MechSE alumnus: from generator manufacturing to Hall of Fame
Alumnus Robert Kern (BSME ’47) has been inducted into the College of Engineering Hall of Fame, which recognizes Illinois engineering alumni and affiliates who have significant achievements in leadership, entrepreneurship, and innovation of great impact to society. Kern has been recognized for his entrepreneurial tenacity in building Generac into a leader in lightweight portable generators and for his philanthropic spirit in helping shape the next generation of engineers.
By his own admission, Bob Kern couldn’t have envisioned how successful a venture Generac would become when he and his wife, Patricia, also a University of Illinois alumnus, began producing lightweight portable generators out of a Milwaukee area garage in 1959.
“The company is way beyond anything we dreamed about,” Kern said. “My vision was incredibly small compared to what it became, but tenacity is what it is all about.”
The son of a Baptist minister and with a passion for internal combustion engines, Kern graduated from the University of Illinois with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1947. His advanced degrees, Kern said, came at Waukesha Motor Company, building engine generators for the railway passenger car industry. When the jet airlines entered the picture and began to dominate that marketplace, Kern’s division was eliminated.
That’s when he decided to go into business for himself. His success, as with many entrepreneurs, came at the intersection of a good idea, hard work, and incredible timing. Kern designed a lightweight portable generator.
“In the 1950s, the design cut the weight and the cost dramatically,” Kern said.
His fledgling company, Generac, sold the generators through Sears, Roebuck and Company, which drove the demand for the next decade.
In 1965, Generac opened a 64,000 square-foot plant in Waukesha, WI. Two years later, a fire severely damaged the entire facility. In just six days, using parts not damaged by the fire and assembled in the company parking lot, a new batch of generators was shipped. In less than two months, the plant was rebuilt, expanding its size by 20 percent.
In nearly 50 years of Kern ownership, Generac grew to about 2,000 employees with revenues topping $700 million. During the 1970s, the company expanded its offerings to recreational vehicle markets, and in the 1980s to the commercial and industrial markets.
“Along with the growth of the business, what I’m most proud of is the opportunity to see the growth of people we worked with,” Kern said.
As a result of that focus, Generac was a recipient of Milwaukee Magazine’s “Best Places to Work” for Southeastern Wisconsin.
In 1998, the Kerns retired and sold off one division and used a portion of the proceeds to establish the Kern Family Foundation. In 2006, at the age of 81, Kern sold the remaining portion to further support the foundation.
Moved by care his family received at the Mayo Clinic, the Kerns have generously donated over $100 million to that organization.
The Foundation also helped establish Project Lead the Way, the nation’s leading STEM K-12 curriculum, now in over 6,500 schools and reaching over one million students across the U.S. annually. Additionally, the Foundation encourages engineering students to develop an “entrepreneurial mindset” through the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN) at nearly 20 private engineering schools, and backs the seminary education of promising pastoral ministry students.
The September 18 induction ceremony was held at Beckman Institute.