John Makely  /  msnbc.com
Chris Burkhead, shown in the machine shop of Kruis Mold and Engineering, says attention to quality is the secret of his family's success in manufacturing.
By Mike Stuckey Senior news editor
msnbc.com
updated 7/16/2009 10:05:08 AM ET 2009-07-16T14:05:08

Chris Burkhead says there’s no secret to his family’s continued success in the battered manufacturing sector: Do quality work, respond to customers’ needs and constantly improve efficiency on the production line.

Oh, and don’t borrow money.

Simple and obvious, maybe, but those are the principles that have kept his family’s two businesses – Indiana Plastics and Kruis Mold and Engineering – profitably plugging away through good times and bad since their founders first started doing business in Elkhart in 1958.

“We may not be the cheapest, but we are the best,” said Burkhead proudly. At 26, the tall, confident Elkhart native and a couple of cousins are the future of the two firms that thrive in Elkhart’s industrial center amid shutdowns and layoffs that have helped contribute to the county’s painful unemployment rate – 17.5 percent as of May.

For now, the companies are run by Burkhead’s uncle, Jeff Kruis, 47, who serves as president; Burkhead’s stepdad, James Kruis, 45, vice president; and Burkhead’s aunt, Marla (Kruis) Williams, 53, the controller. The siblings are three of seven children of John Kruis, who with his brother, Herman, came to the United States from Holland in 1949.

Nine years later, the brothers opened their original business, Kruis Grinding, with $2,358.59 in working capital. The company became Kruis Mold and Engineering around 1960, when the brothers bought the region’s first electrical discharge machine, which shapes steel through an electrical arcing process. That set them up to create molds for the rapidly expanding plastics industry. In 1966, they got into molding themselves and founded Indiana Plastics.

Breaking in at the bottom
John Kruis bought his brother out in 1984 and died in 1998, leaving the firms in the hands of the current sibling owners, who have carried on a tradition of starting young family members on the bottom rungs.

“I think we all mowed the grass and swept the metal shavings,” Burkhead said. He recalled being pointed at a large box and given one particularly onerous job when he was about 12: Separate tiny black pellets from clear “virgin” pellets used in the molding process.

The catch: The pellets were the size of BBs, just 2 percent black to 98 percent clear, and the box weighed more than half a ton. “I don’t think I finished,” he said, rolling his eyes.

Today, after graduating with degrees in sociology and criminal justice from Indiana University, and serving a brief stint in the Peace Corps in Mali, with his wife, Angela Lucterhand, Burkhead is the project estimator for Indiana Plastics, which makes parts for other companies.

“I do all of the quoting,” he said, “mainly of the plastic components,” which range from tiny, simple plastic rings that are used in bearing assemblies to clarinet and bassoon bodies.

The only finished product the company makes — and it’s Burkhead’s favorite item — is an unusual musical instrument called the Xaphoon, about the size of a recorder, but with a reed, so it sounds like a saxophone. A partnership with the Xaphoon’s inventor also allows Indiana Plastics to use the instruments as trade-show schwag.

Burkhead currently works remotely from Davenport, Iowa, where his wife is finishing chiropractic school. He makes the four-hour drive to Elkhart for about a week each month. He and his wife, who have no kids, will be back for good when she finishes school next year.

Maintaining the family values
From his stepdad, aunt and uncle, Burkhead has inherited a keen sense of the values that have made the company successful.

In an industry that is mainly driven by price, “Our biggest thing is having the parts correct when they go to the customers,” James Kruis said, to which his stepson added, “A lot of our growth is coming from people who are not satisfied with their current molder.”

The companies also strive to respond to “our customers’ immediate needs,” James Kruis said, whether that is quick turn-arounds on production runs or engineering advice.

And they have sought to diversify their customer base as much as possible, mindful of many failing competitors who became too dependent on a single industry. Surrounded by RV makers and suppliers to automakers, they do little work for either “because they are always after the cheapest product,” James Kruis said.

The Kruises also eschew debt, their businesses having carried none since 1987, paying as they go for new buildings and equipment, essential to the constant push for efficiency.

The formula is working “amazingly well,” said Jeff Kruis. “We’ve had five years of consecutive growth.” Sales were up 15 percent last year alone.

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