August 27, 2012

When people ask Hinsdale’s Craig Zoberis about the secret to being a successful entrepreneur, he has a simple answer for them.

“Go get an education and spend the first 10 years working for somebody else, and that’s your internship,” he said. “Learn what they did right and learn what they did wrong.”

Zoberis, founder and president of Fusion OEM, spent his own internship working for his father’s engineering company after earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Marquette University.

“After working for him for 10 years, I thought I want to do it on my own to prove I can be an entrepreneur just like my father,” he said.

Zoberis made the leap shortly after he and his wife, Tracy, moved to a home at Fifth and Grant streets.

“It was tough because my wife and I were married less than a year. We just moved to Hinsdale. I thought, “This is great. I have my own garage. I can start my own business.”

“I was building machines in my garage and I was building them for a customer in Switzerland. I was engineering them in my second bedroom. I was still finishing my master’s in business and we were renovating a house, so I was multi-tasking.”

After about a year, Zoberis moved out of the garage to a space in Willowbrook.

“It got cold in the garage and I needed an electrical engineer. I thought it would be inappropriate to ask an electrical engineer to work in my garage and out of my basement,” he said.

Ten years later, Zoberis has 48 employees and owns two buildings on High Grove Boulevard in Burr Ridge. In 2009 Fusion was No. 363 on Inc. Magazine’s list of the 500 fastest growing companies, earning the No. 1 spot among manufacturers in Illinois and coming in at No. 13 in the country.

“We grew 671 percent over three years,” Zoberis said.

Fusion works with companies such as Pregis Corp., Federal Signal and Illinois Toolworks to build machinery. Zoberis likened his company to a California winery that produces private label wines for customers.

“We’re doing the for factory automation, so we’re building products, and we build maybe 200 to 2,000 units a year for our clients that are the same products over and over so the customers can focus on the sales and marketing and we focus on the manufacturing and engineering,” he said.

Zoberis employs a variety of workers, from entry-level assemblers to electrical and mechanical engineers to business professionals. Creating those jobs has been Zoberis’ biggest reward.

“I think the most satisfaction I get for those 10 years is I created all those jobs for other people within a time of real (economic) uncertainty,” he said, adding that he shares the credit for growing the company with the people who work with him.

Growth has slowed to a more reasonable 10 to 20 percent a year since 2009. Zoberis had identified what he calls a “big hairy audacious goal” to tackle next.

“The ‘B-HAG’ is within five years for our company to be one of the best companies to work for in Chicago or in Illinois in manufacturing,” he said. “That’s what I want. That’s more important to me than anything- that people love to do what they do here.”

Zoberis also works to ensure his customers feel good about the work Fusion is doing, and being flexible is critical to that goal.

“We’re probably not the best engineers. We’re probably not the best machinists. We’re probably not the best assemblers,” Zoberis said. “We’re open to understanding what our customers need and putting ourselves in their shoes.

“It’s real simple. You just focus on making sure the customer is happy and everything comes into play.”

- by Pamela Lannom