For Cascade Engineering, family ownership means thinking long-term.
“If done right, I think the real value of family business is the ability to have a lasting impact and look inter-generationally,” said Christina Keller, president of Cascade's largest business unit and daughter of its founder, Fred Keller.
Christina Keller joined Cascade Engineering in 2009 with a background in nonprofit work. She holds an MBA from Cornell University and also worked in consulting in New York. Prior to becoming president of CK Technologies in 2013, she led the company's Triple Quest business unit, established to produce and distribute household water filters to people around the world in need of safe water.
“Originally I had had aspirations to make a positive impact on the world, did a lot of work in nonprofits, worked internationally, and then as I understood more and more about just the complexity of trying to make a positive impact in the world, realized what a fabulous opportunity we have at Cascade Engineering for me to be able to get engaged in some of the neat programs that we have,” she said.
Christina Keller now lives near CKT's Montpelier, Ohio, facility, which manufactures components for the heavy truck industry. She said she was drawn to the company's culture of making sure employees know they're valued, a principle embraced by her father through the years as well.
“In manufacturing you have an opportunity to have people of various different socioeconomic backgrounds — in consulting everyone's kind of a similar socioeconomic background — so it's really neat the opportunity that you have to touch people in their lives and to really be stewards of your community, be stewards of your employees,” she said. “In some publicly traded companies, you have to be very focused on the next quarter's financial returns and you sometimes make short-sighted decisions, whereas in family-owned business, you are often looking generationally, so looking at what will make this a better place for my children.”
Founded 1973 in Grand Rapids, Mich., Cascade Engineering today comprises nine business units covering transportation, office furniture, RFID asset management, recycling/waste management, polymer compounding and more. The company has grown from six employees in a 10,000-square-foot building to employ more than 1,600 at 14 U.S. locations, with additional operations in Budapest, Hungary.
After 41 years as president and CEO, Fred Keller in 2014 passed the role on to Mark Miller, and today serves as board chair. His daughter Lorissa MacAllister also serves on the Cascade board of directors.
The family has some experience mingling kin and commerce; Christina Keller's grandfather and uncle were both closely involved with family-owned businesses. Cascade Engineering has several clear policies regarding family members working in the business, practices Christina Keller credits with being able to avoid some of the complications that can come with the territory.
Family members are allowed to work as interns in the business, but prior to joining the company they must work outside the company for five years. Those who make a commitment to join the company must work through a rotation program to build experience and understanding of various parts of the business. And no family member reports directly to another family member.
“I actually think because of the processes and policies and procedures that we've put in place — I never actually was reporting to my father — I think our company sometimes works more like a regular business,” she said.