KTM Solutions is almost 17 years old now. What a journey! Seventeen years. That’s significant, especially when I look back over my entire career.
I think I can honestly say that these 17 years at KTM have taught me more about business, engineering technology, and people than any other time in my career. Seventeen years balanced with formal educational experiences balanced by the school of hard knocks. Honestly, the school of hard knocks is the best place to learn. However, I do believe a person can get a great education by learning from someone else’s “hard knocks” experience.
Prior to KTM, I served in high-profile engineering-management positions. Through that experience, coupled with formal training provided by my employer, I learned to manage people and lead projects. Working for a large company, even with significant responsibility, was different from running your own business. Don’t get me wrong, the large-company experience and learning were significant and helped to get me ready for running my own business. But, at the end of the day, when I worked for the large aircraft OEM’s, my job and daily life experience were not impacted by airplane sales. In fact, I saw very little if any correlation between my work and airplane sales. This was true for my peers as well as my direct reports.
Now that I am a small-business owner, sales have a direct impact on my livelihood. They also have a direct impact on our employees and their families. Especially in a small business, cash is king. I learned from several mentors when I started KTM Solutions that even profitable companies fail because of cash-flow issues. Run out of cash, the business dies. If the business dies, not only does the business owner lose out, but all the employees and their families are impacted. If you are a successful small-business owner and a conscientious employer, you have most likely learned that you have a lot of responsibility.
Responsibility to your customers:
To be successful, you must serve your customers well. Your customer needs to find value in the products and services you provide. Business owners need to recognize that customers have the right and responsibility to choose wisely where they spend their dollars. Customers do business with people. The presence you and your employees give to your customers can be the difference between a sale and a loss. The old saying “the customer is always right” is not necessarily true. Occasionally, as a good service provider, you need to educate your customer to ensure they get the best product or service for their money. More correctly stated, “The customer isn’t always right, but they are always the customer.”
If we don’t take care of our customers, sales will decline. Without sales, cash dries up and the company fails.
Responsibility to your employees:
It sounds cliché, but it is true: Your most valuable resources are your employees. Whether you are the business owner or a manager, your employees made a choice to join you in business. They come to work every day, work hard, and enable you to sell your services and products. They are the people who ensure that the products and services are to your quality standard. They count on you to make sure that they have an opportunity to make a difference and deliver quality products. Unless in a sales function, your employees are there to execute a plan, complete a product, or provide the service they were hired to perform. In exchange for a job well done, they are entitled to fair compensation.
As a leader, your primary responsibility is to pave the way for success. Make sure that there is sufficient work for the employees by bolstering sales. Your job is to enable processes and procedures that will help your employees maximize efficiency and performance.
Seventeen Years of Experience Running a Business:
The school of hard knocks. Similar to the old quote from Dr. McCoy: “Dammit Jim, I’m an engineer, not a business owner.” How naïve to think that having been an engineer who ran large engineering groups would translate directly into running your own business. Consider the responsibility to your customer and employees as outlined above. As an engineering manager, I seldom if ever met with an end customer. Further, I was never responsible for sales and marketing. Lastly, if an airplane didn’t sell and company cash was tight, the funds didn’t come out of my pocket, and seldom if ever did I need to make the decision to reduce staff. Seldom, if ever, did I see the impact of one of my decisions on anyone else’s family. But, through the nature of the business at KTM, I have experienced all of these things and have learned a thing or two. They are as follows:
If we agree that employees are our greatest resource, we must find a way to keep them and care for them. This means providing plenty of opportunity for them to succeed and to produce quality products and services. We need to make sure that the business is available for them and that they have the training and tools necessary to be efficient. They need to know they are important. They need to feel genuine love from the leadership. They need to know that, as the owner and senior manager I have their back. They also need to know that it’s OK to make a mistake provided that they learn from it. They need to be encouraged to bring their whole selves into the business, to take ownership and responsibility for themselves and the care of their fellow workers. They also need to know that they have the responsibility to take care of the customer and the resources to do it well.
If employees are our greatest resource, the second greatest is a repeat customer. It’s much easier to keep a current customer than to find a new one. We need to protect our customer’s interests as much as we protect our own. The customer must believe that we have their best interest at heart and that we will do our very best to provide value to them. They need to know that they can count on us to achieve the results we promise (schedule, quality, and performance). Our employees need to treat each customer with the professionalism and respect that they deserve. Strive to make every customer a repeat customer.
As business owners, leaders, or managers, it is our job to establish the culture of our businesses. Our performance, including how we treat employees and customers, will set the tone for the people inside the business. If we want our employees to treat customers well, we need to model that behavior. We need to establish processes and procedures that are not burdensome but yield consistent and desired behaviors. One of the most significant factors is to truly love your employees and customers. Bear in mind that love is not a feeling; love is a conscious choice, one that a business owner must make every day. Putting the needs and wellbeing of your employees and customers first is what loving them is all about. This is your calling and your responsibility.
Paul V. Kumler, P.E., is president and founder of KTM Solutions, an engineering company that services the aerospace and large-scale manufacturing industries. KTM Solutions designs and builds custom machines and “tooling” (jigs, fixtures, below-the-hook lifting systems) supporting a broad clientele and various industries. (www.ktmmechanical.com) The company is headquartered in Greer, South Carolina, with a remote office in Charleston, South Carolina. Mr. Kumler serves in several volunteer roles including the SC Aerospace Advisory Board. Mr. Kumler, a professional engineer, is licensed in Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas, and Washington. He is married to Ginger A. Kumler. Together, they have two grown children and three grandchildren.