Contractor Of The Year Finalist

Lending a helping hand is always John Cederlund’s best investment.

Growing up on the northwest side of Chicago, the rules are simple – be loyal to those who are loyal you, stand up for what’s right and give a guy a break. These rules are the foundation on which John Cederlund has built a sports field and playground business while helping to change the life of many other city kids.

A better way
College wasn’t his future, so after high school John went to work for a Chicago area landscaping firm. During his years with the company, John learned the landscaping business from dirt to desk. He did well but wasn’t comfortable with the business relationships he observed. “I knew I could be nice in this business and still make a lot of money,” John says. So, in 1991, he moved to Union, Illinois, to start his own playground and sports field building company, Team REIL, (REIL stands for ‘retire early in life”) with the goal of blending business success and personal kindness.

No-cost design
Located in a rural area, Team REIL specializes in site prep and construction of playgrounds and recreation areas for municipal and state agencies in Illinois, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Other clients include residential developers who include build playgrounds first as part of a neighborhood’s amenities.

When John bids on a project, his proposal includes the project design, all recreational equipment such as playground apparatus, site amenities and synthetic turf, as well as site prep and landscaping materials and labor. If the client accepts the bid and uses Team REIL’s services, John refunds the cost of the design work.

John includes the project design for several reasons. “Our turnkey bids lower the overall cost of the project because there are fewer layers of decisions for our customers. This is important for municipal and state projects that require multiple sign-offs because fewer decisions mean faster completion times,” John says.

By adding the complementary design work and supplying the recreation equipment to his bid, John eliminates cost and time overruns that can happen when independently purchased equipment doesn’t fit the overall project design.

John represents 17 recreation equipment manufacturers and can supply everything required for a project, from trash cans to turf, at a cost that is agreeable to government project directors. As an example, John cites a project in Sycamore, Illinois, for four recreation areas that, when bid separately cost $250,000. The Team REIL bid, however, which combined all costs came in at $100,000. It got the job.

Team REIL is a union shop, and part of the company’s comprehensive bid approach is ensuring Team REIL subcontractors meet the same wage requirements. To keep talented and reliable workers, John keeps his full time staff to 22 employees who support the subs he hires. “We don’t hire full-time people as ‘full-time temps’ as other landscape contractors might,” John says. His goal is to keep his staff busy year round.

John’s son, Tim, joined the company in 1992, soon followed by his brother Mike in 1995. It’s obvious that the brothers enjoy working with their father. Mike and Tim say their dad has high expectations of them but doesn’t criticize them if they come up short. “He just steps in and helps us meet his expectations,” Mike says.

Because he supplies the recreation equipment, Team REIL’s comprehensive approach extends to follow-up maintenance services.

Initially, the company rented equipment but now Team REIL owns 14 pieces machines including a Cat D5K dozer, 226 skid steers and 257B multi-terrain loaders. “We have credit, we just don’t use it,” John says.

Team REIL is expanding into docking systems, nature walks and playground safety surfacing. The EZ Dock polyethylene docking systems can be found at Chicago’s 63rd Street Beach and North Avenue Beach where it serves as a handicap-accessible walkway over the sand to the beach buildings and lake.

“Rescued animals rescuing kids”
That’s how John describes the Light Center Foundation, a private charity he founded with wife Jan that works with local and regional social intervention agencies who refer at-risk youth up to age 18 from special needs recreation associations, mental health facilities, juvenile court services, schools and families.

The Light Center, opened in 2000 and located on the REIL-C-Farm, uses animal-assisted therapy programs developed by Jan to help kids rebuild their self-confidence and self-respect, while developing strategies to deal with life’s challenges. Many of the kids are from urban areas and have physical, behavioral or developmental challenges. The country setting and specially chosen therapist-animals allow the kids to learn understand and work through complex social and emotional issues while caring for and handling these patient therapists. Most of the animals, including sheep, donkeys, rabbits, ponies, goats and poultry, are rescued and the children, who are often working through their own rescue issues, seem to recognize their kindred spirits immediately.

Most of the Light Center activities are at the REIL-C-Farm, with additional programs at the nearby equestrian center, also built by Team REIL, where the Equine Assisted Skills Development program uses horses to teach problem solving, coping and relationship skills to the children. Jan says that by observing the behavior of the horses, the at-risk youths begin to identify missing or inadequate life skills in their own lives and begin to learn trust, responsibility, confidence, self-esteem and patience. John points to a competition held at the close of each two-week session when kids lead their horses through an obstacle course of apples and carrots, encouraging the horses using only their words to ignore the temptations and safely reach the end of the course. John says watching a hard-shelled 18-year-old boy gently telling his horse, “no, don’t eat that, don’t do it, you want to win,” helps him believe the young man is beginning to develop his own skills to avoid temptations in life.

While not an ‘open to the public’ facility in the general sense, the Light Center’s red barn door is always open so that individuals and families experiencing abuse always have a safe, warm place to go in a crisis.

Philosophy for success
“Always take the call,” John says. “It’s all about service.”
The Cederlunds don’t dwell on the effects of the current economy. “We have our own economy,” says Tim. “We don’t wait for a situation to come to us – we create our own opportunities.” How? Mike says, “We are very stubborn people. We never turn down a project and always say yes.”