Outside of Freedman Seating Co. on Chicago’s west side, there’s little indication one of the country’s major transit component manufacturers is housed inside.
A parking lot for a handful of cars sits outside an unassuming white factory building with two blue stripes going across the length of the building sits in one of the city’s impoverished neighborhoods. A small shop is situated across the street, which is torn up and decorated with one of the countless “Building a new Chicago,” found across the city advertising a capital improvement project underway.
But behind the white walls lies a company making seats that most transit riders in the U.S. have unknowingly sat on. Office employees even sit on the seats with a board room that has driver seats set up with swivel wheels instead of traditional office chairs.
And inside executive Vice President Dan Cohen’s office, he even has two classical chairs with fold out tables he found and had reupholstered with the same fabrics so he could have them for guests.
“They’re classics,” he said.
Much like the chairs, Freedman is also a classic company in transportation.
A family affair
Founded 120 years ago, the fourth generation family-owned company has deep roots in the Chicago area that includes an award certificate issued during the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Since that time it has been in several locations across the city and about 35 years being located outside of Chicago city limits.
The company was located in Ravenswood until about 14 years ago when it moved into the original Motorola factory on the city’s west side after they purchased it in 1998.
Cohen said because the area is economically disadvantaged, the city was very helpful in moving the company and helping it through its build out of the facility. It now employs more than 600 people in a 350,000 square-foot facility.
“We like this neighborhood. It’s very close to the expressways,” Cohen said. “This is a disadvantaged neighborhood, so the city was very eager to provide assistance to our moving to the neighborhood and helping finance the expansion and equipment purchases and very helpful in recruiting local labor.”
Austin Polytechnical Academy was opened in a nearby high school by Chicago Public Schools, which focuses on training students on getting jobs in manufacturing. Cohen said Freedman has “adopted” the high school and donates equipment along with sending over employees to work with programs so students can get on a path to learning how to break into manufacturing.
“It’s a trained skill. They’re good jobs,” Cohen said. “They’re relatively high paying jobs. You know, it’s not the same as being an accountant, but at the same time is a very good paying job that has great career advancement potential.”
Cohen said the company also works with the Jane Addams Resource Corp., which trains adults in manufacturing trades. Being located in Chicago, there’s not much of a talent shortage, but Cohen said engineers can be tough to come by at times.
“When Detroit’s busy, it’s tough,” he said. “When Detroit isn’t busy, it’s like there’s an endless supply of engineers.”
Quality and customization reign supreme
Although most riders, operators and transit agencies may not take major notice of bus seats, they can be some of the most custom made components of the vehicles. In fact, the level of detail can be so intricate that Cohen said it’s impossible to say how long it even takes to make an average seat.
“There’s no real answer to that,” he said. “The amount of hours can vary from five hours to 30 hours.”
With the exception of the foam and molding plastic, most of the components on Freedman seats are done in house. Some plastic comes from other Chicago based companies, while foam is purchased from companies in Wisconsin, Indiana and Pennsylvania.
Machines cut metal, then workers sand blast it and weld it, tubes are bent into place, fabric is cut and sewn together then glued onto seats after picked from 130 to 140 reams of fabrics kept in house.