For more than 35 years, Damron Corporation on Chicago’s west side has manufactured and distributed tea products, sourced from the most famous tea-growing areas in the world. Companies that Damron supplies its products to include McDonald’s. In fact, Damron was the first African-American owned company to become a national supplier to McDonald’s. Recently, the company entered the contract packaging arena, and now specializes in packaging solutions and logistics through the Damron Packaging and Logistics Group.
In 2019, Damron was also named the “Diverse Supplier of the Year” by The Coca-Cola Company.
Ask Ronald Damper, Founder and President of Damron about the company, though, and he may be equally likely to talk about the need for opportunities for young people on the west side, the company’s story as a highly successful minority-run business, and what he sees in an economy that continues to face the challenge of COVID-19.
After 15 years in the financial services industry, Damper founded Damron, which initially operated out of a west side incubator for small businesses run by the Industrial Council of Northwest Chicago. Damron moved into its current home at 4433 West Ohio Street in 1990. The company employs a base of about 25 workers and about another 20 or so workers on a seasonal basis. Damron is located in a 50,000 square foot facility in an economically disadvantaged area on the west side.
Connecting with underserved communities
Damper says that when the company opened, he “knew that jobs were needed on the west side. There was an opportunity to get involved, and where jobs were appreciated. We got involved with Manufacturing Renaissance because we knew the organization would give us students we could talk to about their future.” Damper says that smaller companies like Damron often need to “use connections with organizations like Manufacturing Renaissance.”
He adds that the growing emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion, otherwise known as “DEI,” is playing a major role in business today. “In today’s world, DEI might be able to get us an entry to communities and possible clients we haven’t been able to reach for years,” he says. “At the same time, we work with organizations like Manufacturing Renaissance that are serving young people who have often been overlooked in the past.”
Damper points to a range of opportunities in the manufacturing field. At Damron, he says, the company will be seeking employees with graphic design, computer, and marketing skills, as well as more traditional manufacturing skills.
Importance of education
Damper also offers an insight to young people who may be interested in manufacturing. “Where you start may not be where you finish, if you have goals to achieve. I tell young people to take advantage of programs – read and learn where you want to go in this sector. Not everything is about going to college, of course, but it’s so important to have a commitment to learning.” Damper suggests that young people sometimes face negative attitudes around reading, learning, and “when people call you a nerd. But I would say get educated.”
Roots in the civil rights era
While Damron has been widely recognized for its success as a business, Damper also has another story to tell about his commitment to social justice, a personal story that has informed how he views the world and his company. Damper grew up as one of ten kids in his family, and was the first to go to college. When he was a teenager in Birmingham, AL during the civil rights era in the 1960s, he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “At that time, we knew there had to be a dramatic change to open up society,” he says. “We had no idea what the future would be. Right now, we are in a situation where there is a lot of misinformation – including misinformation about vaccines. But I do believe the pendulum swings, and we will have a more equitable society. Young people will be such an important part of making that happen. We should also not give up on the possibility of young people getting involved.”
To that end, Damper refers to “the butterfly effect” – a theory with deep historical roots that basically suggests a small change can be the cause of larger consequences. “I want to get involved with Manufacturing Renaissance and other organizations, and make sure we provide education, training, and opportunities to young people. That not only impacts people who get jobs, but their communities.”
Looking to the future, Damper is addressing succession issues at Damron with the hope that the company can continue to benefit the community. “My goal,” he says, “is to make sure the company stays in minority ownership and hopefully stays on the west side. “All small companies face this challenge, eventually. We want this company in the hands of people who care about the community.”
Meanwhile, he also looks at the importance of education in another way. Damper hopes that major educational institutions in the region can come together and address major issues impacting challenges businesses face, from educating potential workers in the manufacturing field to succession issues. “We have great educational resources in this area,” says Damper. “They could make an impact on what we know about the field and be a resource for the region.”