We’re old fashioned — but progressive.” That’s exactly how Joe Ornig, president of Aldon® Company, Inc., characterizes the company he leads.
With deep roots in the railroad industry dating back more than 100 years, Waukegan, IL-based Aldon Company has charted a steady course in the manufacturing and distribution of a wide variety of railroad safety and track repair tools.
Ornig spoke recently with Grain Journal to tell more about the company’s rich history in the railroad industry, as well as its secrets to longevity.
Aldon was founded in 1904 by Emil W.K. Roe, a railway supply salesman who decided to quit his job and start his own business.
“It’s in the great American tradition of individual enterprise,” says Ornig. Roe picked a good location to start his business. Chicago was the rail hub of the country, with more tracks radiating in all directions than any other city.
In searching for a name for his new firm, Roe hit upon Aldon. It had the advantage of being at the front of the telephone book. According to family legend, the name was born when a friend of Roe’s asked if a new product had been completed. “It’s all done,” Roe replied. The name Aldon stuck, and it is a registered trademark of the company.
Until the 1950s, Aldon’s main market was the railroads. The product line was limited to rail-cutting saws, rerailers, hand car movers, and railroad car stops. In1955, seeking to diversify the product line, the company’s third president, Ralph Switzer, patented a new type of wheel chock for freight cars, one made in cast steel with replaceable steel spurs to keep the chock in place on the rail. This product line, says Ornig, opened up the industrial rail-using market and led to substantial growth.
The advent of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1971 increased the demand by industries for railroad safety products. In 1975, the company built a new factory and offices in Waukegan, 40 miles north of Chicago.
“We like to say that we are one of those few businesses that actually benefited from government regulations,” Ornig jokes.
Products and Services
Ornig says the company offers a greater variety of railroad safety and track repair tools than any other supplier. “This steady increase in product diversity within our specialized field has been deliberate,” says Ornig, who spends much of his time in product development. “Railroading is the same everywhere in its essentials, and anyone who ships or receives materials by rail needs the same basic products, so why not offer the greatest array?”
Although the company resells a number of rail-related products, it remains primarily a manufacturer. Aldon’s core products are railroad wheel chocks, derails, warning signs and holders, and railroad car stops. “Wheel chocks are what we are best known for,” says Ornig.“Our second most popular product line is derails.”
For 40 years, Aldon sold derails made by others. “By 2008, our derail business had grown to the point that we decided to begin manufacturing our own. In 2010, we patented our lightweight Sabertooth® portable derail, which features tool-free installation and a safety hook that bites into the tie to keep the derail in place,” Ornig says.
Even after 115 years in business, Aldon remains “remarkably youthful” in its desire for product innovation. “We are continually surprised at the possibilities for new products that will make for safer railcar handling,” says Ornig. “We encourage our customers to suggest ideas to us.”
A small company, Aldon has impressive engineering capabilities. “Our chief engineer, Mike Lannan, is a graduate of the renowned Milwaukee School of Engineering,” says Ornig. “customers can talk directly to him on technical matters.” Aldon also partners with a licensed engineer whose firm provides design and manufacturing services.
“Marketing is as important as product innovation,” says Ornig. “Our catalog is the crown jewel of our advertising program. We get compliments on it. Printed literature designed well still carries a big impact.”
The Aldon website lists nearly 800 catalog numbers. The Aldon EXPRESS, a company newspaper, combines product news with railroad history. Aldon advertises in a dozen trade publications. “In good years and bad years, we keep our name before the public,” he says. Aldon supports a large national network of distributors. Even overseas, the Aldon brand is known. “Our export distributor is our biggest customer,” he adds.
Keys to Success
The company’s business philosophy is simple: Be fair to your employees, customers, and suppliers, and you will have their loyalty. Ornig also points out that in Aldon’s 115-year history, the company has had only four presidents. “How many companies can claim that? Management continuity has something to do with a company keeping its reputation and surviving,” says Ornig, who has been with the company for 42 years and president since 2000. He adds that many of Aldon’s employees have 20 or more years of service.
Aldon believes in responding promptly to customer requests. “We don’t use automated answering services here,” says Ornig. “Our ‘menus’ never change.” Instead, when a customer calls Aldon, they are helped by a live person. “We wish more companies would follow our example of direct access for customers.”
1904: Company begins in a one-man office in Chicago’s Loop. First products were cast-iron rerailers painted black and delivered by horse-drawn wagon to the nearby railroad yards.
1904-33: Aldon is awarded five patents for railroad track repair products.
1955: Ralph Switzer, Aldon’s third president, develops a cast-steel wheel chock with replaceable rail-biting spurs and opens a new market with the industrial firms the railroads served.
1956-90: Aldon is awarded seven patents for railroad products aimed at the industrial customer who uses rail.
1970: Establishment of OSHA causes substantial growth for the company as new safety regulations require employers to provide more safety products for their railyard workers.
1976: Aldon builds a 16,000-square-foot factory and office in Waukegan, IL to handle the increased volume of business.
2008: After 40 years as a distributor of derails, Aldon begins manufacturing its own line of hinged and portable derails.
Derails become the company’s second largest revenue producer after wheel chocks.
2010-13: Company receives two more patents bringing the total to 14 since its inception.
2017: Aldon introduces major product developments for derails, trailer stabilizers, and switch stand safety.
2019: Aldon introduces a new service: ASK ALDON. Our sales engineers are ready to advise customers on selection, location, installation and use of Aldon products for railyard safety. We use aerial photos of the customer's plant site to guide the discussion.
2019 will also see the introduction of two new products:
1) "STOP-N-GO" Traffic Lights for track switches. Solar-powered 24/7 advance notice of how the switch is lined and "STOP" warning if the switch points are not properly closed.
2) Enhanced Blue Flag signs, using words plus pictographic images to emphasize the meaning of the words.