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Passionate is the way people describe Frank Schilling, president of Schilling's Home Improvement Center.

"He thinks that nothing is impossible," said Paul Anderson, general manager of the Shrine of Christ's Passion, which Schilling planned and continues to build on U.S. 41 in St. John. "What makes him so successful is his passion. Once he decides to do something, his passion will get it done. It applies to everything in his life."

"He's very passionate about what he does," said Frank Keilman, Schilling's friend and CPA. "When he works, he works hard. When he plays, he plays hard. He's turned control of the lumber yard over to his sons, but he's got the shrine down the street. Does he have to do it? No. He does it for the community."

Schilling has never been one to seek recognition for himself. He doesn't have a long list of awards, but he points to his 2013 induction into the Bishop Noll Institute Hall of Honor as Outstanding Alumnus as a proud moment.

And this year, he was chosen by a panel of community leaders convened by The Times Media Co. to be inducted into the 2016 Times Business & Industry Hall of Fame.

Schilling, 71, is the second generation to run the family company, which was founded by his father, Frank J., and his father's twin brother, Louis W. Both were carpenters when they decided to move to St. John and form the lumber supply company 70 years ago.

Today, the company known as Schilling Home Improvement Center is a diversified supplier of lumber and many other building materials for everyone from professional contractors to the do-it-yourselfer.

The family business branches out

Schilling said he started working in the business while in grade school, but, after graduating from Bishop Noll High School in 1962, he studied architectural engineering in Chicago thinking he might become an architect. After a couple of years, he decided what he really wanted to do was take over the family lumber business. At 28, he got his wish.

"My competition would tell my father that our prices were too low and we couldn't stay in business with those prices," Schilling said. "They're gone, and we're still here. The last recession was tough on the supply business, especially in Illinois where about 100 supply companies went out of business."

Schilling's brother Jim was his partner until he died 15 years ago, when Schilling took over completely. Schilling also served six years in the Army Reserves during the Vietnam War (from 1964 to 1970). This enabled him to serve his country and begin his long career at the family company.

Even before he took over, his father let him handle most of the operations, and, in 1970, he started to expand the business by adding the kitchen cabinet division. He said he probably was one of the first in Northwest Indiana to sell kitchens. The millwork, the flooring and tile and the outdoor living divisions have followed over the years, each under separate management, but all an essential part of the company's success, he said.

"We started the flooring division about eight years ago, and we stock over 300 tile and wood floors," he said. "We bring in containers from all over the world. We buy a lot of hardwood from the U.S., and we get 10 different species from Brazil."

Schilling estimates the company serves more than 400 contractors, including 200 large contractors, in the Chicago area. "We also have Schilling Development, which is land development only. We don't do any building because that would be competing with the people we serve."

Schilling Development, founded by his grandfather L.B. Schilling, has projects in seven communities and is currently involved in subdivisions containing over 1,000 lots ready to have infrastructure installed for builders. Schilling said about 100 lots are ready to build on now and each of the projects will be done in phases of 20 to 30 lots at a time.

His son, Dean, is now the company CEO and Schilling remains as president, offering advice. Sons Todd, Jeff and Greg head various company divisions, and they have more than 160 full-time employees at their three locations — St. John, Mokena, Illinois, and a distribution center for cabinets and windows in Cedar Lake.

"Lumber is still the largest division, dollarwise, because of the volume of lumber in a house, but we need all five divisions running as smoothly as possible," Shilling said. "Lumber takes a lot more volume to be successful, and that's why so many have gone out of business. There used to be two in every community, and Crown Point had four."

Respect is a way of life

"We've never laid off an employee in the history of the company, even through the recession," Schilling said. "Our employees are the engine. Without them, we have no company. Going through the recession, we actually expanded. We were remodeling and opening new facilities."

The biggest challenge is ensuring Schilling Home Improvement Centers always has the best employees in the industry, Schilling said. That means introducing them to the company's culture of treating the customer with respect. Company facilities have training rooms where employees pick up knowledge of the products before ever serving a customer.

In turn, all employees are treated with respect.

"Being family run, I believe in family values, which means they have at least Sunday to be with their families," Schilling said. "We are not open evenings because employees need to be with their families. I don't want to work Sundays, and I told my sons there's no way I'm going to make the employees work."

Schilling said he's at the supply company, the development company and the Shrine of Christ's Passion every day. He said his sons seek his advice, "but as far as I'm concerned, they're doing a better job than their father did. They are taking it to a new level."

Another passion

He and his wife Shirley started the shrine, which he calls his most gratifying project, in 2001. Visitors follow a trail past life-size sculptures showing the Stations of the Cross from the Last Supper through the crucifixion to Christ's resurrection.

The project has continued to grow and evolve with the fourth addition to the gift shop now nearing completion and the recent opening of the Mt. Sinai addition to the Stations of the Cross, showing Moses coming down the mountain with the Ten Commandments, complete with burning bush.

He contributes to the Women's Crisis Center and the American Heart Association and also provides 20 life-size nativity scenes for businesses in St. John each year, covering the cost to put them up and take them down and store them.

"I went to every business in town and asked if I could put it up," Schilling said. "I got tired of hearing people say you can hardly say 'Merry Christmas' anymore. I wanted to remind everyone traveling through town what Christmas is all about."

"He just wants to make a difference in the world, and he certainly has," Paul Anderson said. "For the past 10 years I've really gotten to know him, and he's just an amazing person. He's a great person to work for, and I think all his employees at the lumber yard would say that.

"When I came on board (the shrine) in 2007, we had a meeting at the store and I introduced a friend to Frank as my boss. Frank gave me this look and said, ' No, we're partners.' That made me feel like this is really something. He'll give you the tools to get the job done, and it's up to you to get it done."

Traditional values, modern drive

Keilman, the accountant, said his client is very proud, striving for excellence in everything he does.

"When he does one of these projects, he wants to make it the best," Keilman said. "He doesn't look at it as making more money. He's doing it to make sure it is very nice. He also enjoys the opportunity to take a risk. With the recession, he had the vision to see it would end, and he was going to be prepared for it.

"His family is very important to him, and the community is very important to him," Keilman said. "He's a tough but honest businessman. He'd never cheat anybody out of anything. He will take you at your word with a handshake, and away he goes. Eventually the attorneys catch up with him and get a contract going."

Schilling and his wife have been married for 48 years, and he said, "She's been very supportive and raised our four sons while I'm working late hours. It takes a great woman to support you in a family-owned business."

He said his father continued to come to work until about six months before his death because he enjoyed being with the employees and contributing as much as he could to the company's success.

"I see myself doing the same thing," he said.

Schilling still has passion to spare and to share.

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