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Tara Lachapelle/MEDILL

A Funk Linko employee welds a steel train frame part for major customer National Railway Equipment.

Chicago Heights locomotive frame maker comes out of recession stronger, with new ideas

by Tara Lachapelle
March 16, 2010


Tara Lachapelle/MEDILL

CEO Vicky Linko holds up a World War II-era newspaper article discussing the company's receipt of the Army-Navy "E" Award for manufacturing some war equipment.


Tara Lachapelle/MEDILL

Blueprints for a Marathon Oil gas station sign show the height and steel thickness of the pole fabricated by Funk Linko.


Tara Lachapelle/MEDILL

A steel pole for a local McDonald's sign dries by the fans.


Tara Lachapelle/MEDILL

The base of a train frame records the date of a smoke test performed to check for any leaks in the steel welding. The slight hump is the camber, which keeps the frame from collapsing inward.

When Vicky Linko was growing up in her family’s two-room home in Weslaco, Texas, she never thought she’d be a chief executive officer.

In fact, the CEO of Funk Linko Inc., a steel fabricator that's a survivor in American manufacturing, started out cleaning the company’s bathrooms and pulling weeds from the yard.

“You can never forget where you came from,” she said. “I grew up in a house with dirt floors and took showers outside with a hose.”

Today Linko, 61, runs this Chicago Heights company that builds steel sign poles and rail industry products. It’s one of the last small businesses in an old manufacturing concentration called the Electric District.

“This area has become very depressed,” she said. “This used to be a very, very busy place. I had 32 employees. Now I’m down to 10.”

Nevertheless, Linko is certain the family business will recover from the recession. After all, they’ve been through many years of economic highs and lows—85 to be exact.

Her husband Pat’s grandfather, James Powers, bought Funk Forging Co. from the two Funk brothers in 1925. After being in the Linko family for four generations, the company took on the family name in 2004. And, at 92 years old, Pat Linko’s grandmother Hazel is still working in the office. Pat himself runs the sales and marketing.

The company didn’t always make 100-foot Home Depot poles and locomotive components though. It started with much smaller signs, the ones you’d find swinging at an old gas station.

As years progressed, Linko explained, the U.S. Army and Navy were stationed next door to the company during World War II. “Back then, everything that was done in the steel industry was devoted to the war efforts,” she said.

It was at that time Funk Linko began manufacturing signs for Cities Service Co., now CITGO Petroleum Corp. “Their signs were a green color and had a clover leaf,” she said. “But because it was the same pigment used for all the military stuff during the war, they had to change their sign orders with us to black.”

The company received five Army-Navy “E” awards for excellence in the production of war equipment, such as parts for ships. One of the plaques still hangs in Linko’s office.

“The history of our company is just so interesting,” she said, pointing out the large company scrapbook of old awards, receipts and newspaper articles dating back to the '20s.

When she married into the Linko family in 1967, she had been working at a nursing home. She recalls a day she showed up a little late for work, and her supervisor said to her, “Well, you know you’re late. If you really want to not worry about showing up on time, then you might as well have your own business.”

Linko still laughs at the irony of the comment. And so, after leaving the nursing home, she told her husband she wanted to help out at the family business, cleaning the office and taking care of the yard.

“That’s how I got started,” she said. “Then I started getting my nose in things. I’d listen to when they were making phone calls, and I’d start pitching ideas.”

That’s when she suggested tapping into work with the oil and hospitality companies, a move that launched Funk Linko into thousands of jobs making sign poles for big names like Marathon Oil Corp., BP PLC and Royal Dutch Shell PLC.

“Then we got involved with the fast foods, the hospitalities, the airports. And work really took off,” she said.

Later, in fact just three years ago, Funk Linko was asked by Illinois-based National Railway Equipment Co., whose customers include CSX Corp., Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., Union Pacific Corp. and the U.S. Army, whether the small company could build steel locomotive and freight train frames.

“I looked at the prints and said, ‘Oh my God, there’s no way we can do that,’” Linko recalled. But after sleeping on it, she decided to take the chance and build the massive train frame.

“It was a nightmare,” she said, laughing. They had lost the camber, a barely noticeable but very important hump in the base of the frame that keeps it from collapsing.

“Then we found a unique way of doing the cambers, and the rest is history,” she said. Since then, the company has built more than 200 locomotive and train frames, some of which have been shipped overseas to the Caribbean Islands, South America and Saudi Arabia.

Mike Zerafa of National Railway Equipment said Funk Linko helped it get out of a jam initially, and then a strong business relationship was formed. “I find that if you want a complex project handled properly, they take it from start to finish,” Zerafa said. “It’s a family business so they treat you like part of the family.”

Since sustaining U.S. manufacturing is important to Linko, she said about 85 percent to 90 percent of the steel the company buys is U.S.-made. And even during the recession when Funk Linko’s sales fell about 40 percent from 2007 to 2009, she said it continued to buy American-made materials.

“Those are things that probably hurt you as a company, but I want to buy American-made,” she said. “And I’m very passionate about bringing manufacturing back to our Midwest, where it was before.”

Despite a difficult economy and a withering steel industry undermined by imports, Funk Linko is holding strong and even has a new project on the horizon.

In 2009 the company’s sales were just over $5 million. Now, with Linko’s passion for green technology spearheading the projects, it’s tapping into the wind power industry by making the tubular steel towers that support the mammoth turbines.

In fact, she's planning to convert the vacant land across the street from her office building into a new home for wind turbines and a green building. “We find it very challenging, we love it,” she said.

The company has put up four wind turbines so far, but there are more to come, she said. She’s hoping that with new orders she anticipates arriving this year, she’ll be able to take back some of the 22 employees she had to lay off.

“I have a great vision of building a green energy coalition with various area companies and bring them back here to Chicago Heights,” she said. “Let’s recharge the area.”

Linko is also excited about the high-speed rail project that may be coming to the Midwest with some federal stimulus funding. “I find it very intriguing and I know that it will probably happen,” she said. “I hope it is fair and they really use small businesses like us. We’re the backbone of this country.”

Linko said it will probably take about four years before the company gets back to its pre-recession sales figures of $8.7 million, but she’s staying positive. “We’ve reached 85 years, but I want it to reach 100,” she said.

All three of her children have worked for the company, and she said she knows they’ll want to take it over down the road.

“I’ve come a long way, and that’s why I believe in the American dream,” she said. “After you’ve gone through all this, and you’ve seen the light at the end of the tunnel, why would you want to give up? You want to keep moving forward.”