Sunday, May 10, 2009

Bill Cook Comes Back Home to Canton

He spent his first grade of school in nine different schools in nine towns, following his traveling salesman father. But, by the third grade his dad bought three grain elevators near Canton, IL and the moving around was over. Bill Cook spent the rest of his formative years there. At the age of 32, Bill Cook started Cook, Inc with $1,500 in a spare bedroom in a $165/month apartment in Bloomington, IN. Today, Bill Cook is a multi-billionaire, having grown Cook into a leader in the medical device industry.

Cook is best known for his incredible restoration projects in French Lick and West Baden, IN. I’ve written a number of blogs on them, that you can read here.

I was back in Canton this past week doing a talk at their Economic Development annual meeting. I was supposed to do the event in 2008, but was bumped by Bill Cook who was back home in Canton. I would have bumped me, too!

Canton was largely a one industry town, having grown up around The Plow Works, a 33 acre site adjacent to their downtown. Plows were made in Canton from 1852 until International Harvester, which bought the business from the local owners in 1919, closed it down in the early 80s.

Mayor Kevin Meade told me, “The whole town revolved around that plant. Our high school nickname was the Plow Boys and later the Little Giants, named after one of their product lines. The company whistle, which now sits on top of city hall, blew seven times per day and literally ran the whole pace of the town. It was incredibly devastating when they closed down.”

I had visited Canton in the mid 90s to look at the old IH plant and site, but it was well beyond our capabilities at the time. And, today the site still sits there, having gradually been cleaned up from its brownfield status.

And, it might still be an empty site in 2020, but for a letter Mark Rothert, head of ED, wrote to Bill Cook a couple of years ago. Cook invited Rothert and Mayor Meade over to Bloomington to talk about Canton. From that initial meeting and further visits, Cook decided to return home to refurbish the old Randolph Building (shown in picture), a $2 million restoration that opens this month.

Later this year, a new Cook Group factory that will hire 300, opens on the old Plow Works site. My guess is that future investments are on the way for Canton, from the hometown boy who made good and returned home to invest.

After my talk, an elderly lady approached me and said, “I went to school with Bill Cook. We graduated in 1949 and will be celebrating our 60th class reunion in September. I used to date Bill and didn’t think he would ever make more than $1,000/month. I was sure wrong! My one regret in life, is that I wasn’t nicer to him in high school.”

My question to the audience at my talk was, “How many future Bill Cooks do you have in Canton. What are you doing to nurture them into future entrepreneurs? What are you doing to stay in touch with them after they leave home?”

Those are the key questions that every small town should be asking themselves. It could be the difference between having empty buildings and sites, or having vibrant, economic activity in the future.