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HAMMOND - If the secret to longevity in business is adjusting to the

changing marketplace, then OK Champion in Hammond has made the right moves.

The company got its start in 1897 when blacksmith Otto Knoerzer invented the

world's first potato digger. He thought so highly of the product, he called it

his "champion." Since then, OK Champion has shifted gears twice, and today, the

company builds utility equipment for underground cable placement.

The company became involved with the utility industry back in 1905, when

Otto invented a device for cleaning sewers. About 60 years later, electric and

telephone companies struggling to clean underground conduit stumbled upon

Knoerzer's sewer cleaner and wanted to adapt it to their work environment.

"We were primarily an agriculture business, with sewers as a sideline until

1964," said Paul Knoerzer, Otto's great-grandson and now president of the firm.

"Back then, we were making a sewer-rodding machine when telephone and

electric utilities found our equipment could work for their applications with a

few refinements."

After finding a device that cleans the ducts, utilities wanted the machines

adapted to place the cable as well. Champion's engineers answered the call in

1972 with a rodder capable of both cleaning conduits and pulling back full-size

distribution cable. The company sold out their agriculture line in the '70s and

jumped into that new industry. While they still sell a few sewer-cleaning

machines, they have spent the last 25 years perfecting cable duct rodding

equipment.

The building that houses the 100-year-old business, located at Sheffield

Avenue in Hammond, is physical proof of the business' age. Each of the walls is

constructed of concrete, and it was one of the first poured concrete structures

in the country, according to Knoerzer. The building, which looks as solid as a

fall-out shelter, is still a good place to do business.

"We're far enough outside of Chicago that the taxes are not high, and the

work force is not expensive," Knoerzer said. "Yet we still have good access to

the highways."

As the company tries to expand its market abroad, the location may prove to

be even more of a benefit. Chicago has been a good shipping point to get the

huge rodders to Europe and Taiwan.

"With an international product, Chicago makes sense as a distribution

point," said Harvey Reed, Knoerzer's brother-in-law and director of sales.

"What better place to be located than the Crossroads of America?"

The machines Champion manufactures costs more than $100,000 each, and the

company averages about $3 million in sales each year. Champion employs 26

people, one of whom has been with the firm for 40 years. Huge contractors and

large utilities are among Champion's customers, especially those in the

electric industry, since much of the telephone service has switched from cable

to fiber optics.

Because each of the rodders Champion makes lasts for more than 20 years, the

market is limited, and the hunt is always on for new customers. Over the years,

Champion has built a reputation for itself, exhibiting at huge trade shows to

attract new businesses. Yet the firm's engineers are always working to adapt

their product to each customer's specific needs.

"I grew up in this business, and I'm proud to be part of a 100-year legacy,"

Knoerzer said. "Our philosophy has always been to design special equipment to

solve particular needs. That ability to adapt to changes has kept us in

business all these years."

OK Champion Corp. is located at 4714 Sheffield Ave., Hammond. The telephone

number is (219) 933-0510.

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