No Progressive Tax Story #6: Peter Orum of Midwest Groundcovers, Inc.

The company Peter Orum and his wife Irma started in 1969 now employs 300 people during Chicagoland’s growing season. The Orums planted Midwest Groundcovers’ roots into five acres in St. Charles, Illinois. 51 years later, they’ve expanded to 700 acres in Illinois and Michigan.

“We can’t pick up our business easily. This is why Illinois’ political climate is a big problem for us,” Orum said. Midwest Groundcovers demands the very soil on which it exists, and the vast majority of it is in Illinois. “We can’t just pack up, load up and leave …”

Peter Orum came to America in the 1960s to pursue a dream, just as millions of other immigrants. He was born in Denmark into a family with a small nursery business where he learned naturally about plants, soil, and gardening.

He studied as an apprentice in horticulture during his teen years and entered the Danish Army at age 19. While in the Army, Orum learned about engineering, building and managing while rising to the lieutenant rank in two short years.

“When I had to look at whether to continue in the Danish Army, I decided I wanted to get back to my horticulture,” he said. “That is when I started working to get to the United States. I got immigration papers because I had a job in Dundee, Illinois.”

Orum stayed at that job for several years, during which he met and married his wife, Irma, while gaining more knowledge and experience about horticulture and business. When his employer suddenly died in a tragic accident, Orum decided to pursue a dream of his starting his own business.

While Midwest Groundcovers now employs hundreds during the growing season, it has been hard work to get where the company is today, he said.

“It’s not easy to start a business. It’s never easy. In general, it’s not easy,” Orum said. “If anyone thinks they can start a business with eight-hour days, they shouldn’t start.”

With the help of friends and family willing to work weekends and evenings for hamburgers and beer, the Orums’ nursery began to grow and grow … into a family of companies.

Peter’s wife Irma tapped into her bookkeeping skills and experience in business administration while potting plants, sticking cuttings, watering and mowing at the business, and caring for the Orum Family.

Now Peter and Irma’s daughter, Christa Orum-Keller, is chairman and president of Midwest Groundcovers, while her 78-year-old father focuses on crucial projects that combine his horticultural expertise with his engineering knowledge.

With a growing burden of state regulations and taxes, Illinois’ tone towards small businesses has changed over the 51 years Midwest Groundcovers has been in Illinois, Orum said.

“Illinois used to be a good place to do business. We have a bunch of rules, like other states, but we could still get by. Years ago, the government didn’t bother us as much as it does now. It seems like now there’s something new every week,” he said.

“This proposed amendment concerns me a lot. It is just opening up the gates for more income taxes. That is scary – especially scary when there’s no plan for pension reform or budget reform of any type,” he said.

Orum says he’s very concerned the funds the tax hike brings in will be wasted, just as they’ve been wasted before.

“The more we pay in taxes, the less we can invest in new growing systems – and providing more jobs,” he said.

And that affects many more peoples’ lives than just the Orum’s.

If the proposed amendment passes, Orum says it will set up an “open-ended system” where eventually the middle class will have more taken from their paychecks, because that’s where the most Illinois taxpayers and the most potential for tax revenue is.

Orum’s concern isn’t exaggerated. New Jersey’s progressive tax system once focused on those making $5 million and above. Just this past summer, lawmakers lowered the higher tax threshold down to those making $1 million annually. In some states the higher rates start at incomes as low as $25,000 per year.

Illinois’ proposal says the new system will start by focusing on those couples making $250,000 and above – and many like Orum doubt it will stay there long.

Even with all that, Peter Orum says he’d be much more open to the progressive tax proposal if Springfield politicians truly showed an interest in straightening out the state’s fiscal mess.

“If there was a grand bargain with overhauling the state’s pension system, I’d be more willing to consider the plan. But there is none offered at all,” Orum said.

Illinois voters will be voting on the progressive tax change to the Illinois Constitution in this election. If over 40% of those voting on the question or over 50% of those voting in the election say “No,” Illinois lawmakers will have to come up with a more fiscally responsible plan to solve our state’s budget woes.

That may be the only chance for Illinois to thrive once again, Orum says.

More small business owners’ stories HERE: