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Following in his father's footsteps Featured

9:33am EDT July 22, 2002

It's hard enough to follow in the footsteps of a CEO known worldwide as a master innovator, one who built the company from an $800,000 firm to a $292 million firm over 29 years.

Now imagine that same CEO shaves his head when his company reaches sales goals, spends $50,000 to bring the original cast from Phantom of the Opera to entertain his employees after the company reaches $100 million in profits, refers to his workers as partners, names the street leading to his offices Just Imagine Drive and, oh, by the way, just happens to be your father.

John Kahl, 37, will not have to imagine soon. As of Dec. 24, his father, Manco founder and leader Jack Kahl, 60, will retire, handing over the reins to John and his management team of Dan Brogan, COO, and Dan Perella, executive vice president of sales. Manco, a Henkel Group company best known for its Duck tape and logo, announced the "planned management transition" in October.

SBN spoke with John Kahl and asked him about the transition and what it will be like to take over from his father.

Talk about the transition process. Was there always a plan for you to become CEO?

I don't think it was always the plan for me to become CEO. It was a plan for the most qualified person with the values and the cultural structure of the company to be the next leader of the organization.

I think a lot of that became fair game for debate when we sold our business to Henkel in '98, because now we were part of a much larger multinational global conglomerate. It wasn't just something that was automatically going to roll through because of your last name.

I did have to prove myself, as did my successor and his successor and other members of our management team as they have been promoted into those roles.

Clearly, there are some large shoes to fill. Do you look at it that way, that you are replacing Jack Kahl?

I don't think that anyone can replace Jack Kahl. We are not going to change the whole company. A lot of companies talk about the first 100 days, when you make changes. There will be some things that we are going to want to do different or new and improved with Jack's departure, but this is not a business overhaul in the first 100 days of a new business regime.

This is more about consistency and delivering value to our customers and our partners (as we call our employees here) to make sure we are offering the best world possible to both of those constituencies.

I fully expect we can take advantage of all of the positive things that Jack is leaving in place here and we can try to improve on that. I have 37 years under the tutelage of Jack, and the cultural norms and the values that we want to run this company by are well entrenched in both myself and my brother and the other members of our management team.

We don't know any other way than the Manco way to run the business

If you look at the ages of the people being promoted, 30, 35 and 37, it is a very young top management for a company this size. Are there any perceived problems with this? Does it raise any eyebrows?

It doesn't have to do with age, in our opinion; it has to do with capabilities. Those people are a beautiful example of Jack giving people the opportunity to succeed, empowering people to succeed and grow. He gave them opportunities early on to accomplish a lot more than the big traditional organizations in the world would have allowed.

So that is why I think you get in some of those companies 40-plus, 50-plus managers getting senior seats, because it takes them a longer period of time to gain that experience. Here, it doesn't matter how old you are, it matters how good you are, and your leadership capabilities.

Does your father plan on taking an active role in the company after retirement?

He is going to do some venture capital things and he is serving on a couple of boards of some New York Stock Exchange companies. He is involved with the Cleveland Clinic and their fund-raising activities; he is on their board, so he has a number of things to keep him busy. He is not the retiring type.

Personally, I won't give him the opportunity not to have an influence here. There is no reason why you wouldn't take advantage of all the experience of the founding entrepreneur of the company. It would be crazy to let that walk out the door.

That's why I feel good about where the company is at today vs. 10 years ago. If he had decided to go at age 50, we would have had some people who only had four or five years of experience under their belt ... and that would have left a little more doubt in the industry and our partners.

Are there any radical changes planned? You aren't planning on getting rid of the Duck, are you?

We are not getting rid of the Manco Duck. He is an icon. We are taking the Duck global, and that is one of the biggest changes that we are making. One of the things that the Henkel organization has really afforded us is the ability to grow and serve our customers as they go outside the United States, as they go international.

The most exciting thing is this little yellow duck flying to other parts of the world and helping to solve other peoples' problems. How to reach: Manco Inc., www.manco.com

Kim Palmer (kpalmer@sbnnet.com) is associate editor at SBN.