Keeping a family business legacy
After being friends with the Kuhn family for decades, Eric Kyllo is stepping up to keep a family legacy flourishing - one that has had a strong footprint on the electrical scene across southern Minnesota for a half-century.
Kyllo and his wife, Lisa, of rural Blooming Prairie, have purchased R&K Electric in Owatonna from Kerri Kuhn. Kerri had been operating the business since her husband, John, died unexpectedly in 2011.
R&K Electric celebrated its 50th anniversary on June 4. Roger Kuhn and Thomas Rietveld began the business in 1971. Roger took over sole ownership of the company in 1985 before selling it to his son, John, in 2010.
Kyllo said he is excited to be taking over the business because of his deep connections with the Kuhn family. "John and I were best friends in high school," said Kyllo. "I have a vested interest that it stays R&K Electric."
The two were the top students in their graduating class from Owatonna High School in 1991. When asked who was smarter, Kyllo smiled, holding up one finger, and said, "I was."
Kyllo was valedictorian, while Kuhn was salutatorian.
For the past 11 years, Kyllo has been focused on his own company, EK Business Guide, which specializes in helping businesses restructure and developing exit strategies for business owners. He will continue operating the company, in addition to running R&K Electric. Kyllo also farms outside of Blooming Prairie.
A year ago, Kerri Kuhn reached out to Kyllo for advice in running her company. While talking about her plans, the conversation turned to Kyllo purchasing the business.
The Kyllos took over R&K Electric on Jan. 1.
"It's heavenly God’s intervention that it happened," said Bernie Kuhn, who is thrilled about the Kyllos taking over. "It's a gift. It was not in the plans. John is looking down at you… it's godly intervention," she said to the Kyllos.
As the Kyllos take over R&K, Eric Kyllo said he believes it's important to recognize the company's 50-year history. "Pat yourself on the shoulder. You've done well," he said to the Kuhns during a recent interview with them present. "Roger did a great job, John transitioned it into what this company has been and Kerri kept this a financially sound company," Kyllo said.
Roger Kuhn came to Owatonna in 1968 from North Dakota, planning to work for a short time and return again. "I was going to get my license and leave," Kuhn said, adding people wanted him to stay in Owatonna.
He ended up staying and began the company in 1971 with a partner and two helpers. And it's a decision Roger Kuhn has never regretted.
They kept hiring additional electricians every year and grew to about 20 employees by 1989.
In addition to focusing on industrial, agricultural, residential and commercial work, R&K also offers and continues to do service work. "Many companies abandon the service end," Kyllo said. "The service work is what keeps our good name out there."
Roger Kuhn said he built R&K's reputation based on hard work and honesty. "Don't come late and just be very fair to people," he said.
Running R&K has been "super stressful" for Kerri Kuhn who said she’s had everything thrown at her since her husband died.
"She took serious pride in having little to no serious experience and learning the industry," said Kerri's oldest son, Harrison, who currently attends college in South Dakota. "A lot of our identity comes from this place," he said, adding it was never expected of him or his two brothers, Miles and Otto, to take over the business.
Harrison said he is appreciative of Kyllo coming along to take over the company. "It's not really leaving the family," Harrison said. He called Kyllo a "fantastic businessman."
Bernie Kuhn added: "We needed an Eric. We finally got him."
Kyllo, who previously had owned another electric company before selling it in 2012, said he didn't see himself getting back into the business. When asked why he decided to buy R&K, Kyllo replied: "The legacy. That's pretty much it. Going back into it wasn't my dream, but the dream part is the legacy. Being able to carry on the family tradition."
Big growth coming
While R&K currently employs 29 workers, Kyllo said he plans to grow the company to 50 within the next five years.
R&K won't have much time to wait with growth as the company recently was awarded a $4.2 million contract to do the electrical work for the new Owatonna High School.
Kyllo said the company is not ready today to handle the new high school, but he said they will be by the time the interior work begins in nine months. R&K's growth will be internal as it has "a lot of guys ready to be journeymen," he said, adding the company is positioned with organizational growth to take it to the next level.
While Kyllo recognizes the trades industries have been "shamed in recent years," he has developed an internal training program for those interested in the electrical industry. "We have a program that allows them to save money but also make money to become a journeyman electrician," he said. He added journeymen with four years of experience are paid around $80,000 per year.
R&K focuses on hiring employees based on core values: make things better through self-improvement, appearance and communication, exhibit professionalism, be honest and do the right thing, be a self-starter with a good work ethic and be a team player.
"Every employee here shares in those core values," Kyllo said. "We don't have employee issues."
With the Kuhns always being big school supporters and John Kuhn and Kyllo being alumni, Kyllo said he was determined to get the high school project. "We need the work as it helps our growth model," Kyllo said.
Kerri Kuhn is proud of R&K's past support of high school activities. R&K has supported the marching band as well as the Robotics team since its inception in 2012. The company hosted a robot demonstration and fundraiser in 2016.
Besides the new high school, Kyllo also expects to be busy with agriculture, especially with the rebound of commodity prices over the past six months. The housing market has also been hot, which will also help the company grow.
Kyllo, who will oversee a management team of three other managers, said he is taking over "a very successful business" from the Kuhns.
"I sure hope I don't screw it up," Kyllo said, adding it gives him a great sense of pride to own R&K.