Robert D. Kern, 96, Whose Backup Generators Produced Wealth, Dies

Robert D. Kern, a mechanical engineer who in the mid-1950s started a garage business manufacturing portable emergency power generators and then grew the company into an industry leader known as name of Generac, selling it in 2006 for an estimated $1 billion, died Nov. 8 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. He was 96 years old.

The company announced his death.

With the sale of Generac Power Systems, Mr. Kern shared some of the proceeds with employees, with some receiving up to $40,000 each. And in the years that followed, he and his wife, Patricia Kern, who helped found the company, became leading philanthropists.

“The company is way beyond anything we dreamed of,” Kern said in an interview with the University of Illinois’ Grainger College of Engineering, his alma mater. “My vision was incredibly small compared to what it has become, but tenacity is what it’s all about.”

He and his wife and a few investors started the business after the boom in the airline industry cost Mr Kern his job making engines for railway carriages. Generac has become one of the leading developers, manufacturers and distributors of portable and emergency power generators for homes and industry.

Today, Generac, based in Waukesha, about 18 miles west of Milwaukee, accounts for about 75% of home standby generator sales in the United States.

The Kern Family Foundation has donated more than $100 million to the Mayo Clinic, where Mr. Kern was treated as a child, and helped establish Project Lead the Way, a science and math program for kindergarten through high school. He also donated to the Milwaukee School of Engineering; Marquette University College of Engineering; and the Medical College of Wisconsin, to which the foundation has donated, or pledged to donate, approximately $100 million.

Robert Daniel Kern was born in 1925 in Osage, Iowa, to Reverend John D. Kern, a Baptist minister, and Irene (McPike) Kern, a homemaker.

He earned a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering in 1947 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he met his future wife, Patricia Exter.

Mr. Kern was hired by the Waukesha Motor Company to design generators for combustion engines for use on railroad cars. With the growth of the jet airline industry, rail travel in the United States plummeted and Mr. Kern’s division was phased out.

But remaining passionate about internal combustion engines, he decided to adapt the technologies being developed in generators to potential new markets and set up his own company to reach them.

In 1954, with his wife as bookkeeper of the new company, he began manufacturing portable generators for recreational vehicles and for farmers and construction crews in a garage in the village of Wales, Wisconsin, about 28 miles north. west of Milwaukee. The company, originally called Electric Controls Inc., marketed the equipment through Sears under the Craftsman brand. It became Generac in 1959, combining the word generation with AC.

“If you’re only working to solve problems that you can accomplish in your lifetime,” Kern said, “you’re solving problems that are too small.”

Generac also developed an affordable standby generator for home emergencies, then expanded its business to produce permanent standby generators for commercial and industrial markets.

In 1967, the Generac plant in Waukesha burned down, but with help from the local community, production resumed six days later and the plant was rebuilt in seven weeks, with no layoffs.

“A company is not defined by its bricks and mortar,” Mr. Kern once said. “It is defined by its people.”

When Mr. Kern retired in 2006, at age 81, Generac was the world’s largest producer of portable and standby generators, employing 2,000 people and generating revenues exceeding $700 million.

It was acquired in August by private equity firm CCMP Capital Advisors, a spin-off from JP Morgan Chase.

Since then, the company, which has five manufacturing plants in Wisconsin, has largely benefited from a nationwide trend of emergency preparedness in the wake of extreme weather and natural disasters like Super Storm Sandy in New York and New Jersey in 2012 when demand for portable generators increased. .

Generac’s “market dominance and the growing threat posed by increasingly erratic weather patterns have made it a Wall Street darling,” The New York Times reported in 2021.

Mr. Kern’s wife died in 2017. He is survived by three daughters; two sisters; grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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