A Publication of WTVP

The venerable historian talks to the owner and president of Peoria’s Donelson Corporation.

I knew Craig Martin when he was just a kid—a friend and classmate of my son. He was always a bright, friendly kid and certainly well-liked. He was born in Chicago on September 8, 1965 and moved to Peoria with his family when he was just an infant. They were a nice, middle-class family and the future looked very bright for Craig, who was a good student and got along very well. But the trauma of his parents’ divorce—about the time he was to graduate from high school—affected his life, especially when his plans to go to a four-year college away from home were dashed.

Golden Advice
After graduating from Richwoods High School in 1983, Craig realized that financing a college education would depend on his ability to earn the tuition—which is exactly what he set out to do. “I took business classes at ICC and had thoughts of becoming an accountant,” he recalls. “I was a cook at Vonachen’s Old Place, going to class whenever I could. I went to a few business classes at Bradley during the evenings, and the truth is, all I did was study, work and sleep.

“I met my wife at Vonachen’s, and I am grateful for that,” he continues. “My dad bought Donelson Corporation in March of 1983, and for quite some time, he tried to talk me into working there, but I was determined to make it on my own.”

Craig continued working and going to school. In late 1982, he and I worked together at a place called Kaleidoscope, a small business on the north end of Peoria, filling catalog orders. I was unemployed, and things were pretty tough here in Peoria. It was a time when the saying was: “Will the last one to leave Peoria please turn out the lights?” From there, Craig went to work at K’s Merchandise during the Christmas season, expecting to be out of a job when the holiday was over. Instead, he stayed.

“They liked me at K’s. I got into their training program and stayed there five years,” Craig says. “By the time I left, I was sales manager for the store, and that gave me a lot of confidence. I was trained by a couple of very capable managers and learned a tremendous amount of information about handling customers.”

I asked Craig what he had taken away from all that training that stayed with him when he finally went to work for Donelson Corporation. “You know, Norm, I am glad you asked that because I have kept that advice in my mind since the day I started here in 1992. ‘Always treat two people like gold: your customers and your employees.’ I believe that motto can take any business a very long way. It has worked here, and I use it daily.”

Show Me the Books
Craig got married in 1990 and realized that if he stayed at K’s, his financial situation would never take care of the family he and his wife had planned. “So in 1992, I had a long talk with my dad, and he offered me the position of outside sales representative. Donelson represents companies that manufacture boilers, and believe me, I had never even seen a boiler, let alone know anything about selling them!”

And so, Craig’s dad, Dick Martin, sent him to a company that makes boilers in Wyoming, Illinois. “He paid my salary and I stayed there for six months,” he recalls. “When I left, I knew every nut, bolt and gadget that made up a boiler. When I came back to Donelson, I hit the road running as a sales rep.”

His father was a great teacher and a wise businessman, and Craig learned a massive amount of information as he went about his selling duties. “A lot of our customers are engineers, and I spent a lot of my time picking their brains—I can tell you that… One day, my dad walked in and dropped the bomb on me that he was going to retire and I had first choice of buying the company. I was shocked, and it did not take me long to tell him I was not interested. I really felt that I was not ready to accept the responsibility.”

But Craig’s father knew better and continued to discuss the sale with his son. “Finally, I said, ‘Dad, show me the books.’” With Dick Martin’s financial help, the papers were signed and Craig Martin became the owner—lock, stock and barrel—of Donelson Corporation at 1723 SW Adams in Peoria, Illinois. That was December of 2000.

The Long Run
“Norm, sometimes it seems surreal,” Craig says. “Come June of 2015, I will make my final payment to my dad, and I will officially own it all. I’ll lease the building from [him] as always because that is part of his retirement, and I certainly want to help him as time goes on. Truth is, I doubt my dad would recognize this company today because of the many changes we have had to make over the years.

“The advances in technology come at us almost weekly, and we have to adjust with those changes or fail. We added a branch called ‘Infiltration Industrial Products,’ and I feel we are in this for the long run. I had a lot of help and great advice along the way, and for that I will always be grateful.” iBi

Norm Kelly is a Peoria historian and author of 12 books and hundreds of true crime and historical stories. Contact him at [email protected].