Personal Touch • Northwest Indiana Business Magazine

Personal Touch

For many of the area's executives, a significant portion of their day is spent in the office. More often than not, they work in formal surroundings with generic photos on the wall. Their functional office furniture offers no insight into their personality.
But sometimes the office reflects the boss' personal tastes and immediately says something about the person who works there, the company's history and the company values.

Task Force Tips, Valparaiso

Walking into the headquarters of Task Force Tips is more than stepping into the offices of a thriving business. It's an opportunity to step back in time. The entry to the company, which manufactures hose nozzles and other firefighting equipment, is a museum dedicated to the history of firefighting, as well as the company's founder, Clyde McMillan.
Gene Spencer, a retired Valparaiso Fire Department battalion chief, is the curator. He notes that the collection tells the history of firefighting technology, from the earliest days of leather buckets and axes to modern equipment. The museum's collection includes an 1883 piano-style hand pumper on loan from the Westville Volunteer Fire Department, a steam fire engine from the 1890s and a vintage 1920s gas fire engine from the Valparaiso Fire Department, which Spencer himself refurbished.
Creating the museum was a dream of Stewart McMillan, Clyde's son and the company's chief executive. Many of the items belonged to the elder McMillan.
“Some of the truck models I have were my dad's,” McMillan says. “I remember them in the 1960s in the windows of our house in Aetna (a Gary neighborhood). My mom had to dust them two or three times a day because of the dust coming from the (steel mill) coke plant.”
Clyde McMillan founded the volunteer Gary Fire Task Force, and worked there for decades. After he realized that inconsistent nozzle pressure was hampering firefighters, he designed the first automatic nozzle. The initial design was sketched on a napkin in the family home, and the first nozzles were built in the McMillan family's basement. The original prototype of the nozzle that Clyde McMillan experimented with has a special display at the museum.
While Stewart says every item has a story, he has a special attachment to the old steam engine because of his dad and “how badly he always wanted one. It was really serendipitous how we got it,” he says.
The steamer, which rode on large wooden wheels and was powered by steam, came from Clintonville, Wis., where it languished in storage for 89 years. “You don't see many of them around anymore,” Spencer notes.
The collection continues to grow. McMillan recently acquired items being auctioned by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., including a 6-by-6-foot, three-dimensional diorama that depicts Philadelphia firefighters battling a blaze in 1828. The piece, originally built by a Philadelphia insurance agency, will have a special place in the office conference room.
Task Force Tips, a leader in manufacturing firefighting equipment, opened a new headquarters in 2009. Stewart had always hoped to include a museum in the new building, but for a long time it did not seem like it was going to happen.
“When we first started planning for this building, the museum was almost a joke. It was always in the way,” he recalls. After shifting the office to the south side, he got the idea to make it into a replica of a fire station, with two red fire station doors emblazoned in the white limestone. “Now it's the focal point of the office, and the place where everyone converges and flows.”

Porter County Sheriff's Office

Porter County Sheriff David Lain doesn't just work in law enforcement. He's a collector.
Lain has been collecting police memorabilia for years, and many of the Billy clubs and night sticks, handcuffs and leg irons, along with other items, are on display in his Valparaiso office.
“I have a nightstick that dates from mid-19th century that has its own self-defense mechanism,” Lain says. “There were only four of these produced in the 1850s. They would have been carried by any police officer. If a bad guy tried pulling on the front end of the night stick, it would have caused metal spikes to protrude from the stick.”
He said he was drawn to the hobby by a “fascination with how the tools of law enforcement have changed in the last 100 years.” He also discovered that many things that are considered new innovations are actually ideas that have been around for decades, including collapsible police batons.
“We think of these as being invented in the 1980s and '90s,” Lain says. “I have one that was produced in the 1920s. It just never caught on back then.”
What Lain calls the most significant piece in his collection is an old Valparaiso Police Department badge that belonged to a friend, “a tough Marine sergeant in World War II, Ray Steele.”
“It was from the police department that I started my law enforcement career with and the badge dates back to the early 20th century, 1910-1915,” Lain says. After Steele died, Lain used to stop by and visit with his widow, Charlotte. Several years after Steele's death, she gave Lain the badge, noting that her husband would have wanted him to have it.
Lain also has a number of firearms that were used by various police departments, including a Colt Lightning revolver from 1877 that was carried by a Chicago police officer at the turn of the century. It was given to Lain by a friend in Valparaiso who had researched his own grandfather's career. The gun has the officer's name engraved on the grip.
“I'm always fascinated by the items I have acquired by families over the ages,” he says, adding that he's always looking to obtain other heirlooms that families want to place where they would be proudly displayed. He recently received several items from a woman in Minneapolis, including a letter signed by former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
“It's really a comfort to have my office lined with these hundreds of badges and other forms of police equipment because I enjoy them,” he says. “I'm here more than I'm home and I don't have to worry about burglary here. Plus, when I have people in the office, it is a more relaxing atmosphere. It's not so stark.”
His collection, however, is so large that a significant part is displayed in the lobby of the sheriff's department, including old restraints, police lanterns and nightsticks. Many items are kept in a 19th century jail cell, a donation from the owner of the Old Court restaurant. Another item on display is a Thompson submachine gun stolen by John Dillinger in 1934. It is not part of Lain's collection. “That's property of Porter County,” he notes wistfully.

Greater LaPorte Economic Development Corp.

The former owners of the building the Greater LaPorte Economic Development Corp. calls home were not focused on economic development. Their job was moving people from one place to another, in as efficient and timely a manner as possible.
The renovated train depot that now houses the economic development group's offices is a reminder of the city's past, says Tim Gropp, development corporation executive director. The Greater LaPorte Chamber of Commerce also has space in the one-story building. They both moved into the renovated structure in 2009.
“We're just tenants here,” Gropp said. “But this is something that preserves part of the community, its heritage and history.”
LaPorte is a city known for its historic architecture and collection of antique stores. Saving the railroad deport was discussed for more than a decade before work got under way in 2007.
Even though the former train station retains its turn-of-the-20th-century look, it's a thoroughly modern office, says Gropp. “We're running like crazy, working long hours.”
LaPorte had several pieces of good economic news in 2010. MonoSol LLC, a company that produces water-soluble films for various industries, announced plans to expand its LaPorte manufacturing operations, an $18 million investment that created jobs and positioned the company for additional growth. Also in 2010, local extrusion manufacturer Unitek Sealings Solutions Corp. was purchased by the Jaeger Group of Hannover, Germany. The new Jaeger-Unitek Sealing Solutions announced a $3 million investment to expand operations in LaPorte.
The area has many qualities that make it attractive to potential businesses, Gropp says, reciting a list that includes a good quality of life, a skilled workforce, available land and a good transportation network. And, he adds, the city's “historic aspect.”
The train station is part of that history. Generations of LaPorte County residents began and ended trips here. In the 1960s it was among the places presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy stopped on a campaign tour. Renovating the railroad depot improved a section of the downtown and gave important community organizations a new home. (Leadership LaPorte County is the other tenant.)
Although the station itself hasn't been used by trains in more than a generation, the rumble of engines and train whistles that Gropp and others working in the building hear are not ghostly sounds from the past. “Now, we're right next to the Norfolk Southern line,” he says. “We're close enough that you know every time the trains are going by.”

Haas & Associates, Michigan City

People spend a lot of time in the office, so they should be comfortable in their home away from home, says Tim Haas, president of Haas & Associates LLC in Michigan City. That helps to explain the big-screen television, ping pong table and pool table in his company's office.
“Yes, it's a little less formal,” he says when asked about the less formal gathering area for employees. “One of my goals is to make it homier, so the time here isn't so cold.”
Founded in 1972 by Haas' father, Patrick, Haas & Associates is a consulting engineering firm with specialties including municipal and land development engineering. Projects have included water resource and drainage improvement projects and park and playfield development. The firm has designed bridges, drainage and wastewater systems and did the restoration work on the historic Observation Tower at the Washington Park Zoo in Michigan City.
Haas cites the corporate offices of Google for his inspiration in including an area where engineers and other workers can unwind. Google is famous for its array of video games, bicycles and scooters, pianos and volleyball courts available to employees – all to foster an atmosphere of creativity.
It's not all about just having fun, Haas points out. The ping pong table, for example, is an “excellent way to build hand-eye coordination,” he says. “It keeps your brain active, because you're reacting without thinking about it.”
For an office full of engineers, the pool table is also a way to put some of their teaching into practice. “Pool is all physics – it's angles, momentum,” Haas says. “It's Newtonian physics in action. It all ties in with what we do.”
The objective is simple – people want to work in a place where they feel comfortable, Haas says. “A lot of times offices are places people don't want to be.


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