A Window of Opportunity: A Talk With the Family Members at Kleeberg Sheet Metal

By Kitty Axelson-Berry for Related Matters

First, Who are you all? You are…

Dorothy: Dorothy

And your position here?


And you’ve been here since the beginning?


Dick: Not really. Dorothy raised our children while I was working, and then after the children were grown (1981), she came in.

And you’re…?

Lynn: Lynn Simeone and I’m the daughter. I was employed here starting a little after I graduated from high school, and then I fully got into it, and headed down to East Hartford, where my father had purchased a company in 1988. I had to go through four years of sheet metal school, an apprentice training course every other Saturday, learning how to draft, weld, make fittings, bang them together—four years of that.

What’s your position?

President of Yankee Sheet Metal, in Connecticut.

And you?

Dan: I’m Daniel. Vice president. I came aboard after finishing college, 1989.

And you, sir?

Dick: I’m Dick Kleeberg, I’ve been here since the beginning. I started the business with my father right out of high school . . . in 1958. … that fall we started Kleeberg Sheet Metal. And yes, I’m the president.

Do you all work equally as hard as each other?

Dick: I would think so.

About how many hours per week do y’all work?

Dorothy: I think Dick worked more hours than them…

Lynn: It varies from week to week.

Dick: As I have gotten older and the children have taken on more responsibility, it is making life a lot easier for me. When they were growing up and Dorothy was bringing them up, it was not unusual for me to work 80 or 90 hours a week. I’m probably in the 55 to 60-hour work week now.

Dorothy: It’s a little honeymoon we’re having.

About how many hours a week do you work?

Lynn: About 45.

Dan: About 45

Dick: I guess I’d better get my act together!

Do you talk about things other than business when the family gets together?

Dick: If we’re together socially, we always end up one way or another talking about business, it’s just natural for us.

Dorothy: Especially Ken, the older boy. [Dan and Lynn] are very quiet about business when we have our family dinners. Ken loves to talk about it, gets everyone aggravated. I say, “This is family time, to be with the grandchildren, let’s not talk about business.”

How do you work out problems?

Dick: Quite honestly, we don’t have a lot. Danny is the comptroller and handles the financial end. [Ken] doesn’t really want to do that job, he’s project manager, more hands-on, which is something Danny doesn’t really want to do. I’m blessed in that way. Every once in a while we have a little skirmish but on the whole we get along pretty well.

Did you figure those roles out as children?

Dorothy: [Dan] surprised me the most, going into the business. His quote was always, “Dad, don’t think I’m ever going to get my hands dirty.”  Right?

Dan: I think long-term I always knew I’d go into the business

Dorothy: He’s the mild one, very easy-going, quiet, observes. Lynn can speak out for herself and [Kenny] is outspoken, probably more like me. These three take it inside and try to solve it themselves quietly where Kenny and I, if we have something to say we say it to the person and try to correct it right away.

You folks don’t seem to focus on blame. You’re supportive.

Dick: Since we got into the Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley, it’s done us a world of good.

Dorothy: It’s been the most wonderful experience. I’ve never heard my children talk so much about meeting different people and talking to them… We all have the same problems.

Dick: The main problem for all of us with children in the business is that when we retire somebody’s got to end up being the boss and who is that person going to be? I’m fortunate that all of my kids are very capable. As we talk to other parents, they’ve got children who have various degrees of capabilities and limitations, and that represents a much greater problem. It’s interesting to see that although we all share the same problems, it’s to different degrees.

Dan: The biggest thing for me is that it gives us a vehicle to discuss issues we normally would say, “Oh we don’t have time to talk about that.” But this has taught us…we’ve got to every once in awhile sit back and say, We’ve got to talk about these issues. Maybe we don’t have to address them for 15 years, but now’s the time to think about them.

So what have you been discussing?

Dan: The biggest is how this business is going to get to the next generation and what form is it going to be. It’s always been owner managed, and with three siblings, is that going to happen? Is there going to be a partnership type arrangement?

Dick: Their fear is that although I’ve threatened to retire, I’m never going to retire. So maybe a year-and-a-half ago, I kind of laid out the plans. I said, “I’m 56 years old, I’m going to work here full time and hard until I’m 62, and at 62 I’m going to kind of turn over the reins to you kids. I’ll still remain here to be referee (hopefully not) or whatever you want until I’m 65, and at 65 I’m gone. I’m going to do something else and leave [Kleeberg Sheet Metal] up to you. There’s the game plan, now you guys take it and do whatever you wish. And when I’m 62, if I don’t feel that you can handle it, then I’m going to look for a person to buy the company. I know they certainly want to take over this company and I know they’re certainly very capable of it.

Dan: We had one meeting last December that the spouses attended. Like you said, when you’re sitting there at the Thanksgiving table and all you’re doing is talking about the business, they kind of feel out of place.

Dick: Also we all have bad days and when these guys go home and are a little grumpy, [their spouses] probably now realize a little bit why..this is a very stressful business and not every day is a good day.

Dorothy: I know when I was young I had a hard time … bringing up three children all by myself with him working maybe 90 hours a week. And I often thought, Is it worth it? To be into a marriage like this? To be with a workaholic? …[When the children were older] I said, “Please let me come in and do little things in the company,” and when I did, I understood what all the frustration and stress was about.

I know how I used to be when Dick got home — “OK, let’s go out and get some ice-cream or something.” But it doesn’t work that way. It turned my mind completely around when I started coming home with a stress headache.

Another sheet metal territory and company could be developed…

Dan: Because of the Family Business Center we have time [to figure out the future structure of the business] and listen to other family businesses and how they’ve handled it. Some have already gone through it, some don’t even think about it because their kids are too young, some are right where we are. It’s really interesting.

Dick: When my father left the company, he left in a way that I certainly don’t want [to leave] these kids. He went to the doctor on a Wednesday afternoon and came back and said, “The doctor says I have a very bad heart. I’m leaving on Friday. Go to the attorney, give me a proposal. I’m outta here.” We’re trying to pre-plan, give them seven or eight years‚ a window of opportunity…If they come to me and want to do something, I’m going to allow them to do it.

Have they come to you with wild ideas?

Dick: Usually it’s Kenny and I who are kind of go-go, when it comes to buying machinery or something like that, and Danny is kind of the bean counter, “Do you need this?” It works out.

Dan: The biggest thing I struggle with is, my father’s been able to develop such respect, for him and for what he does, that you could literally go down this hall and ask any employee and they would do absolutely anything for him, and the thing I struggle with is, How do I get to that point? And it all goes back to …gaining the respect of the employees, and that takes time no matter how you look at it.

People seem to feel loyal to the person who hired them , and they’ve been hired by your dad.

Dan: Yeah. One of us might say, “This might be a better way of doing that” and they don’t take it the same way as if it was coming from him

Lynn: Or they’ll always go back to him.

Dan: They’ll listen to me and say “yes” and then go back to him and ask, “Do you really want this?”

Are you folks going to do more of the hiring?

Dan: Yes, we’re doing that now.

[Ken enters.]

Dick: This is my other boy, Kenny.

[As project manager, Ken oversees projects from design to completion. He has been officially working at Kleeberg for about 14 years. He has done everything from landscaping and pushing brooms to operating the machinery and computer systems, and is a union member. After greetings, the conversation continues.] 

Lynn: In my situation, since I’m a woman in a predominantly male industry, I have more of a problem of men looking up to and respecting me. I try to deal with it the best I can.

Ken: Lynn is kind of a hands-on person. She puts her work boots and jeans on, and she’s out in the field, up on the 18th floor of a building in zero degree weather…. and by being like that, I think, gets more respect.

Dorothy: But I think the boys are going to have a big obstacle because the majority of people here are going to retire at about the same time Dick does.

Dick: We’re bringing younger people up and also new blood in. We hired a person this year who’s going to replace me doing the estimates…

Ken: Communication has definitely improved a lot now that we sit down once a week and discuss anything that needs to be discussed.

Ken, I notice you dress more casually…

Ken: Well, I was brought up through the business and they relate more to me on a one-on-one scale. [Dad’s] main focus here is estimating and he stays in the office, so he doesn’t get the opportunity to see the guys as much as the guys probably like to see him.

Dick: He’s worked with a lot of these people, so there’s that mutual respect, which Danny probably doesn’t get. Danny went to college and there’s that little bit of friction that happens.

It’s a class thing?

Dorothy: Well, Kenny’s the one who has the softest heart. You can go to Kenny and say, “I really need this job. My wife is expecting…” and he’ll be in tears and come in saying, “We can’t lay him off.” That’s why they respect him so much.

Ken: Yeah, but I can be a real…

Dorothy: We know that. But the majority of times, really, he’ll help you out.

Ken: It’s a difficult situation. They don’t see it as much as I do. We treat our employees very well. How many bosses would take 20 employees to Bermuda for a 5-day weekend or on a cruise because we’re having a good year? Christmas bonuses and stuff. You get fed up hearing cry-baby stuff. We pay very well, over scale. Sometimes I feel like saying, “Hey, if you don’t like it here, there’s the door, go work for somebody else, see how long, come back.”

How many times have you said that?

Ken: None! It’s not my position. It’s my position to recommend a change and that’s when I go to my father. If I feel a person is worth something, I’ll say “Fine, I’ll go and have a talk with Danny and my father.” If I don’t feel a person is worth it, I tell him right up front.

Dick: And nine times out of 10, what you recommend we go by.

Dan: He has a better handle on what these people really do. He’s out in the trenches whereas I’m not. He sees the conditions and pressures these people have to work under. Having done everything himself, he knows.

Ken: Yeah. And not to pick on Danny — Danny does an excellent job at what he does — but if I was just brought in from college, I wouldn’t get the same respect I have now.

Lynn: There’s something about a college degree, which these fellows don’t have out here. 

Ken: But it’s not just that. Every holiday, every vacation I was always in here. Danny was here, yeah — and summers he was off sailing, and the guys see that. But they respect him for what he does….

Dan: If we were all like me, we wouldn’t have anyone out there.

Dorothy: Kenny can put his jeans on and go and work out there. Like on Monday night, Danny took off early and went golfing and Kenny was supposed to go too, but there was an emergency, a truck that had to be loaded with ductwork to go out 4 o’clock in the morning — and there was Kenny. He gave up his golf schedule. And they respect him for that.

So do you sometimes feel you’re on both sides of the fence?

Ken: All the time. They know when I come in and ask them stuff and get a little irritated [at the outcome] but then I take a day to think about it and I can accept it.

You could use them as an excuse, too.

Ken: I don’t do that. Hey, if it’s not the right time, it’s not the right time, or if the person’s not performing right, I try to let them know they have to do a little better, and maybe in six months we’ll review it.