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Leading By Example

Tilton School
This Alumni Feature was first published in the 2018 issue of 1845: The Magazine of Tilton School

The din of the manufacturing floor filters through the building and into the front office. It’s a constant, comforting sort of background noise that gently becomes part of the atmosphere. Always buzzing, always working, always humming, the 88 machines and 120 employees at Keats Manufacturing in suburban Chicago do not stop.
As Wade Keats ’75, P’04, president and owner of the 59-year-old company, talks about his plant and the employees who keep things running around the clock, he does so with a sense of pride and excitement that goes beyond mere business speak. Keats truly loves where he works, what he does, and the people he is surrounded by day in and day out. And you can feel it.

Keats Manufacturing was started in 1958 by Wade’s father, Bert, and uncle, Glenn, in a small Chicago storefront with just two machines and a $5,000 start-up loan from their mother. Both men moonlighted for several years while getting their new business up and running; Bert at the U.S. Post Office and Glenn as a CPA.

As the company grew and expanded, both founders were able to leave their regular jobs and dedicate their full attention to Keats Manufacturing. By 1989, not only had they repaid their mother’s original investment, they had also outgrown their humble storefront beginnings and the plant moved to a larger location. Today the main facility is located in Wheeling, Illinois, a suburb west of Chicago, with a second plant in El Paso, Texas. In 2016, Keats de Mexico was established after Wade’s oldest son, Brad Keats ’04, convinced his father and the board that the Chicago-based company could fill a niché in this growing economy. Today Keats de Mexico boasts a 15,000-square-foot manufacturing plant and employs 12 local workers in Queretaro, northwest of Mexico City.

Keats Manufacturing has created its success one machine, one employee, and one client at a time. Today its client list includes Bosch, Honeywell, Siemens, Emerson, and Hitachi, to name a few. It provides products to the automotive industry, as well as the consumer goods industry, appliance industry, medical, and military/aerospace industries.

But these are not the main things Wade Keats talks about as he proudly lists out his company’s accomplishments. While these are great achievements and a contribution to their success, Wade credits the soft commodities for the reason Keats Manufacturing is going strong and getting stronger after nearly 60 years.

It’s the people, Wade says. And the investment that Keats believes in putting into each person who walks into the plant and commits to growing into their potential. In a way, it’s a philosophy very similar to what Wade was taught while on the Hill. Take a risk, try new things, learn from your mistakes, don’t be afraid to grow, ask questions, stay committed. Help others.

It began way back when Bert and Glenn were just starting out. Wade tells stories about how the two brothers slowly began to hire additional employees. One of the first was Herb Fink, who walked in one day and told Glenn Keats he would like to work at the plant. Glenn put a broom in his hand, as he did with every new hire (you start out on the floor, keeping things clean and learning the ropes), and gave Herb the opportunities he needed to grow and succeed.

Today, 51 years later, Herb Fink is the plant manager in Wheeling. His two sons also work at the shop. And Herb is not unique. Brian Storey worked alongside Wade when they both were kids, packing boxes. That was 47 years ago. Today he is the tool room manager. John Dosek, Jr. started right out of high school, sweeping floors part-time. That was 1979. Now he’s the electro-discharge machinery manager at Keats Manufacturing. His brother, Tom, joined in 1984 and is now production manager. Their father, John Dosek, Sr., was the original plant manager, hired in 1962 under Bert and Glenn.

And the stories go on. At least 50 people have been at Keats Manufacturing for more than 20 years. Annually Wade honors those in the 20 Year Club with a formal dinner, along with their spouses. For those who bring their family with them, whether sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, cousins or parents, there is a special wall of honor where photographs of each family are proudly displayed.

Keats’ own family is counted in that number. Today, at 97 years old, founding owner Glenn Keats still shows up for work twice a week. Glenn’s grandson, Matt Eggemeyer, is Human Resources Manager. Wade’s sister, Paula Horwath, works in accounts receivable. Son Brad is in new sales development at the El Paso plant with his uncle, Matt, and two cousins, Dean and Brian Keats.

Wade even met his wife, Chris, at Keats Manufacturing 30 years ago when she worked in accounting. Wade Keats, and his father and uncle before him, makes it a point to invest in each and every one of his employees. If someone wants to learn a new machine, they are sent to school for special training. If they are eager to advance themselves, Keats provides the opportunities to make it happen. The company also reaches out to the community, offering internships to students from Wheeling High School, and participating in Manufacturing Day, where Keats opens up the plant to tours, showing eager students the opportunities that exist for them after high school.

“The local high school has a metal working program so we try to recruit out of that,” Wade said. “For some kids, college isn’t for them. We need these students in manufacturing.”

For Manufacturing Day, which occurs every October, Keats sees it as an excellent recruiting tool for the next generation of workers. “We bring in busloads of students and show them through our plant, what the opportunities are, how they can grow within,” Keats said.

“You’re not stuck in a dead end job. You can evolve into something that makes a good living and rise up.”

Like the place of honor for long-time employees, local Wheeling High School students are also celebrated with a prominently-displayed photo of all graduates now working at Keats, including Dave King, Vice President of Sales at Keats Manufacturing (and member of the 20 Year Club).

“We know that these kids are our future,” Wade said. “I love to see them rise up. It’s our only way to keep this going. We want them to grow and they know it.” Keats also understand that today’s younger workforce—Millennials—do things differently and think differently than generations before them. But that’s not a liability. That’s an opportunity.

“We’re trying to cater to Millennials because we know that’s our future,” he said. “We’ve got a couple kids from my old high school [before Tilton]. One of them runs our new CNC machine. When he saw we got it, he said ‘I want to run that.’ This is his way out, his way up. We’re sending him to classes at the Technology and Manufacturing Association and he’s really happy; he’s learning. “I love seeing these kids rise up. That’s great. We have to. It’s our only way to keep this going and to grow. A lot of our peers haven’t taken that approach. Their workforce is older. We have some older people but they’re teaching the younger people,” Keats said.

It’s all part of Wade’s general philosophy about running a company, building relationships, supporting his employees, and leading by example. He remembers with pride the lessons his father and uncle taught him as a young child and early employee that help him stay humble today.

“If we were going to be working at the company, we were going to be working on the floor,” Keats said of how his father and uncle approached family employees. “You’re not going to get any respect without that. I spent almost three years on the floor, learning from the ground up so that I knew what I was talking about, and the others respected that. “Our plant manager at the time was a very hard-nosed guy. He didn’t put up with anything. He didn’t care if I was my dad’s son. So I just put my head down, and I earned his respect. Once I got into [the front office], I was the sales manager, and he respected me because I knew what I was talking about,” Keats said.

Giving respect and earning it were also big priorities for the original Keats brothers. “That was big for my dad,” Wade said. “Treat people on their same level. Don’t look down on them. Don’t live in an ivory tower. And he was right. That has helped me all through my career here. Whenever I go through the plant here or in El Paso, I realize that if we didn’t have these [employees], we don’t exist. And that’s part of the culture. The culture is family. You don’t work for us, you work with us. And [our employees] feel that way. I know that all our people here are pulling the rope the same way I am,” said Keats.