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What Makes Jim Run?

Jim Oberweis earned a fortune in business, but in politics he hasn’t fared so well—failing in runs for governor, the Senate, and Congress while burning through $7 million of his own money and one 35-year marriage. Now he’s taking his second stab at Dennis Hastert’s old congressional seat—even as he risks becoming a political punch line

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The family’s namesake dairy, in North Aurora, was founded in 1927 by Oberweis’s paternal grandfather. While Jim was growing up, his father, Joe, ran it; his mother, Lora, was a teacher and principal in the Aurora schools. Oberweis worked at the dairy during summers, delivering milk to homes and dipping ice-cream cones in the dairy store, but he resisted following his older brother, John, into the business. “As a kid I think I baled hay and milked cows once,” Oberweis says.

Still, the dairy remained influential in his life. Joe Oberweis was interested in local politics and especially vocal about core rural concerns of the time, such as deficit spending and agricultural policy. When Jim Oberweis entered the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the fall of 1964, he majored in political science with the intention of becoming a lawyer who would, his father hoped, “defend the industry against the outrageous policies of the federal government,” as Oberweis puts it. But he was more interested in stocks than statutes and quickly dropped out of law school at Northwestern University to join an investment firm.

In 1978, he founded his own firm, Oberweis Securities, Inc. “It was exhilarating,” Oberweis says of his rise through the investment world. “Some of the best years of my life.”

Not long after, he first thought about running for Congress and raised the idea with his wife, Elaine, his college sweetheart, whom he married the summer before his senior year at U. of I. She nixed it on the spot. “She said something to the effect of, ‘Jim, we have five children and I want to raise them in Aurora, Illinois, not Washington, D.C.’ And quite frankly, that was pretty hard logic to argue with.”

Oberweis says he “really, totally forgot about politics” and spent the next two decades focused on raising his kids and building his business. There was plenty to keep his attention. After the October 1987 stock market crash, he bought a small Minneapolis brokerage in an attempt to weather the slump. Instead, that company artificially inflated the value of a series of stocks, forcing Oberweis to reimburse client accounts. “We ended up having to sell [my] business for next to nothing,” Oberweis says. “I literally thought my life was over. Twenty years ago my net worth was approximately zero.”

There were more troubles. In 1986, Jim had bought Oberweis Dairy from his aunt Marie and his older brother, John, after John suffered a stroke. The dairy was on the verge of bankruptcy in the late 1980s when Elaine Oberweis took charge. By dropping institutional milk sales and emphasizing home delivery, customer service, and quality emblems like glass bottles and hormone-free cows, she rebuilt the dairy as a high-end brand. (Its 2008 revenue, according to Joe Oberweis, will be around $72 million, and it’s growing at nearly 5 to 10 percent per year.)

Meanwhile, Oberweis and a remnant of his company, Oberweis Securities, was bought out, and Oberweis eventually repurchased a small mutual fund he had started. “That was really the rebirth for Oberweis Asset Management,” Oberweis says. “Today we manage somewhere between 1.5 and 2 billion dollars.” It was also the rebirth of Oberweis’s political aspirations.

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