

Over the years, the machinery has gotten easier to use, he said.

“We used to run manual machines, now you just push buttons,” Price said.

Another long-time employee, John Rechder, subcontract supervisor, started at Mechanical Devices 37 years ago.

“It’s been really good. I was 28 years old when I walked in here and I didn’t know anything about manufacturing,” he said.

“Aside from just people growth, we’ve seen tremendous changes in business and the machines we work on,” Rechder said. “Today they are very precise and exact machines.”



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