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THE FINAL WORD / Conversations with Business and Technology Leaders

Mark Klein, co-president of Chicago-based Klein Tools, and his family have been keeping the lights on since 1857. Klein Tools, the nation’s leading manufacturer of tools for professional electricians, has been family owned and operated for 160 years. We spoke with Mark about what it takes to step into a legacy, where jobs are in demand, and why the voice of the customer should be the loudest in the room.

MARK KLEIN

Co-president, Klein Tools

Did you grow up knowing that you wanted to be in the family business?

Yes, I’ve always had an interest in going into the family business. My first job at Klein, my first official job, was sweeping floors in the manufacturing plant. Over the years I would work in other departments, such as marketing, customer service, sales, manufacturing, HR, you name it. I think that was a great way to learn the business. I really respected what my father did for the company as he helped transform it into a more innovative manufacturer. I remember being a little boy and going to work with him on Saturdays. When he was in his office working I’d have a piece of paper just drawing and pretending to work and be a part of the company.

Why are so many high schools getting rid of vocational training?

I think there are a lot of factors, like funding and budget cuts, but there’s also the pressure to focus on a curriculum that supports a four-year college education. What we need to realize, and what we’ve moved away from, is that not all kids want to go to college, and instead prefer to work with their hands or learn a trade. Skills USA reports that the U.S. currently has 5.6 million unfilled jobs, and 75 percent of them do not require a four-year or advanced degree. We need to do a better job communicating the benefits of a career in the skilled trades and get back to mentorship programs like they had a few decades ago. Klein Tools actually partners with local communities to create internship and mentoring opportunities.

We’ve been family owned since 1857, so we don’t take any shortcuts and don’t make short-term decisions.

As a market leader in the U.S., how do you translate that to growing in a global region where you aren’t perhaps as well known?

We spend a significant amount of time with our end consumers, the skilled craftsmen and women who are using our products in the field. We give them products and have them compare side by side to our competitors. We listen to their unique needs and make sure we design with the voice of the customer in mind. I think that helps establish us as a trusted, committed brand.

You just celebrated 160 years in business as a family run company. How did you do it?

We’ve always managed our business for the long term. We’ve been family owned since 1857, so we don’t take any shortcuts and don’t make short-term decisions. By focusing on quality and keeping the customer in mind for all our decisions, we’ve been able to be successful.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

Don’t be afraid to take smart chances, and always learn from your mistakes.

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