Success the result of generosity

Managing Editor Lisa Towers talks to one bearing manufacturer who has gotten the generosity ball rolling.

By Lisa Towers, managing editor

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If your boss handed you a check for $35,000 — in addition to your regular paycheck — what would you say?

Employees of Peer Bearing Co. in Waukegan, Ill. (www.peerbearing.com), were speechless when the company's owners, the Spungen family, did just that. Back in September, the family-owned company was sold to SKF, and to celebrate, the owners threw a party for their 230 employees. Handing out an extremely generous bonus check to each employee, commensurate with how long each had worked for the company, was the family's way of saying thank you for each person's loyalty and dedication. They enclosed the gifts in hand-written notes.

"The employees were in total shock," says Laurence Spungen, former owner of the company. "They thanked me. Many people were so joyous and so surprised. You can tell they have a warm feeling toward our family."

When the family began to plan for the eventual sale of the company more than a year ago, they collectively decided to set aside more than $6 million just for these bonuses, out of revenues of $100 million they made last year. The result was teary-eyed employees who appreciated not just the money, but the benefactors behind it. "We've always tried to make the working environment comfortable and clean," Spungen says. "We try to bring up people's morale. Here, feelings are important. People are treated like family."

These are sentiments you don't hear from management very often, and they're certainly not backed up with hefty bonus checks. Consequently, the Spungen family's method of giving back to their employees has made big news. More than 400,000 hits to Peer Bearing's company Web site (www.peerbearing.com) and countless media interviews later, Laurence Spungen says he was just doing the right thing. "I do what I think is necessary," he adds. "That's my only read on it. There was no other agenda. Just do what you think is the right thing to do."

That he did the right thing during a recessionary year and while financial alarm bells are sounding at thousands of manufacturing facilities across the country is partly what has given this story wings. Like most Americans, Spungen says he had no idea that the subprime mortgage mess was about to hit our economy — and the world economy — hard.

Months of newscasts delivering details of unimaginable corporate greed have stoked our collective cynicism and grown a sense of panic. Government bailouts, handouts and help for seemingly everyone but the average worker threaten to dull our sympathies and crush our faith. Many wonder whether American manufacturing as we know it will continue to exist. We question whether we'll be able to maintain our high standard of living. Is anyone thinking about those who work hard to keep our facilities running?

"It's because there's so much greed going on," Spungen says. "People have called to thank me, saying this generosity has restored their faith in mankind."

It seems the Spungen family would have made the same decision to take care of the people who have helped take care of their company, recession or not. "It's the mentality of sharing," he says. "What makes anyone successful? You have to have a team. Sharing is a good thing. The trick is not in making money; the trick is in giving it away."

Bonuses are not the only vehicle the Spungen family has used to distribute some of their good fortune. Several years ago, they established the Florence and Laurence Spungen Family Foundation (http://foundationcenter.org/grantmaker/spungen/), and one of their favorite charities is One Step at a Time (www.onestepcamp.org), which is a camp for children with cancer. A lymphoma survivor for 28 years, Spungen can easily relate to the families of children with cancer. "We lose kids every year at the camp," he says. It's taught him to "be thankful for what you have."

When he was diagnosed with lymphoma at age 50, his doctors said he'd live just seven months. Now, at 78, Spungen thinks of himself as being a young guy with many more adventures ahead of him. He has several other business interests, including being the owner of Peer Chain Co., and his family still works with the SKF-owned company that Spungen's father started in 1941. "Every day is important," he says. "So let's not be so selfish."

E-mail Managing Editor Lisa Towers at ltowers@putman.net.

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