CRYSTAL LAKE – They turned out more than 500 strong to see him – CEOs, politicians, business owners and managers, teachers and grade-school classmates.
Doug Oberhelman came home Thursday night, and McHenry County made sure he felt welcome.
The 1971 Woodstock High School graduate was the keynote speaker at the 20th annual McHenry County Economic Development Corp.’s annual dinner. He was greeted by three Caterpillar vehicles outside the building, then welcomed by displays from Caterpillar suppliers inside the Holiday Inn conference area.
“It sorta took my breath away,” Oberhelman said. “This has always been home. I saw classmates at the end, one young woman I went to grade school with, it just took my breath away.”
The dinner generally draws some of the top business leaders in McHenry County to discuss the highs and lows of the past year. This year, though, Woodstock’s Jerry Beckus was among the crowd.
The 80-year-old was Oberhelman’s first boss, working as the circulation manager for the Woodstock Sentinel when Oberhelman w a job as a paperboy.
“Dougie was 11 years old at the time, and he had great family support,” Beckus recalled. “He was an exceptional kind of guy.”
Oberhelman introduced Beckus to the crowd at the start of his speech, saying he had not seen his first boss in more than 45 years, but recognized him right away. He told the audience that he still had the yellow bag he used as a paperboy, as well as the bicycle he used to ride.
“That bike still hangs in my garage, and I see it every day when I go to work,” he said. “That time taught me to collect my own money, how to handle people, how to be on time.”
Also in the audience was R.B. Thompson, Oberhelman’s high school math teacher, and Joel Zorica of All World Machinery Supply, whose mother became best friends with Oberhelman’s mother, Donna.
“He was pretty good friends with my older brothers; they were about seven or eight years older than me, but we reconnected about three years ago,” Zorica said.
Zorica’s personal connection to Oberhelman helped his company earn a chance to pitch a product to Caterpillar and become a supplier to the Fortune 500 firm. And yet, Zorica said Oberhelman had one quality that person after person described about him Thursday night.
“He is a down-to-earth guy,” Zorica said. “Myself, the president of our company and the general manager went to see Doug at his office for lunch, and just talk. He comes off as a very regular person.”
That trait, Oberhelman said, was a result of a good upbringing.
“When I was on the high school swimming team, my dad [Ernie] would run along the top and tell me how far I was behind the leader,” Oberhelman said with a smile. “They both, always, were my biggest fans. They were always there for me.”
EDC President Pam Cumpata introduced Oberhelman by relaying a story about writing a letter to him to see if he would be interested in speaking at the event. Cumpata followed up with a phone call to his assistant, and was stunned when she warmly greeted Cumpata by name.
The letter was written across by Oberhelman with the words, “Yes, let’s do this.” It’s a letter he brought with him to the dinner Thursday.
“There’s lots of memories here, and I’m so thrilled to be here,” he told the crowd.
The speech talked about the success Caterpillar has achieved since the depths of the recession, with growth of 40 percent in profits and 40 percent in sales in its most recent quarter.
Projected sales for this year are $58 billion, up from $52 billion in pre-recession 2008 highs and $32 billion in 2009 lows.
The company’s stock reached its all-time high of more than $116 a share under Oberhelman’s guidance. But it was the company’s hiring practice that its leader was quick to tout.
“I am so pleased and proud that since the recession, we’ve added 30,000 jobs around the world, and we’ve added 12,000 American jobs since the beginning of 2010,” he said. “We’re quite proud to do that, and we’ll need to do that to keep up with a growing world.”
Oberhelman hit on his favorite topics of the day, pushing for corporate and individual tax reform to spur the economy, backing free-trade agreements to open the markets to the 95 percent of world consumers who live outside the U.S., and stressing the need for increased educational skills to better train the work force, as well as providing vocational opportunities for those who did not fit a regular four-year college track.
In answering questions from the audience after his speech, Oberhelman pushed for increases to infrastructure through a long-term transportation bill; he discussed the vital need for Illinois to reform its workers’ compensation laws, tax codes, and state pension system to remain competitive; and said hastily drafted financial regulation reform was hampering credit markets for many mid-sized and small companies in Caterpillar’s supply chain.
“It’s somewhat intimidating talking to, basically a Fortune 5 guy,” said MCEDC Chairman of the Board Jim Thorpe, who sat with Oberhelman for dinner at the main table. “He understands basic success. And he’s able to convey that whether he’s talking to a whole room, or five people at a table.”
Thorpe, who said he was retiring from the EDC board after the dinner, said seeing a packed house for his final event was rewarding.
“I’ve been with this organization a long time ... and to see this room filled is inspirational,” he said.
“It shows how much the county as a whole wants to work together.”
Thorpe also credited Cumpata for leading the event.
“Pam Cumpata has done a fantastic job at the EDC,” he said. “She has a real understanding of how to work with commercial clients and be able to talk to CEOs. She has a lot of respect around here.”