A Family Of Entrepreneurs

by Tom Kurtz

Growing up in a family business was surely a unique experience. I am certain that the simple observation of watching my parents and older siblings respond to the challenges of the business with dedication and perseverance helped to shape my values and work ethic.

As our family topsoil business was growing, I clearly remember my mom, Dolores, our first sales and marketing person (although she didn’t know it at the time, she thought it was about survival), stirring something on the stove while she was explaining to an individual that six cubic yards of topsoil would spread 1,000 square feet, two inches thick.

During the soil season (the end of March through November), my dad, Mel, was always gone before I got up and would come home late at night covered with dirt and dust. My folks didn’t have much time to watch me play little league baseball and things such as that, but I didn’t know any kid, outside of my family, who learned how to drive a truck at age eight. By the fifth grade, I was helping my dad after school and summers working at the topsoil field. It was at this point that I knew I was hooked, and that the family business was right for me.

The next process I found very interesting was how the siblings evolved into their current positions. Back in the early 70s, the company grew by buying new trucks. If we had additional trucks, we had to create additional work to keep them busy. My older brothers, John and Greg, usually got the new truck, thus, they had to find the work to justify it. What a marketing concept! Survival via sales. At first, the older brother, John, got the new truck. It got real interesting when Greg, the next oldest, decided he was never going to be oldest and would never get a new truck. That may have been the beginning of our corporate structure. Like most companies, we have a legal structure, but for decision-making, its consensus or bust.

It’s interesting to think that, if John would have put his foot down and said “I’m the oldest, I’m the boss, I get the new trucks,” chances are we wouldn’t be Kurtz Bros. today because each sibling has a strong personality.

As the company grew, my brothers and I got too busy to drive the trucks and run the equipment all day, and we started to transition from worker to manager. Actually, it was worker/manager mostly. There were six siblings involved in the business. John and Greg had the main roles and responsibilities being the oldest. Brother Mel decided he didn’t want to be in a seasonal business, and being born with entrepreneurial genes, broke off and started a tire business, where I worked after graduating from high school. Sisters Debbie and Lisa were both involved in various sales, order processing and clerical jobs through their school years.

As we were all marrying and starting families, our careers solidified. The three guys at Kurtz Bros., John, Greg and myself, all eventually went into business development and operations related roles. We were large enough and diverse enough that we carved out divisional responsibilities so we wouldn’t have to trip over one another.

In the last 10 years, we have started our foundry and industrial waste service business, the construction/demolition landfill and container trucking company, sports turf, organic recycling, KB Compost Services (biosolids), Amerimulch coloring systems and two professional landscape products garden centers. This has been a sound strategy because the only time we seem to have conflict is when our areas overlap.

Our youngest sister, Lisa, has in many ways been the glue that keeps the organization together. She has taken on all of the financial and risk management areas, roles in which my brothers and I would be poorly suited. She has insisted that we create our Mission, Vision and Values and use these as our guiding principles in running our company. As the company has grown, more recently, brother Mel (who had since rejoined the company) and sister Debbie have taken on significant roles; Mel in providing leadership into our biosolids management opportunities and Debbie helping in a variety of ways, primarily in customer service, strategic planning, and our future quality operating systems program.

It hasn’t been easy, and as most family business owners can attest, sometimes downright painful, but when I look at the challenges in the marketplace, there is nowhere I’d rather be than linked arm in arm with my sibling partners knowing that together we can overcome anything.

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A Note About the Growth of Kurtz Bros.

Based in Independence, Ohio, Kurtz Bros., Inc. supplies a wide range of soil and landscape materials, offers professional landscape products, manages composting facilities, and recycles wood. The company had its start in the 1920s, when John Kurtz and his son, Mel, were operating the K.B. Coal & Fuel Supply business. In 1936, the first soil product was sold and that began the shift away from fuel. By the late 1940s, the company had made the transition into a seasonal topsoil business (April to October). During the other times of the year, Mel worked as an equipment operator. By 1969, two sons of Mel came into the business John and Greg and each one got a truck of his own. By 1974, the Kurtz Topsoil Company became known as Kurtz Bros. The trucking business was the heart of the company trucks were rented for use in excavation for hauling building materials and diversified products. In the early 1980s, the company got into mulches.

In 1985, the sports turf business began with a series of specialty jobs using compost made by the City of Akron composting plant. In 1985, Another son, Tom, had joined the company, concentrating on sports turf activities. The next year John and Greg started Industrial Waste Services having gotten a large contract with the Ford Motor Casting Plant finding beneficial uses for non-hazardous material.

In 1989, the company started its first garden center, and daughter Lisa joined the company as full partner. The company now runs two garden centers selling soil products, compost and professional landscaping products both wholesale and retail.

Kurtz Bros. started in the composting business in 1987. In 1989, Kurtz got the contract to market biosolids compost from Akron; and in 1991 the company began managing the Akron facility. Currently Kurtz Bros. operates 12 yard trimmings composting facilities in Ohio and has its own biosolids composting facility in Richfield, Ohio.

It handles and markets more than one-half million cubic yards of organic material a year, and regularly adds different feedstocks to its processing facilities. (Latest feedstock is food processing residuals from a local Nestle plant.)

The number of employees have grown dramatically. In 1970, there were five employees. In 1995, there are more than 200.

Officers of the company are: John, President; Lisa, Secretary/Treasurer; Greg and Tom, Vice Presidents. “We manage by consensus,” says Tom Kurtz. “We each have sufficiently separate roles, responsibilities differentiating enough that we avoid tripping over each other.”

Reprinted with permission from In Business, 419 State Ave., Emmaus, PA 18049. (610) 967-4135. E-mail: inbusines1@aol.com. (March/April, 1996 pp. 20-21).