The origins of The Finch Companies date to the 1940s, when two brothers returned from World War II and put their trucks to work delivering coal to private homes. Over the years, Nyle and Lyle Finch expanded their trucking fleet as well as their services—and as their services expanded, so did their businesses.
Today, The Finch Companies is comprised of three related businesses which share facilities at 1925 S. Darst Street in Peoria. N.E. Finch Co. specializes in site excavation and development, pile driving, bridge construction, demolition, trucking, aggregate and material sales, and crane and equipment rental. Peoria Barge Terminal is one of the largest multimodal terminals on the Illinois River, providing services related to freight transfer and storage, loading and offloading cargo from barges, trucks and railcars. Lastly, Peoria Metro Construction is a general contractor providing commercial, industrial and institutional construction services since 1988.
After leading operations for more than 35 years, Lyle’s son, Tom Finch, has stepped back from day-to-day management, though he remains chairman and CEO of the companies. His daughter and son-in-law, Courtney and Tom Meischner, now serve as president and vice president respectively—the third generation to run the family businesses. Amidst an ever-changing marketplace, they seek to carry on the simple, old-fashioned values of the companies’ founders: honesty, integrity and quality. iBi recently spoke with all three members of the executive management team.
Describe the origins of the company in the 1940s after Nyle and Lyle Finch returned from the war.
Early on, they got their start with a single truck, hauling coal to houses. When the war was over, the residential coal hauling continued. They eventually won a contract with CILCO to haul coal into the power plant, and from there the fleet grew—and the capabilities expanded as well.
As the company expanded its services in the 1950s, what were the keys to your success?
Relationships. It’s one of the main principles in business. Lyle and Nyle were relationship guys, and they were handshake guys. There’s not a whole lot of that in our world anymore.
When the CILCO deal came about, the trucking fleet expanded, cranes were eventually acquired, other equipment was purchased, and we weren’t just hauling coal anymore. Peoria Marine Construction was doing pile driving and foundation work up and down the Illinois River and across the Midwest. The Finch brothers were even into substation maintenance as well. Then came the Duck Creek Power Plant project in Canton, Illinois in the 1970s. The trucking fleet was upwards of 60 units. We probably had 20-plus pieces of equipment on that site alone moving dirt.
How did Peoria Barge Terminal get its start?
Peoria Barge Terminal was started back in the late 1950s and actually resided below the I-74 bridge on the land that now houses the CEFCU Center Stage area and the RiverPlex. This venture was an enabler for more transportation opportunities for N.E. Finch’s trucks, as well as starting our warehousing operations. We migrated to our current location in the early 1970s with the acquisition of land from Laidlaw and National Distillery, which expanded our footprint. Additionally, we also owned and operated Kingston River Terminal near the Cat Mapleton Foundry. That entity was sold off in the late 1970s to Central Farmers.
How did the second generation [Tom Finch] get involved in the business?
Tom Finch: I started my career as an early teen, and maybe even before, mowing grass around the CILCO substations. There was a stint where school and the military took over, but when I returned to Peoria I eventually was on second shift in the East Peoria garage greasing trucks, and even operating some equipment from time to time. From there, I eventually went into dispatching trucks to ultimately leading the entire operation.
What led to the formation of Peoria Metro Construction as a separate company?
Peoria Marine Construction was actually conceived back in the early ‘60s and focused primarily on pile driving and foundation work for clients like CILCO and Caterpillar. Peoria Marine was then “put on the shelf” in the early ‘80s when economic times became too challenging. We reformed Peoria Metro Construction in 1988 with a core nucleus of folks that came over when Tousley-Iber [a local construction company] closed shop. Since then we have continued to grow and diversify. Today PMC is one of the premier mid-sized commercial general contractors in the central Illinois area.
What are some of the companies’ most notable accomplishments over the years?
Our cranes lifted the steel during the erection of landmarks like Robertson Memorial Fieldhouse and Caterpillar’s Downtown Administration Building. We’ve also demolished a number of buildings, such as Warner Homes, the Bergner’s building, the Sears Block and the old Peoria Airport terminal.
Most recently, we have been involved with a number of projects within Peoria School District 150 and Illinois Central College (Peoria Campus)—most notably the multi-year expansion and renovation at Peoria High School and the construction and sitework of the new ICC Student Center. We have had our hands in a number of projects at Bradley University, including the sitework for the new Business-Engineering Convergence Center. We just finished up the construction and sitework of the new international terminal building at Peoria International Airport back in 2016. We have more work to start at PIA this year with the groundbreaking of a new snow-removal equipment facility. We were also recently acknowledged as the low bidder for the demolition of the Peoria riverfront area [platform with the old Joe’s Crab Shack, etc.].
What is a typical day like at the Barge Terminal? How many barges load/unload at the terminal daily?
We are unloading one barge to a handful of barges a day. At any given time, we might have as many as two to four people on the dock. We may be transloading stored materials like steel products or bulk aggregates with wheel loaders or fork trucks to flatbeds or dump trailers. Some barges come in covered, so lids have to be removed and reinstalled after unload. We are running one or two large wheel loaders every day in order to keep customers serviced, and we operate a full-time, single-shift scale house for our needs on weighing inbound and outbound traffic.
How have barge operations changed over the years?
The volume of products moving up and down the river system changes with time, much like the economy does. As of 2015, there were roughly 260+ million tons of products that move throughout the U.S. waterways, and the long-term forecast shows that at least doubling by 2045. The number of high-volume products, however, is pretty limited to us here on the Illinois River. Grains and farm products are probably the highest volume mover, which is predominately controlled by ADM through their own locations and transport modes. After that come aggregates, some steel and metal products, and a few other miscellaneous products. The biggest change is definitely coal; it is no longer existent as EPA regulations have changed over the years.
Tell us more about your warehousing and storage operations.
Unfortunately we chose to shelve most of our warehousing operations in early 2017. With the continued changes in our local manufacturing supply chain, coupled with the continued economic changes around the country, the volume commitments from customers just didn’t make it viable to continue at this time. We do still utilize our warehouse space for some of our own internal needs. Additionally, we have a couple of customers that utilize the liquid bulk storage tanks on-site. From a dry bulk storage standpoint, we hold inventory of numerous aggregate products and wood mulch products on our property.
Describe how the third generation of the Finch family got involved in the business.
Tom Finch: It is pretty rare in any family business to reach a third generation of operation and/or ownership—we are fortunate in that respect! Both my daughter and son-in-law are now involved in the management of our companies, which has allowed me to step back in my day-to-day management activities. They are both graduates of Bradley University and were employed at Caterpillar for a number of years before coming here. My daughter, Courtney, has been involved in various facets of the business since she was a teenager and was just named president of all companies last October. My son-in-law, Tom, is currently vice president of all companies and focuses on leading the estimating, project management and general day-to-day operations of all the businesses.
Describe how Peoria Barge Terminal customers have benefited from the affiliation with N.E. Finch Co. and its trucking business. In what other ways do the three companies interact?
Peoria Barge’s affiliation with N.E. Finch allows us to offer delivered prices from dock to doorstep, as well as standard FOB pricing for customer pickup. This allows our customers to choose if they want to coordinate their own trucks or modes of transportation, or let us handle that for them. On the construction side, Peoria Metro Construction utilizes N.E. Finch’s capabilities on a number of projects and vice versa. With that said, at the management level, we try to maintain separation when it comes to each business entity in order to ensure other business partners get a fair look at projects and that we are providing the most cost-effective and efficient construction to our clients and in the markets we serve.
What is the current state of container-on-barge service on the Illinois River, and how could the “marine highway” concept impact your company?
In short, there are a number of conversations in the past year or two that have started related to the topic. At the end of the day, the economics and types of products looking to be handled have to make sense. We are excited for the opportunity as it will come; it is only a matter of time. iBi