On the Job
Searching for a place...
A factory worker.
Working for the
How about becoming a
An experience not to
One of Life's Miracles
Back to drafting.
I worked under Harold, a contract manager, drafting construction drawings from his sketches or marked up plans. I had learned the fundamentals of electrical control circuits as a member of the IIT Model Railroad club and found that by referencing a few books I could apply that to process control. I loved doing it and it became my specialty.
From there it was helping count items on drawings for estimates. Then doing the estimate listings, pricing the materials from pricing books and applying labor hours from the KB labor rate books.
Harold told me that when (not if) I make a mistake, immediately tell him. He would help rectify the mistake and help me make sure that it would not happen again. There were people who, when a mistake was made, tried to find someone to blame. That kind of person did not stay at Kelso-Burnett. The first time he sent me to a job site with one of my drawings, he told me that the experienced electricians would not take kindly to a 'kid" telling them what to do. I was to find a way to give them the information without doing that. So, I went there and asked for their help. "Here is what I have drawn, but you can probably see a better way. If so, please let me know." It worked, probably because I believed it. I found myself able to work with electricians who had started out going from job to job with a KB horse and wagon. The stable had been in the basement of the building at 223 W Jackson in the Chicago loop.
I began doing estimates and bringing them to Harold to check. One busy day he looked at me and said, "Is it right?" I hesitated a moment and said, "yes". He replied, "Then what are you bringing it to me for?" I became an Estimator! After that, more jobsite visits, contact with the field people and the customer's people. I soon had the title of Assistant Contract Manager. One day Ed told me he wanted me to design the 12,000 volt distribution system for a cement plant project. I said that I had never done anything like that before. His reply, "Good, we'll get some new ideas." I became an Engineer!
Harold was sent to a series of out of town projects and I evolved into a Contract Manager. There were commercial and industrial projects of many kinds, first small and gradually larger in size. The philosophy at KB was to let the individual rise according to his ability and to support him along the way. There was an unstated rule that you either went up or out. However, employees were supported in times of individual problems. People and families were considered more important than business. Someone could be found to fill in if you needed time for family. Financial help was available in an emergency.
Another unwritten rule was to groom your subordinates for success. That is how you made the company grow and prosper. Besides, you could not advance if you did not have someone to take your place! The most difficult task for me was to turn over a long time customer to Jim. The most gratifying thing was when that customer stopped calling me because he had trust in my replacement. Jim is now a vice president, board member and branch manager. I have also had the task of telling someone that they were not well suited to their current job or that they probably would not advance in the company. I never had an employee leave the company angry. What is the saying? ... "Don't go away mad..."
One of the truths that were a guide to business practices was that you did not try to "nickel and dime" your customer to death and squeeze him for every bit of profit possible on a project. It was much easier to maintain a satisfied customer than to be force to continually find new customers. It also allowed you to sleep well.
I decided to concentrate on industrial projects involving the expansion or modernization of existing plants and factories. We did everything from power distribution to process control and plant lighting. It was work that I loved and it was my life. This brings me to my one regret. My work kept me away from home a lot and it fell to Anne to raise Dan, Anne Marie, and Tom. She did a great job. Thank God for Anne! Even as a draftsman, I was not there for the kids because I had a night job as a package sorter for a shipping company. Anne did not work after Dan was born so she was there for them. Also, the company moved from downtown Chicago to Rolling Meadows, IL. This resulted in a long drive to and from work each day. Fortunately I had a company car. We thought of moving from the South side of Chicago to the North suburbs but, well, family and friends were on the South side and home costs up North were outrageous.
In 1972 I was received the title of Vice President. No, not more money at first, but it should impress the customers to be dealing with a VP. One day, when calling on a new customer, I gave him my new business card. He looked at it and said "Oh, I thought I would be meeting someone I could talk to!" Fortunately, I was able to set him at ease. As time went on, the title came to mean something within Kelso Burnett. I was elected as a member of the Board of Directors in 1985.
KB was a pioneer in the use of computers and we modernized our computer in 1982. This is when I started using a PC to design the screen layouts to provide input the estimating program already in place. Previous to that we had built a mechanical "Estimating Machine" to punch a paper tape which was then run through the computer to price estimates. I had to learn "Basic" and I have been hooked on computers ever since. All of the work was done at home, "in my spare time". Anne referred to the PC as my other wife.
In 1984 I opened a branch office in Joliet, IL. The company already had offices in the Loop, Rockford and Zion, IL. The first year started well but within two years it was recession time and work in the area shriveled up. I had kept a major account in the South West Chicago area which provided more work than I could handle so the Joliet office was closed and I came back to the home office. We had about 150 electricians working under two contract managers working it this customers plant.
After that project was over, the president of KB suggested that we have a separate department to support computerized estimating. He had someone else in mind for the post but I convinced him that it should be me. I then became a staff officer rather than a line officer. The remaining years were involved with replacing our main frame estimating system with a more flexible PC based system. We also changed the accounting system to integrate it with computerized job management. I assisted in the implication of the system and with PC based applications to augment it.
By this time, the company had a "Management Team" that really worked. Branch and Division Managers met regularly with the President, Chairman and Chief Financial Officer to review current jobs and their progress as well as the performance of our managers. A nice perk was the annual Spring Management Meeting held in places like Tucson or Palm Springs. Yes we really discussed business and our wives enjoyed a little vacation.
During my time at KB there were times of triumph and depression. Some jobs went very well and some were financial disasters. There were customers who were a joy to work with and there were a few who could have been the devil himself. With a very few exceptions my fellow KB employees were a joy to work with. Only once did I seriously contemplate leaving the company but I was advised by a VP who had left: "Stick with it. You will go far at KB.". Not being a "Social" or "Party" person I preferred to work with customers who valued "project results" over personal entertainment. There were, of course, some "three martini lunches" but I never did take up golf.
In 1996, I wrote the following letter:
This letter serves as my official notification of my intent to retire as an employee, Vice President and Director of Kelso-Burnett Co. on June 14, 1996.
will culminate slightly over forty years
with the company. Those years have
been rewarding in many ways.
important than the monetary rewards are the positive experiences with the people
I have worked with during this time. There is also the fact that
Kelso-Burnett is an excellent company due to management’s fair
treatment of employees, customers and vendors.
retire with mixed emotions considering the fact that I have always found my job
enjoyable and challenging while working with fellow employees who are “top of
the line”. At the same time, I
look forward to a more relaxed time of life.
I was hired in March of 1956 by Mr. Ed Flanagan with the words “If you want to take a chance on Kelso-Burnett, we’ll take a chance on you”. I know that I won and I like to think that I was able to contribute to a winning company.
Thank you, Kelso-Burnett
Donald J Plefka,
And, Thank you God ... I overslept, looked at the ad ... answered it ... One of my miracles.
A final Note:
At the companies' 75th Anniversary celebration in 1983, we looked forward to the 100th and a grand reunion. On September 27, 2008 the 100th anniversary celebration was held. My invitation must have been lost in the mail. But ... I have been told that it is not the same company that we once knew ... possibly, now so big that they forgot about those who got them there.
A little about Kelso-Burnett Co.
It was founded in 1908 by Jim Kelso and Oliver Burnett Sr. It grew into one of the largest Electrical contractors in the nation. When Jim Kelso died, Oliver Burnett Sr. bought out his share of the company. That was turned over to his son.
Oliver Jr. retired from KB just one week after I was hired. (No connection) At that time the company, a closed corporation, was owned by the president and four vice presidents.
I was among several employees that were given the opportunity to buy a limited amount of stock on a payroll deduction plan. Since that time there have been many more such offers. Being a closed corporation, stock must be sold back to the company when leaving for any reason. When I left, some stock that cost me $1.00 a share was worth well over $!00.00 a share.
As time went on there was a need to be able to be able to buy out major stock holders. An ESOP Plan was established into which the company made contributions from profits. Every employee has a share in this plan. As a result, KB is truly an employee owned company.
When I left the company, I took a 5 year note for the stock which I owned directly. I lived well on those payments. The proceeds from my share of the ESOP plan were rolled into an IRA which has provide income for the rest of my retirement years.
Kelso-Burnett has had a history of nepotism which for the most part has been good. I have contributed to this tradition by recommending my son Dan to my boss at a time when we needed a new draftsman. Dan became a Branch Manager and part of the Management Team. He has since accepted an offer from another company and has left KB.
To learn more about Kelso-Burnett Co, I invite you to visit their web site. Go to the links page.