Five Questions for Roger Kauffman

Rogers Kauffman, president of Rosedale-based Electric Motor Repair Co., talks about industry.

When equipment breaks in kitchens at hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, schools, prisons, sports arenas and elsewhere, technicians from Electric Motor Repair Co. often step in to fix it. The Rosedale company, founded in 1927, also repairs heavy equipment at manufacturing plants.

But the household portable appliance repair division where Roger Kauffman started 50 years ago is no more. Kauffman, whose father owned the company at the time, got his start fixing electric razors and window fans.

These days, consumers don't fix their coffee makers and kitchen mixers; they just buy new ones. Even so, EMR's household division was so well-known that even after the division shut down, customers continued to bring in small appliances to be fixed.

"Most of your portable home appliances are not worth repair," said Kauffman, who succeeded his father to become EMR president and CEO in 1988. "The cost of labor alone to repair small appliances exceeds the cost to mass-produce them."

When that business faded out, Kauffman began looking for new opportunities and found them in both industrial plants and in commercial food preparation. Now with five branches in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia and an industrial division in Baltimore City, the company finds itself poised for growth and looking to expand its territory and possibly venture into new businesses.

"We are looking now at a high-end countertop appliance for the home that could be repaired in our shop and is possibly a product we will take in," Kauffman said. "It is too early to tell if it would be worth the investment of time and money, but this could mean a move back into the household market for us."

In the meantime, the second-generation business is paving for the third generation.

Kauffman's daughter, Caroline Kauffman-Kirschnick, now the branch operations manager in Baltimore, is preparing to take over the role of president from her father.

Kauffman talked last week with The Baltimore Sun about changes in the electric repair business and its future.

You took over as president when your father, Harry Kauffman, retired. Now you are preparing for your daughter to eventually lead the company. What are some similarities and differences you see in each of these leadership transitions?

There are a few key similarities between my transition and Caroline's. … We both had the opportunity to work in different positions within the company prior to taking over the top position. This has given each of us an in-depth perspective of what EMR does. We worked for the company both part time (during summer break) and full time since seventh-eighth grade.

One difference is that Caroline worked for other companies her senior year of high school through college, and I did not. This gave her an even broader perspective than mine. I was gradually given more opportunities to enter into decision-making roles, and Caroline has as well.

A major difference is the way the baton was passed to me, and now how it is being passed to her. My father came into my office one day, dropped his keys on my desk, said 'Here,' and walked out. There was some resistance from him before this happened. It was difficult for him to let go of the thing he loved doing.

Caroline and I have been preparing her to transition into my position for six years. When she becomes president, I will be at the office three days a week working as a consultant to her, but she will occupy the president's office.

What types of repair jobs did EMR do originally, and what were some of your first jobs at the company? Has it helped to have worked your way up through various jobs?

EMR was best known for its household portable appliance repair business. We represented all of the major brands as their warranty service station: Norelco, Proctor Silex, Waring, Toastmaster, etc. We took in 500 to 800 appliances a week for repair, including toasters, mixers, irons, shavers, etc.

There was also an electric motor rebuilding operation and an industrial wiring division. I worked in the appliance division, first sweeping the floor and cleaning repaired appliances (similar to the dealer washing your car when it's serviced), then working on the bench repairing appliances. I worked the front counter and had several office jobs.

Being both in the shop and in the office gave me a thorough understanding of our business. Even though we closed the household appliance division years ago, we still repair appliances — only now they are commercial, not household. What I learned about the repair business in the household operation is still valuable today: Our business, as it was back then, is still about people — our customers and employees.

Have any specific trends or industries helped propel EMR's growth? How has the company handled economic downturns?

Just before taking over the presidency, I read an article predicting the restaurant industry would be a growth industry for the next 15 to 20 years. The cost to repair a household appliance was beginning to exceed the price of a new one. This made the repair of commercial restaurant equipment look like a good place to grow, so we went in that direction. We had already started to do work for the manufacturers who made household appliances and now were beginning to make commercial cooking equipment. The transition had already begun; it was just a matter of going after it.

In the industrial division (motor rebuilding shop), we were blessed, at that time, to be in a state that was so diversified with industry, that it was considered recession-proof. We excelled at direct-current (DC) motor repair and had technicians who excelled at troubleshooting control circuitry. The combination of these skills helped us to become a dominant player in the elevator, printing, and a smattering of manufacturing/processing industries.

In all, it was always the skill of our people that made it possible to do what we did. We have been through a number of downturns; the worst I remember is the last one, 2009-2012. We have tried very hard each time to maintain our workforce, resisting layoffs for as long as possible. Some years this resulted in slim profits or even a loss. In our history, we have avoided major layoffs. Keeping our employees has always been a top priority.

What are some especially challenging or complex repairs or installations that you recall?

We are often asked to work on equipment during a busy time in a kitchen — breakfast or lunch. This not only means grappling with the equipment repair, but also not interfering with the food production going on around us.

Installations bring interesting and unexpected situations. We were installing an oven in a restaurant located within a shopping mall. This involves taking out the old unit, setting the new one in place, hooking up the utilities, and testing. It was started that night after closing and had to be up and running the next morning. In the middle of the installation, the lights went out in the entire complex. Rather than packing up and going home, our crew took out their flashlights and completed the installation, allowing the customer to open for business the next day.

Although there are many ordinary service calls, there are always the unusual situations that come up and challenge our ingenuity and determination.

Is it important to you that EMR continue to be run by family members?

A family member should run the business only to the extent they are capable of continuing it as a successful and healthy business. If that is true then yes, it is preferred it continue to be run by a family member. The culture at EMR has been a very important ingredient of our success. We are a people business. Our culture embraces the virtues of honesty, integrity, and dependability. It is Harry Kauffman's legacy that is at the core of this culture. He was a strong believer in these qualities and would not allow his company to practice anything less.

Only a family member could begin to understand that, since they grew up with it. I read not too long ago, 'A family business is always for sale.' If there are no family members in the wings capable of taking the reins, it will be time to make a change.

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

Roger Kauffman

Age: 67

Title: President and CEO, Electric Motor Repair Co.

Home: Baltimore

Education: B.S. in business administration, University of Baltimore

Birthplace: Baltimore

Family: Wife, Mary Ann; children Daniel, Caroline, Jacob, Colin, Sarah Marie

Hobbies: Reading, playing golf

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