In 2015, when Kurt Lesker IV became the third leader of the company his grandfather started, the biggest doubts he heard were in his own head.
“There are 7.5 billion people in the world,” he says. “Am I the most qualified person out of 7.5 billion people to run the Kurt J. Lesker Co.? Probably not.”
Lesker had joined the family business nearly a decade earlier, starting as an industrial engineer, then working in quality management, continual improvement, process control and safety. He spent several years in the KJLC’s Asian operations and some time in Europe.
At the start of 2015, he’d moved back the U.S. as the director of global sales. Then his father was diagnosed with cancer. Lesker had the right name, and he’d worked hard to build respect and trust with his co-workers.
“That’s why I went and got an MBA,” says the president and CEO. “I wanted to have the right skill set to be able to carry the company forward when the time was right.”
However, the timeline was expedited with his father’s diagnosis, probably by two or three years, he suspects.
Lesker isn’t the only family member to work in the business, which designs and manufactures vacuum technology. His older sister is the global HR manager. His younger sister is in charge of operational excellence. His mother is vice president of information technology and chairwoman of the board.
His sisters, mother, the executive team and the board were all confident. They told Lesker he was ready for this — that they believed in him.
Any plan is better than no plan
Kurt Lesker III was diagnosed with sarcoma in March and died at the end of October. Lesker feels fortunate that he had seven months to say goodbye to his father — unlike some of his friends who’ve lost a mother or father unexpectedly.
“It gave the family time to start to prepare ourselves for what was coming next, and it made the transition a little bit easier,” he says.
They say when someone in your family gets cancer, the whole family gets cancer, Lesker says. It was the same for the company, where everyone rallied around the family, including having leadership meetings in the hospital.
After his father’s death, Lesker went to each of the executives and told them he understood if they wanted to do something else. Kurt Lesker III had been their leader for a long time, serving as president for 36 years.
“Each person said, ‘Kurt, if you’re in, we’re in,’ and that meant a lot,” he says.
While the Lesker family had done some estate planning and held regular family meetings, they hadn’t done formal business succession planning. They hadn’t decided on a specific date when a transition might occur.
“My advice to anybody who doesn’t have a sick family member is, ‘Don’t wait for that to do the planning,’” Lesker says. “I’m thankful that we had our family planning meetings throughout the process and earlier.”
Don’t wait until you’re older or sick. The plan you craft now won’t be perfect, but that’s not the point, he says.
“Your environment and your situation change all the time, so it’s not something that you can just do and put on the shelf,” Lesker says.
As for Lesker’s own confidence, that came through results. He set up a frame, but the entire workforce came together to generate record years, such as a compound annual growth rate of around 7 percent. Over the last five years, KJLC also added 100 people, to bring the total employees to 425, and experienced about 30 percent overall growth.
Trust is critical
Lesker not only has grown more confident about his role, he’s learned to trust his instincts and develop his leadership style, which differs from his father.
His father was a visionary who loved to dig into different projects, he says. Lesker instead focuses on getting capable people on board, setting up a framework and letting them go.
“I tell them, ‘Look, I’m going to get out of your way,’” he says. “I’m going to knock down any barriers that I can, but I want to hire people that could run their own businesses. My direct reports, they could go be CEOs, presidents of their own companies, because they’re really capable.”
By supporting people, encouraging them and empowering them, you create real scale, he says. It takes more than one person running around, giving all the answers.
With continual challenges like U.S.-Chinese relations, tariffs, Brexit, cyber security and implementing a new enterprise resource planning system, as well as dealing with customer and supplier issues, industry consolidation, foreign exchange fluctuations, lawsuits, patents, etc., you can’t do it alone, Lesker says.
“I actually love it because it makes the job so interesting,” he says. “Yeah, it’s stressful. If you have to do all by yourself, it’s horrible. When you have a group of competent people working with you, when they say, ‘Kurt, here’s the problem, we’re dealing with. This is what I started to do. Here’s the team of people working on it. This is our proposed solution. Let’s talk through it,’ you know you can get through anything,” Lesker says.
Leadership development, such as KJLC encourages, comes easier when there’s trust, which is why the company takes teams through a program based on the book “The Speed of Trust,” by Stephen M.R. Covey. Lesker also makes sure his trust in the employees is apparent.
“I don’t know how leaders would operate in their businesses without high levels of trust, especially growing, global businesses,” he says.
At all times, KJLC employees are aware of and dealing with issues. They are solving customers problems, and designing, making and shipping products.
“I have full confidence that while I’m asleep, all is going well,” Lesker says.
That trust was on display when the company decided to pull out its values, he says. KJLC didn’t create these values; they were already part of the corporate culture.
The business, which had about 300 people at the time, had each person come up with three values. The 900 original ideas were paired down and eliminated through a bracket system that led to a Sweet 16.
Then, a group of people from all different locations and job functions hammered out the final five — sustainability, passion, integrity, respectful and innovation. Kurt Lesker III added the final piece, team, to spell “spirit.”
The SPIRIT values have been used to make decisions and find the way forward, including Lesker’s succession into the president and CEO role.
“We give an award every year now called the Kurt J. Lesker III SPIRIT award, and it’s really helped to make that transition easier,” Lesker says.
Taking a stand
Today, Lesker also is more comfortable making decisions that aren’t popular or that others may not see as the best way forward.
“That, to me, just takes time,” he says. “It takes confidence. It takes starting to know what you believe in is actually the right thing.”
Sometimes decisions must be for the greater good of the company over one person’s interest, such as terminating someone, even as you imagine how it will impact them and their family. Lesker says those decisions aren’t easy and should sit with you for a while afterward.
“When I first came into the company, my mindset was, ‘I’m going to keep business and personal completely separate,’” he says. “That didn’t last that long. I quickly developed good relationships with people. I became friends with my co-workers.”
Leadership is often about making hard choices, and it’s always about leading the way. One way Lesker is helping lead KJLC is his passion for sustainability.
“I am hell-bent on becoming a more sustainable organization,” he says, adding that it isn’t as clear-cut as you might think, because sometimes sustainability goes against the bottom line.
But he knows sustainability is the right long-term move for the company’s customers, suppliers and employees.
While, at first, he felt like he had to drag people along, such as by sending facts and videos to people he knew were more closed off to the idea, that’s changing.
“Our employees are definitely jumping on board, and they’re starting to take it places that I didn’t even expect they would,” he says.
For example, the logistics team that handles all product packaging and shipments asked certain suppliers to switch to more sustainable packaging options.
“I wanted to hug each one of them when they told me,” Lesker says. “I was like, ’Yes, finally, it’s taking hold.’”
- Show your commitment to get others to commit to you.
- Change is easier to process with a foundation of trust.
- Create an all-in mentality by empowering your employees.
Name: Kurt Lesker IV
Title: President and CEO
Company: Kurt J. Lesker Co.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Lehigh University and an MBA from the Fuqua School Business at Duke University
What was your first job, and what did you learn from it? When I was 16, I had an internship at the Kurt J. Lesker Co. I worked in our maintenance department. I picked up garbage and cleaned toilets for a summer.
It taught me that I didn’t want to pick up garbage and clean toilets for the rest of my life, so I needed to focus and study in school. But it also taught me that no matter what job I was doing here, I needed to do it well.
I earned a lot of respect from people. That job certainly is not considered the most glamorous, but I was happy to do it. I said, ‘Hey, this is what I’m doing this summer. I’m going to do it as well as I possibly can.’
Where might someone find you on the weekend? They’ll find me swimming at the Rivers Club, getting ready for the next Ironman race. They’ll find me on a ski slope somewhere. I really enjoy skiing. Or, they’ll find me in the air because I’m a private pilot and I really love flying.
What are you currently reading? A book called “Principles,” by Ray Dalio. It’s all about principle-based leadership, trying to discover what grounds you and how you make decisions.