When Joseph Kloka agreed to mind the family business while his parents took a much-needed vacation in 1971, he thought it would only be for a month. “I’d just gotten out of the military, and I’d worked part-time on the shop floor during high school and while I was in college at the University of Detroit, so I figured I could step in and help out for awhile,” he recalls. “I had no intention of joining the company, but by the time they got back home I’d fallen in love with the place, which was a real surprise.”
Thirty-four years later, Kloka is president of a company that was founded in 1920 when his grandfather, who was also named Joseph, and Alfred Underwood–the two had worked together at the Detroit Bevel Gear Company — took parts of their last names to form Ka-Wood Gear & Machine Co. Not long after, the Kloka family bought out Underwood’s shares, so it has been a family owned business for the vast majority of its 85-year history.
As is the case with many companies of a certain vintage, Ka-Wood got its start in a two-car garage, where it remained for more than two decades before Kloka’s father built a new facility in 1941. It was still a fairly rudimentary operation, though, with a small collection of bevel gear equipment and a lathe. “It had a main drive shaft running through the shop, and all of the machines ran off of a belt,” Kloka says. “But my father, who’d taken things over from my grandfather some years before, worked hard to build a name for the company, and things really took off during World War II.”
Designated as a “critical industry,” Ka-Wood began landing government contracts — producing tank parts, among other things — and Kloka’s father was given a military deferment so that he could continue guiding the company’s efforts. He remained in that capacity for decades, working tirelessly until his son joined him to share the workload, eventually taking over the reigns himself. Over the years Kloka has seen a number of changes in the industry the company serves.
“Back in the sixties and seventies, the machine tool industry in the Detroit area was huge,” he says from the company’s headquarters in Madison Heights, Michigan, “and that probably made up 90 percent of our customer base. But with all of the consolidations, that’s been dying off slowly, so we’ve branched out into other areas.”
Recent equipment purchases have allowed the company to offer services including gear grinding and rack cutting, and it is capable of producing parts from 1/8″ to 150″ in diameter–“we can handle anything from fixing a broken lawnmower or tractor all the way up to manufacturing aerospace parts,” Kloka says. And while many of its customers are still found in and around Detroit, it also has accounts in Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, South Carolina, Texas, and Canada. With such a long history, Ka-Wood enjoys an excellent reputation, with much of its business arriving via “word of mouth,” Kloka says. He manages a number of those customers himself, along with his son in law, Don Carlson, and Lenny Tuttle.
A 1990 graduate of the University of Illinois, where he studied economics and business, Carlson took a job with Dow Chemical where he met Tanya Kloka, who was also working for the company as an intern. “She graduated in 1993 and accepted a position with Arthur Anderson — we’re both CPAs — and after we were married in 1994, Joe approached us about joining Ka-Wood,” he says. “Tanya and I were actually thinking about starting a company of our own, so this sounded like the perfect opportunity for us to work together and help build the family business.”
Carlson says that, having grown up in Illinois with a farming background, he was well accustomed to hard work, and since he and his wife were starting a family, they found the idea of moving nearer to her parents appealing. “So I joined Ka-Wood in 1996, and Tanya came onboard soon after that,” says Carlson, who is now vice president and an operations manager for the company. His wife is its controller.
Tuttle says their story resembles his own, in many ways. “I actually went to high school with Joe’s nephew, so I’d met the family that way,” he says. “Then I’d gone to Michigan State, and subsequently Wayne State, where I studied chemical engineering. I was working for General Motors in the materials department when I went to a Pistons game with Don, and he mentioned that they might have an opening at some point. I was already thinking of finding a way to escape the ‘cubicle world,’ and my family had always owned small businesses, so I was intrigued. I ended up joining the company as an operations manager in 1997, and I really enjoy the work, because every day is something different. And that keeps life interesting.”
Joe Kloka says this influx of fresh ideas makes his life interesting as well. “I’m getting in the range where I could retire, but it’s just so much fun working with these young people,” he says. “And thanks to them we’re now ISO certified, which I’m 99-percent certain we wouldn’t be if it weren’t for them, because I’m not inclined toward paperwork. But it just saves us so much time, because customers would send us their paperwork for a quote, and the QC section would be 84 pages long. On the first page it would ask ‘Are you ISO certified? If so, skip to page 84,’ and that’s a big relief.”
Carlson says that, although Ka-Wood was already doing most of what ISO required, certification has bolstered the company’s efforts to reach into new markets, which includes rack milling, gear grinding, and providing transmission gears for everything from oil-drilling rigs to racing cars. “We’re really flexible, in terms of our capabilities, so we’re up for any challenge that our customers bring our way,” he says.
And the customers keep coming — in part, Kloka says, because of the company’s positive environment. “We take care of our employees, with benefits and a nice profit-sharing plan, and probably half of the 17 guys we have on the shop floor have been with us for 25 years or more,” he says. “We also treat our employees, vendors, and customers in a very Christian manner. I actually spent four and a half years in seminary before I went to college, so that’s an important component of how we deal with people.”