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Great West Electrical: A bright light in Berwyn dims

Caption
(John Cox — msleditorial@shawmedia.com)
Mike Kocoras cleans off a workbench in the catacomb-like stockroom of the Great West Electrical Supply building. Mike and his sister, Louise, took over the 58-year-old family business but will shut the doors for the last time on New Year's Eve.

BERWYN — Great West Electrical Supply in Berwyn is one of those businesses where customers are often known on a first-name basis and where good service is taken seriously.

For the brother and sister team of Mike and Louise Kocoras, it’s a family legacy — that closes its doors New Year’s Eve.

Mike and Louise will flip the switch next week on Great West Electrical Supply, a business started 58 years ago on 26th Street by their late father, Peter, and late uncle, Nicholas.

The siblings are selling the building and also negotiating the sale of the business.

Why? Mike said the taxes are too high, construction is down in the area and big-box stores are too much to compete with.

“The big-box stores have always given us a run for our money but we held our own,” Mike said. “But the Menards store is less than a mile from us. The concentration of big-box stores and the residential housing market collapse — those were the death knell for Great West.”

The electrical supply wholesale and distribution business initially catered to electricians and commercial accounts, Mike said.

“We also were very friendly to the walk-in trade and the do-it-yourselfers. That’s something we’ve always done. That’s something other wholesalers didn’t pursue as much,” he said. “We have outfitted many people in the area with their lighting.”

Aside from the poor economy, what hastened the decision to close was an offer for the property, Mike said.

“That is the underlying, main reason we are closing our doors,” he said.

The business’s humble beginnings started with a loan from members of the Kocoras family.

“Both (Peter and Nicholas) were working for other electrical distributors when they decided to break out on their own,” Mike said. “I think they borrowed $1,000 from family members and that’s how they started. They rented this little storefront in Cicero. I remember this old, beat-up delivery truck they had when I was a kid. You couldn’t close the doors.”

Also working with the Kocoras’ for 45 years was their cousin, Thomas, who retired as sales manager in January 2012.

Great West once employed 23 people, but that was some time ago.

“Now we have three, but that’s the way it goes,” Mike said.

At age 61, Mike said he will be seeking employment after the store closes.

“I figure I’ll land someplace,” he said. “I figure somebody is going to want an old-timer who knows something about the industry.”

Louise said it will take some adjusting to not going to the store each morning.

“When you’ve been doing this all your adult life, it’s going to be a shock,” she said. “It’s a little bittersweet, but it’s the right time.”

Louise said she was going to take some time off and then find a job where she doesn’t have the responsibilities and headaches of owning a business.

“I don’t want to work Saturdays. I want a 40-hour week,” she said. “We usually work about 55 hours. It gets old.”

But the best thing about her time with Great West?

“It’s got to be the customers,” Louise said. “We have a unique following and we love our customers. That’s going to be the saddest thing, not having them come in to see us.”

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