Rita Kress is corporate treasurer of Kress Corporation, a manufacturing and engineering company founded by her husband, Ted, in 1965. She grew up in East Peoria and attended the University of Illinois. She managed an advertising agency before joining her husband at Kress Corporation.

Kress is on the Peoria County Zoning Board of Appeals and volunteers for the Nature Conservancy, The Salvation Army, the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, the Community Foundation, and the Peoria Zoological Society. She has one son, Nathan.

Tell us about your background: school, family, hobbies, etc.

I’m originally from East Peoria and attended East Peoria Community High School and the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. From there, I entered an advertising business and, in a very short time, managed it. That experience was invaluable to me as a young person entering the work environment. I was immediately aware of how important good decisions were in running a successful business.

I managed the advertising entity until I married Ted and joined him at Kress corporation to participate in his manufacturing business—our thinking being that both of our efforts at the same business enterprise would be beneficial. We have one son, Nathan, who also works at Kress Corporation.

Personally, my favorite pastime is polo, which is a humbling and hard sport. It’s a constant challenge to improve and be a contributing team player.

I’ve also always enjoyed participating in community and charity efforts that require good planning, sound money management, and people cooperation; then, experiencing the satisfaction that results when the community and population benefit from those projects and efforts.

You live and work primarily in Brimfield. What do you like about a smaller community?

I’ve lived in the Brimfield area since the mid-1970s, and I believe Ted made an excellent decision locating Kress Corporation there in 1968. The community and our corporation have grown together, and we try to stay involved in the Brimfield community as much as possible.

When you live in a smaller town, you have an opportunity to be very involved in contributions to the immediate area’s needs and projects. You can see a need, plan and develop a strategy to address the need, work to make the improvement, and then move on to the next need that develops. I think needs are more apparent and change happens more quickly in smaller communities, particularly as growth occurs.

Brimfield has always shown great community cooperation, particularly in changing long-distance telephone charges to Peoria, passing a successful school referendum, bringing a doctor and health care to the community, and establishing a larger library. Its location promotes a rural lifestyle, while being ever-so-convenient to Peoria and the surrounding areas.

Kress Corporation is your family business. Tell us a little about the company and what roles you, your husband, and your son play.

Kress is a manufacturer of heavy mobile equipment for the steel and coal industries. Ted started the company in the mid-1960s, and since that time, it has continued to grow—not only into a diversified product line and facility size, but also in the number of jobs required to keep the product and the company efficient and profitable.

Ted is a true entrepreneur and serves as president. He’s actively involved in the design engineering and production of the units. I’m treasurer and oversee finance, as well as all other corporate departments. Both of us work constant and long hours. And though everyone says "don’t work with your spouse," we’re both still alive. Our son, Nathan, works at Kress as well. He joined the corporation in a productive, hard-working capacity and is involved in all facets of the business.

We’re giving him the flexibility and latitude not only to know and understand the business, but also to improve and expand it for the future. We’ve tried to instill in him a strong work ethic that revolves around endurance and knowledge, as well as to show him the benefits of community involvement and understanding of our workforce and their needs.

Kress Corporation isn’t your only endeavor. What other businesses are you involved in?

We’re fortunate to have several business opportunities in addition to our manufacturing entity—including retail, restaurants, and agriculture. I’m very keen on diversification of business because I believe it provides a true understanding of the area, the marketplace, the labor supply, and the economy in general.

Although business can be diversified, good business management remains the same—an all-out effort to be a good and stable employer, produce a quality product or service, and profit from it. Certainly the marketplace shifts, and at times one area of business will be more active and profitable than others. When manufacturing is down, the restaurant and retail markets may be up, and vice-versa. Diversification is the best way to maintain a revenue flow when the marketplace is changing or the economy is shifting. Good business people learn how to adjust to the current business climate.

Describe the work ethic you think makes individuals and organizations successful. Have you seen a change in that work ethic over the past 20 years?

I believe individuals and organizations who are most successful have three characteristics: they work hard, they endure, and they are flexible to change without losing focus. Certainly, knowledge of product and market enter into the picture, but a workforce that truly works hard and is smart and flexible will be successful. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a single employer in our area who wouldn’t agree that work ethics have lessened the past 20 years. Paying dues no longer applies for a lot of people.

Young people today are smarter than ever, and immediate success is a priority. But endurance is something they must acquire through the course of events and changes and by learning to cope with ever-changing circumstances. A great education is wonderful, but applying it is key to success.

We emphasize to Nathan three points: First, don’t make excuses. If something is important, find a way to get it done. Second, devote the time needed to projects and prioritize, so you can address all the issues without losing sight of the overall vision. This is true both in business and community involvement. And third, remember what’s important is not "what I can do" but "what we can accomplish together." Cooperate, be involved, and be a team player. With that attitude in business and in our community, nothing is impossible.

In addition to business, you’re also involved in the community. Tell us about some of the projects you’re involved with, and why volunteering is a passion of yours.

Businesses and communities are in constant change and go hand-in-hand. What is good for one is good for the other. People say to me, "Will these community projects ever end?" And I always say "no" because the more projects we have, the better and stronger our community becomes to serve its residents and to attract new residents. Quality change results in better quality and better family life—and that’s what a community is for. When positive business and community development occur, business provides the financial means to assist community development, and in return, a strong community attracts people who provide efforts for business.

I’ve been fortunate through the years to be involved in numerous entities that promote the betterment and well-being of the community. One such entity is the Peoria County Zoning Board of Appeals. When administered properly, zoning is instrumental in the development of a community and its future growth.

Water issues are keen to me as well. I serve on the PAGG group that’s researching whether the City of Peoria has the option to buy Illinois American Water. It’s a sizable and important issue, and one that’s being researched legally. Over the years, I’ve also been active in promoting a public water supply west on Route 150, which is instrumental in the growth pattern of the county westward.

Several years ago, I was active in the Minority and Women-Owned Business Council for the State of Illinois. That was an excellent learning experience, and it was rewarding to see different women and minorities address business needs successfully throughout the state.

In an effort to participate with our community, I volunteer for the Nature Conservancy, The Salvation Army, Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, Community Foundation, and Peoria Zoological Society. The Zoological Society is creating a wonderful new zoo for the regional area.

This is a key project because of the regional draw it will create, which will produce a better quality of life in our immediate area. The Junior League of Peoria recently voted to join the Zoo in creating a Children’s Museum at the Zoo and Luthy Botanical Garden to form a destination center for education and youth activities. This center, though keen on youth, will provide a location to be enjoyed by everyone.

What advice do you have for those who want to get involved in the community?

First, I encourage people to participate where their interests lie—if you like gardening, volunteer at the Botanical Gardens for example.

By participating you can learn how different organizations function and have the opportunity to interact and contribute with good people from all areas and walks of life. Every person’s efforts are a valuable contribution to an organization or community project. Second, I stress the importance of endurance and follow through.

If you commit to a board or project, you’re responsible to bring your expertise, financial commitment, and time to the table—even when things don’t go as planned. Nothing is perfect and things don’t just fall into place. You will encounter bumps along the way. Prepare for them, know your options, and react with others to adjust. Figure out a way to work through the problem by being smart and flexible. Cooperate with others to attain the end goal, and remember endurance over time will bring a successful end.

Finally, it’s important to have a positive attitude. Even if you can’t contribute anything to a project, you can be positive in your remarks. Take the time to understand the organization’s vision and goal. Never lose sight of that and maintain a positive attitude even as problems emerge and things evolve and change.

What’s the relationship between community projects and area businesses?

It’s my belief that business and community involvement go hand in hand because the stronger and better the community, the more opportunities are afforded for business—the opportunities are endless.

There are so many strong entities in Peoria that do so much for our community—Caterpillar, the Bielfeldt Foundation, and numerous other businesses. Such entities always look on the positive side of a project and what the project can give back to the community.

Cooperation between business, local government, and the community is essential to satisfy growth and change within the area. When we all work together in a strong community effort, we build quality of life, which in turn builds a strong community in which business prospers.

You mentioned the new zoo. Why is this project so important to our community?

The Zoo is a regional project that will bring people and opportunity to our area. I say "Zoo," but really it’s more than that. It’s a destination center that will include the Glen Oak Zoo and Luthy Botanical Garden, and the Junior League’s Children’s Museum.

This project is important to me because it shares resources to create a regional destination, uses money and tax dollars efficiently, and offers something for every visitor.

With these three entities, Glen Oak Park can contribute even more to quality of life in our community. Families will have a selection of educational and enjoyable activities from which to choose.

The Peoria Park District has been a wonderful partner to the Zoo, Botanical Garden, and many other areas of green space in our community. It’s an outstanding, award-winning organization, and one that has worked effectively for many, many years.

As the community has grown and voiced its wants and needs, the Park District has listened and responded.

The Zoo is just one example of improvement. It’s a sizable project, but it has great support within the community. I stress again, sometimes people feel like we have just one project after another, but without ongoing improvement, quality of life becomes stagnant. If we’re stagnant, we cannot grow and offer residents what they want. And when that happens, they go elsewhere.

Peoria has a solid foundation to continue to work on whatever projects are needed. Enhancing our community assets—the Illinois River, the Civic Center, the RiverPlex, O’Brien Stadium, the new Zoo complex—to mention a few—truly benefits everyone.

You’re also helping organize a political action committee with the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce. Why are politics important to you?

Good people make good decisions. People who want to serve others and the community make great candidates. Great candidates ensure good government and fair treatment for all. Our political servants and judges are so important because not only are they spending our tax dollars—they’re also making decisions about our future. In many instances, they’re the ones who make things happen in our community.

The true desire to serve is as important as any other issue in determining whether someone makes the decision to be a public servant.

Knowledge of the area and issues is key, but the commitment of time is mandatory. Unfortunately, many people don’t want to commit that time. Everyone addresses their own schedules, their own needs, and their own endeavors first. That’s normal.

But I do believe no matter how busy you are, you can make an effort to serve your community in some way. You don’t have to make a lifetime of it—just choose a project you’re really interested in, commit, and participate. The result is a strong community with opportunities for all.

You bring guests from all over the world to visit Kress Corporation. What interests them most about the Peoria area?

Certainly the river. It’s a true resource. I’m very keen on riverfront development because I’ve seen what it’s done for other cities. I’ve also seen what a strong contribution rivers can make to education, transportation, and the whole commerce community.

Our guests and customers relate to our river in comparison to environments from where they come.

River conservation and development are big issues for them. Our guests also enjoy the rural farmlands, as well as the numerous parks and recreational facilities in our community. Touring Caterpillar and taking in events at the Civic Center are also impressive.

The Civic Center was a tremendous upheaval years ago, but over the course of time, it’s proven instrumental for our community and our future. Entertainment and shopping are of interest, but historical and educational offerings seem to have priority.

What future plans, business or community-related, can you share with us?

After 15 years, I will be departing from the Peoria County Zoning Board of Appeals in May. I learned from the experience, and it’s given me a greater appreciation of local government and fair treatment to residents and business. I think people lose their edge when they stay too long in any position.

Personally, I like to experience projects and organizations to learn. Even though I read quite a bit, I like to feel the pressure and challenge to make things work.

I have several new business entities that I hope will materialize, and I’m looking forward to participating in the newly forming Peoria Civic Federation, which will emphasize combining business and community effort for the betterment of the regional area.

If you could send one message to area business leaders, what would it be? 

Although I always try to learn or apply something new each day, and I never want to take anything for granted. My message would be one of endurance. To me, endurance is total follow through on a project, a task, or a goal. It means starting something and successfully finishing it—no excuses. I have regard for a person who can start something and, no matter what happens once it’s started, can conclude it. I personally look for that quality in employees, in business associates, and in community leaders.

Most community projects certainly require endurance because they’re not days or weeks long, but years long. It’s easy to have enthusiasm in the beginning. You cannot be discouraged when things go slow.

Sometimes that’s what’s needed. We’ve been planning the Zoo for years, and now its time has finally come. Everything’s in order, we have a master plan, questions have been answered, and the project is ready to proceed—but it did take time, commitment, and endurance from those involved.

No matter what project, accept the challenge to be better, to work with other people who like the same challenge, and to contribute to our community—because a strong community not only makes business strong, but it makes us, and our way of life, better. IBI