Libman, family honored as star in cleaning, community

Libman, family honored as star in cleaning, community

ARCOLA — Despite helping build a nearly 700-person company that makes some 500,000 brooms, mops and brushes a week in a 1.5 million-square-foot plant, Robert Libman doesn't care for awards.

When asked how it feels to receive this year's V. Dale Cozad Entrepreneur of the Year award from the Parkland College Foundation, he demurred.

"I didn't seek it, and I didn't want it," Libman said.

But he eventually accepted it with the condition that the award be given not just to him but his family as well, fitting for a company founded by his grandfather in 1896 and that's still run by his family.

"He wants to emphasize that we're honoring the family, but clearly he's a major driver," said Greg Cozad, son of the award's namesake. "He has tremendous energy and passion. He recently turned 75, and he's still fully engaged with the business."

Libman and his family will receive the award May 8 at the I Hotel at a banquet fundraiser for the Parkland College Entrepreneurial Program.

Originally located in Chicago, the company moved in 1931 to Tuscola to escape the violence in Chicago and to be closer to the broomcorn grown in the area.

"My father was the first one to move here, and then other broom factories moved to Mattoon and all around," Libman said. "There were maybe at one time 10 broom factories within 20 miles of here, but they're all gone."

It later moved in 1957 to a bigger location in Arcola, where it's been since.

Robert Libman was born in 1943 and was practically raised in the broom factory, working his summers there from a young age.

"I liked working in the factory. I like working with my hands. I like the people," Libman said. "It was just the place I felt comfortable, and I loved it."

 

After graduating from the University of Illinois and then the University of Michigan for his MBA, and serving a stint in the military, he joined the company in 1969, a year after his brother Bill joined.

"My father didn't want me to join because it was a hard business," Libman said. But "I just loved it."

He started out on the factory floor.

"I just did labor work all over the plant. I wound corn brooms, you name it, everything to do with my hands, I did it," Libman said. "I became a mechanic. I became the forklift driver. I was a supervisor."

He still seems most comfortable on the factory floor, where he still spends most of his time.

While giving The News-Gazette a tour of the massive plant, he chatted with employees, took pride in the warehouse's cleanliness and knew what all the different machines were doing.

Since Libman joined the company, it has grown from a business that mostly made broomcorn brooms to one that mostly makes plastic products, from brooms and mops to plungers and sponges, automating much of the processes along the way.

"We produce 50,000 plastic brooms a day, and corn brooms, maybe 1,200 a day," Libman said.

During the 1970s, he said the company made as many as 48,000 brooms a day, when Kmart would buy most of its brooms.

But then Kmart switched to another broom supplier.

"I had to lay off quite a few people, and this was a real challenge," Libman said. "But every time you have a challenge, you have to learn from it, so it's because I had this experience I felt we needed to diversify into mops and everything."

Over the years, the company also started making more of the components of its products in-house, giving it better quality control.

"In 1985, I think, we started producing our own plastic fiber. Around 1990, we started producing our own steel handles. At about the same time, we started making our own plastic parts," Libman said. "Up to this time, we would buy things on the market, but we always had problems."

While he's been in charge, Libman said, he's never considered moving the company from Arcola.

"It's been good to us," he said of Arcola. "Some of our biggest customers wanted us to move to China, and I've told them we're not interested."

Bill Wagoner, the Arcola city administrator, said Libman has also been good to Arcola.

"They've been a great partner for the community," he said. "Their footprint in Arcola is just massive. We're very proud of their accomplishments and happy to be their home."

Libman, 75, has no plans to retire and still spends six days a week at the factory, but his children have taken over more of the company.

"My two boys really run the operation. I'm kind of like the glue; I stick around," he said. "I'm just around. I keep my eyes open. I make suggestions. Because that's my life. It's my life."

His son Andrew is now the president of Libman and has been there for 23 years.

"It's grown a lot over the past 20 30 years," Andrew Libman said. "Our market share has grown a lot. We're the leading supplier to the retail market of cleaning tools. When you consider Walmart, Lowe's, Target, Home Depot and all the major supermarkets in the country, we're the market-leading brand in that segment."

Aaron Libman, vice president of operations, said it's a "joy of life to be able to work with your family."

"I think receiving the award is really a culmination of Robert's life work," he said. "It's quite an honor for the company and the employees."

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