Steiner CEO Speaks on Business and Family at Champlain College

Steiner CEO speaks before Champlain students

Last March, Richard Kerman, or Rick as he is known in the halls and cubicles of Steiner Electric, gave a speech to a group of first-year college students enrolled in the business program of Champlain College, a small college in Burlington, Vt.

Kerman explained the concept of the wholesale distribution channel and how material and services flow from the factory to contractors, original equipment manufacturers (OEM’s), and maintenance, repair and operations (MRO’s) and, ultimately, to the public.

But, the open discussion evolved into much more and received an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the students.

The dialogue was about family and community, history and hard work. He told stories of an 11-year-old sweeping warehouse floors and washing winter’s grime from company trucks, and of multiple generations of family working to sustain and grow a business, and of those that came before him, and those that will succeed him. It was in the articulating of those ideas that kept the attention of 24 young adults who otherwise might be checking Facebook pages or Instagram accounts.

Steiner CEO Rick Kerman explains the wholesale distribution business to students at Champlain College in Vermont.

Robert Bloch, adjunct faculty member at Champlain, says he asked the students about what they thought about the presentation, and he was met with “an outburst of ‘yeahs,’ ‘greats,’ ‘awesomes,’ and “generally positive vibes.”

“They appreciated getting an inside look at an industry to which they normally are not exposed,” Bloch says.  “They felt that [Rick] shared a unique perspective as a CEO and family member. [He gave] a multi-dimensional view.  They liked the personal stories and felt that he was a CEO at a big firm that [they] could relate to as a person.  They appreciated his candor about the challenges the company faces, and the obvious pride he takes in the company.”

While Kerman is a successful businessman, well-practiced at giving presentations in front of groups, he found it was especially easy to talk to these students about something he knows so well, something that he grew up with, something that is in his Steiner-blue blood.

The lecture started with an overview of what is distribution. He explained about distributors and how independent organizations such as Steiner act as the conduit between manufacturers of products and services to the consumers of these goods. He discussed the challenges a company in this industry faces that include the traditional electrical distributor, and newer competitors such as massive home improvement stores, and the Goliath’s of the e-commerce world such as Amazon. While he focused on the electrical products distribution industry, he discussed how the broader industry works to get goods and services into the hands of those who need them. Eventually, however, the discussion transitioned into the history of the company, and the role of family in its success.

Steiner and Family

Steiner Electric is many things. It is a 100-year-old distribution business that over the years has grown to become one of the top 40 electrical supply businesses in the country, with more than 1,000 vendors, and operating 9 facilities throughout the Northern Illinois and Northwest Indiana area. It operates five business units under the Steiner name, including electrical supplies, lighting and controls, generator power systems, automation products and metalworking supplies. Steiner Electric is, indeed, many things. But, at its heart, it is a family business. Rick is just the 4th president and third generation of the company his grandfather founded in 1916. The company is proud that the next generation has already began making their individual contributions in various capacities throughout the company.

For instance, Adam Kerman, Rick’s oldest son, worked summers at the business, and now has worked full-time for five years calling on the property managers at major commercial buildings in downtown Chicago and the surrounding area. His middle brother, Jason, a graduate of the University of Colorado-Denver’s film school, has worked in the marketing department during summers from school and after graduation before taking position as an assistant flame artist at a local production company. A flame artist utilizes Flame software primarily in the video postproduction industry to create visual effects for video and film production.

Family is a common theme when speaking with Rick, but that does not mean that family always equates to blood lines. In fact, there was a period of 40 years when the only family members at Steiner were Rick and his father, Harold Kerman.

Today, the company employs nearly 430 co-workers who average 12 years with the company. Many of them have cross trained jobs; some currently do jobs vastly different from when they were hired. Rick points to the men and women who gave most of their working lives to the company. Literally decades spent in the Steiner “family.” Recently, five members of the team retired and their length of service ranged from 21 to 50 years.

The company must always look at succession planning and making sure the right people are in the right position doing the right things. As Steiner honors its past, it must stay focused on the changing demands required for future growth. One of the newest members of the staff is Josh Kerman, Rick’s youngest son, who recently graduated from Champlain, and now has begun working on a part-time basis in the social media department at Steiner while continuing to operate a successful DJ music business in Burlington.

Josh, like his father, swept the Steiner warehouse floor as a child, dodging forklifts, and was, according to Rick, always an entrepreneur at heart. At one point, he gathered scrap wood, trimmed and finished them and then toured the neighborhood, pushing an old, squeaky TV cart to sell his “Kid Made Music.” Later, to satisfy his Boy Scout Eagle project requirement, he collected gently used sporting goods that he donated to a homeless shelter.

It was Josh Kerman who asked his father to speak at the college, some 900 miles from the company’s typical customer. It wasn’t to make a sale, but it was a chance to impart some knowledge to young, business-minded men and women about an industry that might not have been at the forefront of their thinking.

Rick says “the unique program of Champlain College allows students to start in 101 business classes, not prerequisites. “It gets them excited about business and helps them discover what they want to do,” he says. “They learn the practical aspects of running a business allowing them to better relate to the concepts of what they want to do. The program is designed for creative minds.”

Bloch calls Champlain a professionally oriented college. “We teach a solid chunk of liberal arts, but we emphasize professional preparation,” he says. “We believe in an educational philosophy known as experiential learning, which we value very highly … The more we can offer real-world experience to the students tends to be good.”

Experiential learning is the process of learning through experience. Not just hands-on experience, but in the reflection, critical analysis and synthesis of the experience. One method to deliver an “experiential learning experience” is by inviting people from the real world to come into the classroom to talk in depth, not only about what they do, but about their lives and how they got there, Bloch added. “This is why I jumped at the chance to have Rick speak.”

For instance, when discussing Kerman’s speech, the question of the company’s worth was broached, which led to a discussion on how companies are valued in general: cash-flow multiples; underlying assets, both hard and soft (e.g. customer and supplier relationships); growth potential. “It was a nice, bonus learning moment,” Bloch says.

“So much of what kids are exposed to today tells them that business sucks, and that business people are all a bunch of money-grubbers, but I believe business is one of the most creative forces we have in society for good, and so, it was great to have a guy like Rick come into the classroom and exude his passion for his business. A 20-year-old might not think the industry is glamorous, but they were able to see someone like Rick who was able to make wholesale distribution stimulating and fun.”

While Bloch understands that with Josh graduating, there might be less incentive to visit the school that is situated on the shores of Lake Champlain near Canada, “but if he does,” says Bloch, “I would love to have him give the presentation again, and this time in front of a larger audience.”