In this edition of ‘Coffee With a CEO’, we are talking with Jim Kleingers, President of The Kleingers Group. We've had the pleasure of working with Jim for a number of years and it's no secret that Jim cares deeply about his people, which is why he is so well deserving of his recent 2019 CEO of the Year award. Today, Jim shares with us his journey of becoming an engineer, how embracing change and taking risks is a good thing, what being a servant leader means to him, and why he doesn't have any professional regrets.
Juli: Tell me about your journey to become an engineer.
Jim: I was the standard kid in the late 60’s and early 70’s who was good at science and math. I listened to guidance counselors telling me that I should become an engineer. One of the major employers in my hometown was a steel company ARMCO and a metallurgical engineer came to our high school and took some of us to a professional engineering event. I also had a connection to the city engineer in my hometown, so I learned about the civil engineering side and then it led me to decide to study engineering. I applied to college for mechanical engineering and then switched to electrical engineering and quickly to civil which is what I am now. When I applied, thought it would be cool to work with machines. I determined very quickly as a freshman that Electrical or Mechanical wasn’t what I wanted. I had done some work for City of Middletown, OH and was fascinated by the construction piece. I love building things and being involved in that was cool to me.
Juli: How did you select your school?
Jim: We were a middle class family with 5 kids. My dad worked at the papermill and my mom was a stay at home mom. We got the speech when we were Juniors in high school, “We want you to go to school but we have zero money to pay for college so you need to be thinking about that on your own". A friend of mine went to Kettering (formerly GMI) who showed me that you can go to school and pay for it at the same time. I got accepted at GMI, but I applied to a few other places like The University of Dayton. There was an older friend of mine from high school who went to UD and I always thought he was one of the smartest guys I knew. Then UD offered me a full scholarship so I chose to attend University of Dayton. I met a really cool lady at college - my wife! GMI didn’t have sports or girls so I think I made the right choice!
Juli: When you were graduating from college, did you ever think you would be leading a firm as the President?
Jim: The short answer is no. I had modest goals back then. I wanted to get an interesting job, learn and grow a little and just have a nice life. I grew up in an 1100 sq. ft house with 7 people. So, for me, I just wanted to find a nice place to work, enjoy my job and make a nice life. I have done that, I think.
Juli: What things were you involved in as young person that prepared you for your role today?
Jim: I was an early morning newspaper delivery guy from the 7th grade, I played in the band, I played tennis in high school and was involved in service clubs so all those things taught me how to deal with people, be part of a team and just get along. I discovered at 4:30 a.m., my schedule was very open. Being on sports teams, learning to deal with folks, even holding a paper route where I had to handle complaints and trying to keep customers happy - all of these things I learned equates with what I do now leading this company.
Juli: What advice would you tell your 25-year old self?
Jim: For me, I would say, don’t be afraid to try new things and take risks. I was much more risk averse as a youngster but I figured out it’s OK to do these types of things and to take risks. Also, I would say don’t sweat the small stuff. As a kid everything seems like big stuff and most of it is just small stuff.
Juli: How would you describe your mindset as a leader?
Jim: My approach is to be a servant leader. I pitch in and I try to motivate other people to help and pitch in as well. I don’t ask others to do what I won’t do. I care about others and take care of their needs first - that is very important to me. I am probably optimistic to a fault at times, and maybe I am a bit unrealistic at times. I used to work for a guy who was a huge Zig Zigler fan. He said you can get what you want if you help enough other people get what they want, and I believe that rings true to me.
Juli: As I look back on my own career, I feel like each decade is filled with new lessons. What’s one of the biggest lessons you have learned in the past decade?
Jim: I would say the biggest lesson is change and affecting change, change is imperative - it’s going to happen so embrace it and help others to embrace it. You need to meet people where they are to start that process. Everyone has their own comfort level with the pace of change and as much as you can, respect that sense of pace… not too fast, not too slow. Some of the younger guys are impatient all the time so helping them get there and realize that pace is key.
Juli: How did the Great Recession change you?
Jim: Oh boy… I thought we were pretty good in 2007 - we were killing it. I learned a few things about complacency, not looking ahead and ignoring the warning signs. Let’s just say you have to pay attention, don’t be complacent and be proactive instead of reactive for sure. I had never seen anything quite like it and I was jolted into saying, “Holy Smokes! This isn’t good". We lost almost half our business in 2009 – a lot of people sacrificed a lot with me.
Juli: What’s the thing that keeps you “up at night” with regard to leading your firm?
Jim: I don’t lose much sleep. A long time ago, I made peace with the fact that I am not a worrier. I do the best I can and if I am doing the best I can, I am okay. Things that are on my mind that are important right now would be the fact that we have a great culture here and I guess I am concerned about how to keep that going. I’d like to make sure that we don’t lose our great culture as we continue to grow. I am spending a lot of time thinking about leadership transition. We are in the process of developing, selecting and training the next group of leaders.
Juli: What’s a piece of advice you would give a younger engineer who has just gotten their first leadership role?
Jim: I would try to help them understand trust and respect. Of the two - you must earn both, but trust has to be first. If you can earn your team’s trust, you can then earn their respect. I think that to earn trust, you must have empathy for your team and truly care about them. Help them understand that what you are doing is for the team’s best interest. Caring for someone enables trust.
Juli: What’s the best book or the best movie you have seen lately? Jim: I don’t see many movies! I went to see The Avengers End Game with my son. He told me I had to go see it so he went with me. As a kid I was a Marvel Comics fan. As a reader, I read mostly non-fiction. Ian Toll’s Pacific Crucible and The Conquering Tide are a few really good books on what happened in the Pacific in World War II. My dad was in the Navy in WWII so that was interesting to me. I’m also reading, Ray Dalio’s book, Principles. He’s someone who is very process-oriented, but he’s developed and run a significant business by documenting business principles and principles to live by. You want to base decisions on facts when you can. He’s very interesting with his theory on radical truthfulness across his organization.
Juli: If you had another hour each day, what would you do with it?
Jim: Sleep… no just kidding. Actually, I’d hang out more with my lovely wife, my kids, grand-kids and my mom. That’s what I like to do in my spare time when I am not volunteering or working.
Juli: Any professional regrets?
Jim: I don’t think so. I am not one to dwell on the past. I have messed things up and we have had failures, but my experience has taught me that a failure is a learning opportunity if you address it forthrightly and appropriately. What’s done is done, but what do we do next time?
Juli: What’s one career achievement you are most proud of?
Jim: I suppose it was to have the confidence to start this business, the good fortune and patience to build it to where it is. I think it’s cool that 25 other people have an ownership stake in what we do here at Kleingers and that makes me happy!
Juli: Thank you Jim for sharing your wonderful wisdom & knowledge with us!