From his early years growing up on a small farm outside of Morton to his stewardship of multi-million dollar companies, Wayne Baum has always remained true to his humble roots. His father, Otto, and mother, Mary, were German immigrants who instilled in their children the value of hard work and character—lessons he and his siblings would never forget as they grew the family business. At the age of 16, he got his start as a laborer for his father before entering the union bricklayer apprenticeship program, while also attending Bradley University.
Over time, he and his brothers—Mel, Robert and Kenny—expanded the work of Otto Baum & Sons across the country, founding numerous construction and masonry businesses in Arizona, Florida, Texas and Illinois. In the mid-1990s, these companies were brought together under the umbrella of CORE Construction—founded on Otto Baum’s core values of honesty, integrity, fairness and personal growth. Today, the Otto Baum Company remains a pillar of central Illinois, while CORE Construction operates 14 offices in nine states—an embodiment of the Midwestern work ethic that Baum credits for their success.
A longtime philanthropist, Baum has given back to his community in more ways than can be told. For nearly two decades, he served on the Easter Seals board, volunteering countless hours of time behind the scenes. He served on the Board of Trustees of his alma mater, Bradley University, and Eureka College; spent time as chairman of the WTVP and Lakeview Museum boards; and served on the boards of the Peoria Symphony Foundation, Pekin Hospital, Proctor Hospital and UnityPoint Health – Methodist. He was a trustee for the Village of Peoria Heights for eight years and has assisted many other organizations through the Baum Family Foundation and the foundations of CORE Construction and The Otto Baum Company. Throughout his life, he has strived to help others, exemplifying an understanding of a phrase he has used time and again: “We’ve all been warmed by fires we haven’t built.”
Your father, Otto Baum, came over from Germany in 1925. What led him to come to the United States?
Over there, inflation was rampant and work was hard to get. They’d get paid hundreds of thousands of marks for a week’s work, and it wouldn’t buy a train ticket home. Dad paid a mortgage for 20 years on a little farm they lived on, and the money was worth more in the morning than it was in the afternoon… He had an opportunity because of a neighbor who came over [to the United States] previously—a farmer who lived outside of Morton—and he sponsored Otto to come over. [Otto] became indentured to him for two years… working as a hired man on that farm. After two years, he was able to go do some masonry work because he had been a bricklayer in Germany… Then he was able to rent a farm, and to pay the rent, he did all the farm work.
This was near Morton?
This was about 2½ miles outside of Morton, [near] what’s now Queenwood Road. So during that time, he started doing masonry work for area farmers. Those farmers would supply the materials and the equipment, because Dad had no money and he couldn’t speak English when he came here. The guy he worked for was very, very strict. Dad always told the story that he was working in the wintertime on the farm, and his hands were cracked and bleeding. He asked for a pair of gloves, and was told, “When you’re paid off, you can get gloves.” He said it was just very difficult.
So he started doing masonry work, building barn foundations and cisterns on area farms, and established a reputation as a good, hard worker—an honest guy. And he went to the Morton State Bank at the time, and the first-generation Reuling—Fred Reuling—was president of the bank. Dad went in and asked for a loan of about $250, which was a lot of money back then. He wanted to buy a two-wheel trailer, a motor hoe, a shovel, a mortar box and a few other things so he could have his own equipment to go out and do work for other people… Fred says, “What do you have for collateral?” Dad said he didn’t have any collateral… just me: my character, hard work.
Fred said he’d have to take it to the board. Back then, the board was made up primarily of farmers… and they all knew Dad. He had no collateral, but the board said… he is a very hard worker and very honest—he has very strong character—so they gave him a loan. That loan of $200-plus has now turned into two very large companies—Otto Baum and CORE Construction—which collectively do nearly $700 million of work a year, employing 1,200 people. That one act of giving the loan [based] on his character.
How did your mother and father meet?
They met in Mackinaw at a barn dance-type of thing. Mary Bernhardt. Her parents were both German; she spoke German fluently. So they courted and married. They were both Apostolic Christians; they gave all credit to God for what they had. “It’s not by our hands and labor—we’re just using what God has given us.”
He remained on the same farm until he passed away, over 40 years ago—he eventually purchased it. The first 18 years of my life were spent on this farm, along with my brothers and sisters.
How many kids were there all together?
Seven—two girls and five boys. I had one brother who passed away at 19—he had muscular dystrophy. We had a chicken house, hog house, machine shed, corn crib and a barn. Mom had a big garden, and we canned everything. We were basically self-sustaining. We had Swiss cattle that we milked by hand every morning and every night.
My first four years of school, I went to Maple Grove, a one-room schoolhouse. It was two kids and myself in first, second and third grades. There were about 22 in the whole school, grades one to eight. It was about a mile and a half from our house, where the Field Shopping Center is now, on the corner of Main and Queenwood. We had a big coal furnace inside… It would be cold in the wintertime, and the whole class would gather around this big stove. That was a neat experience. When I think about the success of so many people who went to little one-room schools like that, it’s phenomenal.
Then they consolidated the schools, and the buses picked us up and took us into Morton. That was a scary thing. The only time we went to Morton was to go to church! The town felt like 10 miles away (laughs).
So most of your early years were spent on the farm?
Yes, on the farm, milking cows and cleaning out the barns. Our neighbor had John Deere tractors, and we had a creek going through the property… He had a D6 Caterpillar and a D8, and he used to come out and shape the creek bed once in a while. I remember, as a little kid, I used to sit on that tractor when he was going.
So tell us how you got into your career and the bricklayer apprenticeship.
Dad would say to the boys in his old German accent, “I don’t care what you kids do, but you’re going to learn a trade.” He said you can go to school, you can do whatever you want, but you have to learn a trade. So… after our farm chores, we had labor: carrying mortar, building scaffolds… things like that. Then as we came of age out of high school, each of us went into the union bricklayer apprenticeship program. When I was going through, I went to Bradley [University] also—it took me about a year longer to get through since I was doing both.
What did you study at Bradley?
It was called Building Construction Technology; today, it’s in the school of Civil Engineering and Construction… When I got out of Bradley and my apprenticeship, I worked in the field as a bricklayer for about four years. I was a superintendent, then a foreman after a while, and then I went into the office as a masonry estimator… From then on, things just kind of developed as the opportunities existed.
Otto Baum was the original company. It was Otto, then it was the four brothers: Mel, Wayne, Robert and Kenny—each of us were 25-percent owners… Otto Baum was a masonry subcontractor then. My brother Mel was the president, and he created a commercial concrete division, an excavating division, and a road and bridge division.
Over time, we started all these other companies from scratch and gave them different names. Sun Valley Masonry was the masonry company in Phoenix; Target General, Inc. was our general contracting division in Phoenix. Southern Gulf West Construction in Florida, Diversified Buildings in Morton, Diversified Construction Services in Texas… We took that Midwest work ethic with us, and I think that’s really one of the reasons for the success of those locations.
How did CORE Construction come into existence?
We started getting some national clients, and it was hard to relate that we had an office in Arizona and one in Florida, but the names weren’t the same. We felt we needed to bring the companies under one umbrella for marketing purposes, for continuity of bookkeeping and central operations. We spent quite a bit of time going over the situation, trying to determine: what is the best name, what’s our culture, what do we really want to portray? After an exhausting amount of input… the end result was CORE.
The meaning behind the name is Otto Baum’s core values: honesty, integrity, fairness, and nurturing the personal growth of those who you meet and work with: employees, clients, whoever it may be. On the same day in the mid-‘90s, we rolled out the name, and all the companies became CORE. That really worked out well for us. Now we have 14 offices in nine states, and they are all CORE—all the same culture; [we] basically speak the same language.
We kind of operate as a federal system, like the government. We have the CORE Construction Group, and we have CORE Management Services, which provides the bonding, fleet, insurance and IT. Each of the respective companies is self-contained for the rest of the work—project managers, estimating, supervision, all that stuff. We don’t co-mingle the monies. We operate independently for accountability purposes, otherwise it gets convoluted as to who’s doing what.
Are all of the businesses under CORE now?
Sun Valley Masonry, Otto Baum Company and CORE Construction are three separate companies. There are multiple owners now, as we made a lot of our key employees shareholders.
Are there any projects over the years that stick out as highlights?
So many. How much time you got? (laughs)
Are you still chairman of the CORE board?
Yes, I’m chairman of the board, and probably 20-percent engaged in the company. I don’t do the day-to-day stuff anymore. We have quarterly meetings, and I’m still tied into the offices in Morton. I have a secretary who works three days a week… [so I] know the overall direction and strategy, an overview of what’s going on.
When did you retire from day-to-day operations?
About three or four years ago. You don’t just cut it off one day, so I’m not sure I can give an exact day. I’m really trying to cut things down now, substantially. I [recently] resigned from the Red Cross board, UnityPoint Health – Methodist board, Eureka College board. I’m just winding thing down. I’m still on the Penguin Project Foundation board… I’m on the Easter Seals and Peoria Symphony Foundation boards. I was on the Easter Seals board for 20 years and was board president at WTVP for a period of time; likewise with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra. I was on Pekin Hospital’s board and chaired it from ‘97 to ’99; I was on that board for 13 years. I was on Proctor for six. When Proctor and Methodist merged, I went on the Methodist board. But I kind of made up my mind that I’ve done enough… I want to spend more time at my lake house and in Florida.
How did you select which organizations to support?
I was primarily approached by them. My first go-around with Eureka College, I was on the board for nine years. Then I was on Bradley’s board for six years, then I went back to Eureka College (laughs). It’s just an evolutionary thing. You’re approached by others, and you have to decide if you’re willing to serve. All of these boards are very involved… you can’t just be a passive board member.
It’s tremendous relationship building. Each of those boards has people of influence… and I learned a ton from them. I was just a farm kid from Morton. I look back, and I don’t know how it all happened!
Why did you decide to go into public service?
The mayor at the time, Earl Carter, asked if I would; I had only moved into the Heights a year earlier. He was president of the Greater Peoria Mass Transit District. We built the new bus garage and office for them, and I got to know him, so he asked me… I was on the Peoria Heights Village Board for eight years. And then, that was enough politics (laughs)!
All of these activities were very time-consuming. I’ve said this before many times: “We’ve all been warmed by fires we haven’t built.” We were taught in schools built by others; we drink water from wells dug by others… people doing things for others, for no particular reason other than just doing it.
That level of knowledge or experience doesn’t necessarily benefit you as an individual. You know, I’m never going to own a hospital or a school—that has nothing to do with it. But… who runs that hospital? How does it exist? Why is it here? I’ve been able to have almost 20 years of experience in understanding the complexity, the reimbursements, the administration—what it takes to run a hospital. Likewise, with a college or university. What does it take? How complex is it? People just take it for granted. There was tremendous satisfaction in knowing… how does this city run, how does that work?
So that was part of your motivation then, not only to give back, but to learn…
To learn and not take for granted that these things are just there. I would encourage you, anytime that you can, to get involved in anything that is of interest to you… In 1986, we built a large addition to Pekin Hospital... a new radiology and surgery area, an entrance lobby, and a three-story medical office building. After that project was over, they asked me to be on the board. So I served on that board.
[The Peoria developer] Ray Becker, back 20 years ago, asked if I would be interested in being on the Eureka College board because he was on the board… Eureka College was in pretty dire straits at the time, like so many of the small, four-year, privately funded colleges and nonprofits. I remember being on the board with three Caterpillar people… Rennie Atterbury, Jon Michael from RLI, Mike McCord—we were all on a committee together to drill down and find out what’s wrong. I was able to learn what these Cat people really do. They… figure out what’s wrong and how to fix it. So, that was another experience.
Tell me about the Baum Family Foundation and the motivation behind that.
The motivation for the Baum Family Foundation, and also the CORE Construction Foundation… We just felt, as part of the Christian background of giving back, that we should set aside X amount of dollars that would be determined each year. So at the end of the year, we would put a determined amount in the foundation, and then throughout the year, we would take requests from various charitable organizations and determine the gift to those organizations. And we still do that today.
Our motto is kind of “share the wealth”—with the community and with your fellow workers. People notice very quickly if you’re taking everything at someone else’s expense. We try to always be fair in that respect. Our turnover rate is almost nonexistent. We like to think, when a person comes on board, that they’re going to spend their professional career with our company.
You don’t see a lot of that anymore.
No, and that can’t be healthy; I don’t care what anyone says. What it takes to train and get to know each other, to be able to depend on each other… How do you do that when you work for someone for a few years and then move on? People notice that. Employers notice that. If people keep moving, then what’s your loyalty going to be? Some of these big companies… it’s amazing the turnover. It seems to me like they take methods with them, and they take ideas. And young people have good ideas. If you have some good, young employees, you want to keep them.
Is there anything else you want to add that we haven’t discussed?
It’s just a very humbling feeling. One point I want to make is you don’t do any of this by yourself. There isn’t one thing I’ve done where my brothers haven’t worked equally as hard. They had to [pick up] slack in the business when I took time for these other duties… They were willing to do that because they felt it was important to be represented… doing this other stuff. And it’s not without sacrifice, because it’s usually over and above what you’re already doing. I stayed engaged in the business 100 percent while I was doing all that stuff (laughs).
You’ve definitely made a concerted effort to pass on your knowledge and relationships, work ethic and vision…
And the principle of staying involved in the community… That’s CORE and the Otto Baum Company. “CORE Cares”—when we received the philanthropy award for the two foundations years ago… that kind of became the theme of the day. It caught on. It’s pretty simple: it’s the right thing to do—no other reason.
I look back and wonder how it all happened, but I also think, man, it went quick! Seriously. I stop and think about all the trips, all the meetings, all the setting things up and convincing people to come to work for you, finding an office, convincing the bonding company to let you go into those areas so they are willing to back you…
It’s amazing to think of all the lives you’ve touched.
Yes, it’s phenomenal… I gave a talk a few years ago at one of our retreats. Every one of the companies has gone through areas of difficulty, and I tried to point that out at one of our meetings. I even had t-shirts made [that said], “Remember the Alamo.” Because you know, Santa Anna got defeated a couple years later... So it’s not without trials. I’ve often thought, if everything is going good all the time, that’s when you have to worry (laughs). iBi
Great article, super person, and a very good company!
Excellent article on an awesome company who continues to make Morton proud. Their work ethic and values come through every day. The company has many long-time employees who are talented and well-respected.