Wednesday, June 3, 2015
Tom Jurasinski, director of exterior operations, would correct one very important item in the opening. “You work with Ron, not for him,” Jurasinski says. “You know he means it, too. They’re not just words.”
With “family” as an overriding theme in everything about the company, it is not surprising that Kujawa would share the spotlight of his success. “KEI has been delivering snow and ice control services since 1970, but we would not be where we are today if not for my son Chris leading our business development efforts and Tom,” Kujawa says. “They have built a team of loyal employees and subcontractors that can consistently meet the demands of our clients.”
After more than 20 years with the company - he joined KEI as a college student and went full-time upon graduating - Jurasinski agrees with the familial feeling. “Ron has been more of a father to me than an owner or boss,” he says. “He’s a moral compass to me. He reminds us that morals are not something you can bend or twist.”
Delivering what he and KEI say they are going to deliver has led to long and fruitful relationships with their many customers, which has, in turn, led to Kujawa being included in the inaugural group of SNOW Magazine’s Leadership Award winners. “We’re extremely happy and honored to be recognized by the industry’s leading trade publication,” Kujawa says. “Our experience and the expertise that we’ve shown can be recognized by the tenure of our clients.”
While KEI can trace its roots back to the 1920s, when Kujawa’s father opened a business selling agricultural seeds, supplies and equipment to area farmers, KEI began forming into a landscaping company in the 1960s and 1970s. A snow-removal arm was a natural fit with the other seasonal activities. “When we started, we were looking for winter work to supplement revenue,” Kujawa says. “We started doing sidewalks for some local businesses and hauling snow for our local municipality. It opened our eyes to the opportunities snow services offered.”
The typical snow season in southeastern Wisconsin begins in mid November and ends in early April. According to Kujawa, the heaviest snowfalls occur in December and January, followed by February. They have had measurable snowfalls and/or ice storms in late April or even May, but those are fairly uncommon.
April through October is busy for KEI, too, as the company is a four-season, full-service landscape management provider – also doing design and landscape construction and installation, interiorscapes and holiday decorating. KEI employs a staff of approximately 40 full-timers and adds between 50 and 60 seasonal workers, as well as snow subcontractors. The company boasts approximately 65 pieces of equipment – primarily Chevrolet 4x4s with some Internationals and UDs.
Being a child of the Great Depression, it is no wonder Kujawa considers the country’s worst economic periods his toughest challenges. Managing and leading KEI through the early 1980s recession and advising through the current one top his list. Keeping people’s morale and spirits up and managing controlled growth were (and are) key, he says.
Kujawa’s contributions to the industry are as impressive as anyone’s. A member of Associated Landscape Contractors of America/PLANET since 1972, he served as president in 1989-90 and received the ALCA’s Lifetime Service Award. He also served on ALCA’s board of directors for nearly 30 years. Kujawa was in the first group of contractors certified as professionals (Charter Certified Landscape Professionals) and in the inaugural group of ALCA’s Industry “Trailblazers.” He served as president and director of the Academic Excellence Foundation and as chairman and director of certification, board of governors. Further sharing his knowledge, Kujawa has authored numerous articles for most major trade publications and has contributed many chapters for industry manuals.
According to Kujawa, his single most important contribution was uniting the three trade groups – ALCA, Professional Lawn Care Association of America and Professional Grounds Management Society – to create the Green Industry Expo, which, since 1989, has become the industry’s preeminent educational event and national trade show.
If you’re looking for a testament to Kujawa’s popularity and recognition within the industry, look no further than that Green Industry Expo, according to Jurasinski. He says attending one of these shows with Kujawa is like walking along with a superstar. Everyone, young and old, is trying to get a minute with KEI’s driving force. “He’s got this ease about him that makes it so comfortable and easy to work with him,” says Jurasinski.
Proving the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, both of his sons – Chris and Joe – continue to serve the snow and green industries. Chris was the force and founder of the Academic Excellence Foundation of ALCA/PLANET and just completed a two-year tenure as president of Project Evergreen. Joe has served on the PLANET board and currently serves on its Landscape Management Specialty Group.
As for the community, Kujawa is responsible for two endowed educational scholarships, one from the AEF and another at Marquette University. Numerous annual charitable contributions are given anonymously and the company is involved in providing service to veteran’s organizations, school and church activities, community functions, blood banks, and more.
Away from work
While Kujawa’s successes in snow removal might lead one to believe winter is his favorite season, those who know him will not be surprised by his autumnal preference. “Personally, I like fall the best,” he says. “Football, hunting, fishing and the beautiful weather in Wisconsin.”
A doting grandfather to 13 and an avid fan of Green Bay Packer football and Marquette University basketball, Kujawa has also done a great deal of traveling – rattling off Africa, Europe, South America, New Zealand, Russia, Canada and Alaska as some of his many stops. A lion hunt in Tanzania and being on safari with wife Sally sit atop his list of those experiences.
The dichotomy of being a gentle, loving family man on one hand, while on the other hand being such a powerful presence and a person who tracks and kills big game for sport isn’t lost on Jurasinski.“He’s got this unbelievable knack of not only being a strong man, but also kind,” he says of Kujawa, noting how rare it is to find the two traits in one person – at each end of the spectrum.
Chris, who shares his father’s love for fishing, has also pulled something else from Dad’s DNA – brutal honesty ... with the emphasis sometimes on “brutal,” he says with a laugh. “You always know where you stand with him.”
Jurasinski echoes the sentiment, though sees the kinder, gentler side of the man who sat him down after college and told him there’s only one thing that’ll jeopardize his career at KEI – not asking for help when it is needed. “If there’s a problem, don’t try to solve it by yourself ... Let’s solve it as a team,” he remembers Kujawa saying.
“With Ron, there is no gray, only black or white,” Jurasinski says. “And when he addresses you, there’s never even a bit of negative spin.”
Kujawa handed over day-to-day responsibilities to sons Chris, who is responsible for sales, marketing and business development, and Joe, who handles operations and administration. Chris’ wife Judy is the office manager and Sally is the company’s president, CEO and CFO. Though he is no longer actively managing the operation of KEI, he is always available to offer support or consult on a project.
“I believe in leading through ‘big-picture vision,’” he says. “Get good people and let them loose with few, but firm, parameters.” All too often in today’s business atmosphere, companies are over-promising and under-delivering. Customer service is suffering. That doesn’t sit well with Kujawa. “Service cannot be purchased like a commodity,” he says. “It’s nothing more than the delivery of a promise. That can only be measured at the time of delivery. Everybody can promise, but who can deliver?”
The three tenants of Kujawa’s success are simple and straightforward: Don’t promise what you can’t deliver; if you see yourself getting into trouble, ask for help; and always represent the company with integrity and honesty.
Jurasinski admits that the term “open-door policy” is an overused cliche, but it is so incredibly accurate with Kujawa. “He takes great pride in mentoring us. It’s all about trust and his word ... his honor,” he says. Ron lives to be a good example and to him, you’re only as good as your word. It is all about integrity.”
While his family is aware of his undying affection, his customers never have to guess, either, thanks to wisdom gleaned from Kujawa. “Make sure the client knows how important they are to us,” he says. The KEI website, in fact, stresses that sentiment on its home page: You are why we exist.
For those looking to follow in Kujawa’s footsteps, he offered this advice.
“It takes more than being a good snow plow operator to be successful ... you must be a good business person,” he says. “Read Michael Gerber’s ‘The E Myth’ and other good publications. Join trade groups with peers, especially those in other market areas for a free and honest exchange of information, and give back.”
Sound advice and a recipe for success, but more telling, perhaps, are five simple words: “Don’t make sales... build relationships.”
Kujawa looks back on a life that has touched so many. No man escapes life without certain disappointments, but he chooses to embrace the positive. “No regrets,” he says. “Everything seems to work out one way or another, usually for the best.”