Andrew Strang | Photo by Igor Studenkov

A hundred years ago, the Harrington & King Perforating Company began building a new factory in a growing industrial cluster in the southwest corner of Austin, near what was then a branch of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. 

The company specialized in a somewhat obscure, but important niche – cutting patterns of holes into sheets of metal. Today, perforating is widely used in everything from store shelves to microwave ovens and vehicle parts. The factory opened in 1924, and it has remined at 5655 W. Fillmore St. ever since.

H&K Exterior | Photo by Igor Studenkov

It almost didn’t make it. In 2018, a group of investors bought the company out of bankruptcy, invested in its Chicago and Tennessee plants and purchased a plant in Pennsylvania. Now known as H&K Perforating Companies, the new owners set out to better engage Austin and other nearby communities – something Andrew Strang, the company president, said is slowly bearing fruit.

The manufacturer is located in the Roosevelt/Cicero Industrial Corridor – an industrial area that stretches along the south side of the Eisenhower Expressway and is clustered around rail lines in Austin and North Lawndale, along or near Roosevelt Road and Cicero Avenue. Unlike many Chicago manufacturing districts, it isn’t a Planned Manufacturing District – a designation that comes with stronger zoning protections against non-industrial use.

Strang said his company stayed for the same reason many other businesses in the corridor stay, and why it still occasionally gets some newcomers – the proximity to the expressway. Over the decades, Harrington & King built up a good reputation, which was just one of the many reasons the investors decided to buy its assets.

“[There are] truly not that many companies in the country that do what we do, as far as perforating is concerned,” Strang said. “There was real value in the stickiness of the customers that remained on the books, that stuck with the company, the skill set of the employees, on both the production side and engineering side, and even the sales side, and just the long-term relations with the customers.”

The new owners invested in the Austin plant, fixing the water main, replacing the boiler, and adding LED lights – which, Strang said, made the factory safer and reduced their workers compensation premiums.

“When we purchased it, when you went in, it looked like a cave,” he recalled.

Strang said that, over the decades, the factory’s relationship with the community has “ebbed and flowed.’ He said that H&K was conscious of the fact that Austin has a higher unemployment rate than Chicago as a whole. In the last eight months, they have been ramping up the outreach.

“Within the Austin neighborhood, we’re really trying to grow the number of employees from the area,” Strang said. “You’ll see our company on park benches, bus shelters.”

He said that H&K joined the Lawndale Business Renaissance Association, they worked with area churches and have been talking “pretty regularly” with Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), whose ward includes most of the Austin portion of the Roosevelt/Cicero corridor. 

Strang said anyone interested in applying for a job at the Austin plant should reach out to Erica Dyes, the company’s human resources manager. He said that, if the careers page doesn’t have any jobs that fit their skillset, they should reach out anyway, since there is always a lag between when positions become vacant and when the job openings get posted.

“Two of our most recent employees [who] are from surrounding areas, are from Austin,” Strang said. “I like to think we’re making the impact.”

In recent years, manufacturers throughout the Chicago area, including some West Side based manufacturers, raised alarm about the fact that their workforce is aging, and they struggle to find younger replacements. Strang said, “we have a lot of experienced workers in our plant, and that means that they’re older, and there’s a lot of knowledge and skill.” 

He said they are reaching out to local trade schools, and they’ve been working with Chicago Public Schools’ Save Haven program, where faith-based organizations and nonprofits throughout Chicago provide afterschool “academic and recreational activities.” The program includes a long list of West Side churches.

“What we’re trying to do is branch out programming a little bit, and we’re trying to offer on–the-job training to get high school credit,” Strang said. 

He said there are two things that ensured that the company lasted so long and continues to grow under the newest owners – the skills and experience they bring to the table and their relationships with customers.

“We are the largest independently held perforating company in the country, and we take a lot of pride in that,” he said. “We take a partner-focused approach with our customers. That really defines who we are in the perforating world.”

To mark the upcoming anniversary, H&K is holding a back-to-school festival in front of the plant on Aug. 18 from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. The festival will include school supply giveaways, and a performance by Jesse White Tumblers. This, too, is part of giving back to the community.

 “This back-to-school event marks not only the start of a new academic year but also a wonderful opportunity for us to give back to the community that has supported us throughout the years,” he said.

Correction: The earlier version of the article misspelled H&K Perforating President and COO’s surname. it is Andrew Strang, not Andrew Strand.

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...