Tom Sybert, President of C.J. Anderson & Co.,

Tom Sybert, president of CJA

Sybert discusses the challenges and rewards of running a small business, while making time for family.

Discusses the Challenges and Rewards of Running a Small Business

C.J. Anderson & Co. (CJA) President Tom Sybert first rode on top of an elevator car with his dad as a kid. He said it was so unforgettable he wanted nothing else but to be part of the elevator industry. Of course, he was a kid, and the industry was all he knew. In the early 1950s, his grandfather, Gladen Gregory, started Gregory Elevator, a significant independent elevator contractor serving the Chicago area. Sybert’s father, Milton Sybert, assisted with running Gregory Elevator when his grandfather passed away and continued to help with the day-to-day operations until it was sold to Westinghouse in the early 1980s. In 1982, Milton Sybert and his wife, Dorothy, bought CJA, a developer and manufacturer of pushbutton fixtures switches, interlocks and control systems in the Chicago area.

Today, despite receiving a well-rounded education that could have led him down a variety of career paths, Sybert remains in the elevator industry helping run CJA with the help and support of his mom, as vice president, and dad, as CEO, along with a dedicated staff. He takes pride in the family business and the industry it serves, coming to work every day determined to make a difference.

Starting at the Bottom

When Sybert was a freshman in high school, he started working in the shop of CJA during the summers. Sybert said: “I did get the crappiest jobs, the jobs no one wanted to do, which was fine by me. I worked hard every day and expected no preferential treatment from my coworkers. I truly wanted to earn their respect.” With each passing summer, Sybert learned more and was eventually given more responsibilities.

So much of his time growing up had been spent learning the elevator industry, that in college, Sybert decided to explore other subjects. He studied communications, sports medicine, and marketing and strategic planning at four different schools: Columbia College, Adams State College, DePaul University and University of Illinois at Chicago.

During that time, Sybert kept his hands in the elevator industry and continued to work at CJA.

After completing college, Sybert returned to CJA full time. And, despite all he had learned in the classroom, Sybert credits his parents with giving him the true tools needed to run a business. “My dad and mom have taught me everything I know about running CJA. A textbook can never take the place of real-world learning,” he said. “My mom, who handles human resources, never ceases to amaze me with everything she does. I truly enjoy working with both of my parents.”

Running Day-to-Day Operations

Today, Sybert says he remains involved in special projects, sales and working with the employees in the shop, and enjoys each day’s different set of challenges. He stresses the importance of being involved with everything and seeing the whole picture. “You’ve got team members who depend on you for not only a paycheck, but [also] for support and understanding,” he said. “My dad helped me see that there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with running a company, and it’s something I don’t take lightly.”

Sybert admits to facing his fair share of challenges running a small business: “I can absolutely say that being a small manufacturer building products from scratch is not an easy task. It’s like a triangle, with each point relying on the others; one weak point could cause the entire thing to collapse.” To accomplish what he needs to and do it well, Sybert works long hours and tries not to take his work home with him to his wife of 16 years, Tiffany, and their three sons, Zack, Owen and Quinn. “It can be difficult, but I make the effort to put everything into perspective. I also rely and depend on my team to help me each day, and they do a great job,” Sybert said.  

One of the most rewarding parts of working at CJA for Sybert is the involvement with custom projects: “C.J. Anderson has worked on historical restoration projects in Washington, D.C., as well as others around the country. We’ve also been part of many transit systems, and most recently, of note are our custom push-button stations for One World Trade Center,” he said.

Fixing problems and helping others see how to fix problems is another positive aspect of the job for Sybert. “It’s extremely rewarding to help our customers who are in a bind, those no one seems to want to help, and then going above and beyond to do so,” he said. Those value-added services and the quality of the products CJA sells are of utmost importance to Sybert. “The work we all do is critical to the disabled community who require access to buildings. Without it, they are stuck and can’t get where they need to go. I believe we as an industry don’t think about it like that, and we should,” he said.

The Big Picture – the Economy and the Future

Sybert confides that one of his goals each day is to make a difference at work and make the industry a better one. In the difficult economy, he has maintained a positive outlook by always looking ahead, being cautiously optimistic and taking one day at a time. While mainstream media indicates that the economy seems to be slowly turning around, Sybert believes the elevator industry will take one to two years to really see and feel it.

He has seen CJA’s manufacturing product lines slow down a little over the past few years, but instead of laying people off, the company has moved them around. Sybert said: “We’ve also invested in new machinery and brought that part of our manufacturing process in house, which keeps our people busy when they may have run out of work and been laid off.” Sybert advises business owners to watch all the numbers, noting: “There are obvious signs that can affect the long-term functionality of any business. Look for alternative ways to get cash in the door. Steps need to be considered on all fronts to ensure long-term survivability.”

For advice, mentoring and inspiration, Sybert looks to friends and colleagues in the industry. “I admire those who volunteer and those who are genuinely concerned for the direction our industry is headed in and the efforts being made to make it a safer one. I’m also impressed by those who recognize what the industry has provided them and, in return, give back because of it,” Sybert said.

For his part, Sybert does most of his volunteer work within the industry. He actively participates in the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation, Elevator U, the National Association of Elevator Contractors, the Canadian Elevator Contractors Association, NAESA International, the National Elevator Industry, Inc. and the Chicago Elevator Association. And, since 2005, he has hosted The Elevator Radio Show weekly podcast, which is dedicated to elevator-related news.

In his remaining spare time, Sybert enjoys riding and racing bicycles and spending time with his family. This past summer, the family took what Sybert calls “a once-in-a-lifetime”, two-and-a-half-week vacation in California.

To best balance family with running a successful business, Sybert tries to remain focused on the bottom line at all times: “I make elevator parts, manage people who make elevator parts and help customers who need elevator parts,” he said. It sounds so simple, but then Sybert cannot help complicating it by shedding light on what his job as president of CJA means to him: “What I like about the industry is that it’s a small one, but one so important, especially to those with limited mobility.” Because of this, Sybert says he strives to do his job better every day and continually make a difference in the industry he has been fascinated with since he was a kid riding on top of an elevator car with his dad.

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Elevator World | December 2012 Cover