CRYSTAL LAKE – The work Pam Cumpata did to raise the profile of McHenry County, encourage workforce development and forge lasting partnerships won’t soon be forgotten, local leaders said.
Cumpata, 54, served as president of the nonprofit McHenry County Economic Development Corp. for eight years. During that time, she helped primary employers in many ways.
“As a business operating in five locations, four of which are outside McHenry County, we have interacted with many economic development teams, [and] none we have dealt with have been as proactive, professional and involved in building the business community as Pam,” said John Cain, CEO and board chairman of Scot Forge. “Her approach ranged from helping businesses expand, as she did for us four times, to getting literally thousands of McHenry County high school students to the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago while connecting business and McHenry Community College with the concept so our local students could dream about how their careers could start and flourish right here at home.
“She could always see the bigger picture – she understood if business was to thrive here, the talent pool had to be built. We and many other growing businesses here and [in] McHenry have benefited from her vision.”
Cumpata joined MCEDC in July 2009, a time when many local businesses were struggling to figure out how to cope with the effects of the Great Recession.
“The economy across the country was at an all-time low,” she said. “A lot of people were just trying to keep the lights on.”
Cumpata has a master’s degree in business administration from Loyola University in Chicago and attended Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management from 2005 to 2006, participating in the Women’s Senior Leadership Program. When she started at the MCEDC, she found that the organization had strayed from its mission and worked to get it back on target.
She frequently asked, “Why are we doing this?” and worked with the organization’s board to refocus on business retention and look at what the county needed to grow. At a time when few businesses were moving or expanding, she started a business visitation program to get to know and better figure out how to help primary employers throughout the county.
These one-on-one meetings with local executives made it clear that the county needed to better prepare both the young and old for the rapid technological advancements in manufacturing – a sector that accounts for nearly a third of the area’s gross domestic product and 13 percent of the county’s jobs, according to the 2017 fall labor report.
“McHenry County had a solid manufacturing base, but a lot of companies were struggling to find skilled workers,” Cumpata said.
Cumpata worked with local high schools and businesses to help bring more attention to manufacturing careers. That included getting coach buses to take 800 students to the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago. Cumpata insisted on coach buses rather than school buses for the event.
“I wanted those students to feel special, that this wasn’t just a normal school function,” she said. “And when those kids got off the bus, they stood taller. The students and teachers were just amazed.”
The buses – and show itself – reinforced a concept that MCEDC has been working to highlight for years: The manufacturing industry is changing, and so are manufacturing careers. The industry as a whole has been working to change the perception of manufacturing work from dirty jobs with little or no skill required to technological jobs that required skilled employees.
The first year MCEDC organized the trip to the show, 800 students attended. The next year, 1,200 local students went. By the third year, 3,200 students went to the show.
Those programs have continued in the years since, with local schools and other organizations developing similar programs that highlight manufacturing careers.
“It brought educators and business leaders together,” Cumpata said. “They saw the value in what we were doing.”
Cumpata also helped build partnership with other economic development and manufacturing groups throughout the region, including with organizations in Rockford, Chicago and Milwaukee.
She pushed for infrastructure improvements that would help area businesses stay at the forefront of emerging technology, including a fiber-optics communication network.
Cumpata’s work to raise the visibility of McHenry County as a place to do business was one of her crowning achievements, said state Sen. Pam Althoff, R-McHenry. Althoff said Cumpata had been a dynamic leader and champion for the county and its businesses.
“It will take a special person to fill her shoes,” Althoff said.
Jean Schober, vice president of the McHenry County Economic Development Corp., said Cumpata’s passion for the job quickly distinguished her. Cumpata earned a reputation as a bulldog for her dogged approach to helping local businesses, Schober said.
In addition to passion, Cumpata brought an ability to “think way outside of the box” and bring together groups to support common causes, Schober said.
Cumpata took a job as senior vice president with Blackhawk Bank in September. Leaving her MCEDC post wasn’t an easy decision, she said.
“It was terrible,” Cumpata said.
She said the challenge Blackhawk offered of building something new along with her conviction that the MCEDC was on the right path made the decision to move on somewhat easier.
Cumpata is optimistic about the future of the MCEDC and McHenry County.
“McHenry County needs to continue to be visible in regional projects,” she said.
McHenry County also would benefit from the kind of co-working spaces that have helped entrepreneurs and startups in other places.
“McHenry County still has so many things we should be proud of,” Cumpata said. “We have to think positive.”
The MCEDC board is searching for a new president and hopes to select a leader before the end of the year, MCEDC board Chairman Mark Saladin said.