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posted: 3/12/2020 1:00 AM

Relentless pursuit of learning drives business growth

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  • Tom Hilaris

    Tom Hilaris


Last year, I joined my father, sister, and our entire team in celebrating a major milestone for our family business. For 30 years, Ergoseal has been providing comprehensive sealing solutions for rotating equipment OEMs in industrial, aerospace, and food applications -- manufacturing and designing mechanical, lip, non-contacting, and magnetic seals. I am honored to be at the helm of our family business, and the journey to get here is one I do not take for granted.

As you often see in family businesses, I was involved from the start -- folding boxes for the assembly team at age 10, helping out the machinists in high school and stepping into the general manager role three years before taking over as CEO in 2014. While Ergoseal has always been close to my heart, my love of business is something I've had to work at, building and refining it over the years through a combination of education and experience.

I joke that my dad is the first parent in history to try to convince his son not to become a doctor, but the truth is that my dream from a young age had been to go to medical school. I minored in business as an undergraduate because I knew that working in the family business was a real possibility for me, but I wouldn't say I enjoyed it.

While my heart was leaning toward medicine, my real-world experience was watching my dad build a solid and successful business, one that put people and relationships first. I remember one time when I was still in high school, Ergoseal had just brought on a new customer from Indiana who was in a jam with their former supplier, and my dad drove to deliver the part they needed overnight to help them out. I remember seeing that extra mile my dad went (hundreds, in fact) as a young man and thinking, "That's how you do it. That's how you run a business with a focus on service and relationships."

After finishing my bachelor's degree, I continued working in the family business, still considering taking the MCATs, but also taking every opportunity to learn and take on more responsibility in the business. When our general manager left suddenly, I stepped into the role and realized I wanted to know more -- more about growing a business, leading and managing people, and managing the financial side of the company.

I decided to pursue an MBA and started looking at part-time programs that would fit with my role at Ergoseal and the family I was starting to build. The Executive MBA program at Elmhurst College really stood out to me because of its cohort model, which my dad still credits as one of the best parts of his experience at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management.

When I started the MBA program in 2011, I was one of the youngest members of my cohort at age 27. I learned so much from my more experienced classmates and faculty members who were also practitioners. After each class, I would go into work the next day totally amped and ready to apply what I learned. Even today, I am still finding concepts that maybe weren't relevant to me at the time, but that my classmates had shared and that are shaping my growth and my approach to leadership. While I have always been a curious person, the MBA program in combination with the work I was doing at Ergoseal sparked in me a relentless pursuit of learning.

Shortly after finishing my MBA, I led Ergoseal through two acquisitions -- something I wouldn't have had the confidence to do without my education and professional experiences. I'm fortunate that my dad has been incredibly supportive of my plans for Ergoseal, and that my sister, Thomaie, has also taken an active leadership role in the company.

My journey as a business leader is far from over, and I'm working on myself and my company every day. The more responsibility I take on and the more decisions I make, the more I learn -- it all leads to more impact on the people who depend on me, which in turn drives even more reward for me to see what's possible. If any business leader is similarly seeking to discover the next level of their capabilities but hasn't seriously considered executive-level education, I highly recommend pursuing it. You'll be surprised what it might spark in you to drive your own personal and professional growth.

• Tom Hilaris is president and CEO at Ergoseal in Carol Stream.