According to Norm Gruber of Koehler Scale Inc., now located in Waukegan IL, was originally started by two ex-Toledo men, Russ Koehler and Sal Martinez. The story goes that Russ was one of many Toledo men who went on strike for almost a year back in the late 1950s. After being on strike for so long, Russ decided to start his own service company in Chicago. Eventually one of his biggest customers offered him a job. Russ and wife packed up and moved to Waukegan preparing to start his new job. However, when he reported for his first day he was informed that he could not work for them because he was non-union. “He was in real trouble,” states Norm.
Russ and Sal then decided to become business partners. Sadly, about six months into the partnership, Sal was killed in a truck accident. They had just signed partnership papers that stated, in the event of death, the surviving partner would buy out the widow’s business interests. This left Russ in need of a new partner to keep the business operating.
Norm, was doing tool design at the time and found himself jumping from one job to another that had nothing to do with scales. Russ offered his motorcycle buddy, Norm, a partnership, and Koehler Scale, Inc was founded in 1959. It has grown to be one of the largest independent scale distributors. They purchased a tavern and turned it into their first scale shop.
Eventually Russ decided to move to Arizona leaving Norm on his own and in need of a new location for the business. Again, his motorcycle buddies came to the rescue. One of his friends showed him the property where Koehler Scale has been located since 1977. “It was actually the old Waukegan airport. Zoning was right, but I had to buy all five acres,” recalled Norm. He considered himself very fortunate that everything fell into place.
Second Generation Partnership
Custom scale design really became a part of the business once Norm took over. Everything prior was mechanical and not custom adjusted. This is where the transition from the first generation to the second began. Mark Gruber, Norm’s son, had been working at Koehler Scale during the summers. Things got tight financially in the early 1970s so Mark accepted a position with a local company that used the newest in electronic systems and scales while still helping out at Koehler on the side. Mark worked for the local company for two and a half years and became one of two in-house scale men. He learned all about the functions and maintenance of electronic scales. Mark remembered, “They were cutting-edge, getting all the new equipment quickly and I learned by fire!” At that time, according to Norm, Koehler was in a transition period between mechanical and digital scales and he knew very little about the digital end of things and felt he was in trouble. None of Norm’s guys cared to learn the electronics, and Mark’s experience and knowledge of electronic scales systems made him the natural fit as Norm’s new partner.
Norm said that while he was a decent fabricator, Mark took the company to the next level by pointing out ideas for improvements. “He (Mark) would point to that desk and say, ‘We could put a load cell under each leg and make a scale out of it.’ One thing led to another and we were building our own scales.”
Koehler has created a lot of special weighing applications for its customers over the years. One of its first was for a company working with huge sheets of fiberglass, about an inch thick and eight to 10 feet long, weighing only four pounds. They couldn’t put it on a scale because it would flop and slip, making it difficult to get an accurate weight. So, they created a hanging table, using some light-capacity load cells, so they could lay the sheets on it to weigh them accurately. By embracing their ingenuity and continuing to look for unique applications in the field, Koehler Scale has continued to develop a valuable service within the industry. And their service people always keep their eyes open for different applications that may help improve functions and create opportunity for more unique designs and services.
The Internet has added a new challenge to the sales end of the scale industry. Customers will hunt on line for the “best price” while not considering the total cost after installation, calibration and certification.
“We build stands, racks, and columns, because some things are just easier to build yourself than buy outside,” Mark says. “Someone may draw an idea on a napkin and the next day we have it fabricated and ready to go. You can’t get that online.” One such project that was just completed is a unique design to weigh drums at a pharmaceutical company. The issue was that the operators needed a way to move the scale in and out of different rooms and around cleaning areas. So, Koehler designed a way to easily maneuver the scale in and out. Built to the client’s specific needs, wheels were added on load cells in the back and knobs in the front to which they can connect a device to lever and move the scale easily. Another example is a pallet jack scale where the original manufacturer placed the readout screen at the bottom of the column. “It got busted by repeatedly getting bumped,” said Mark, “so, we moved it to the top of the handle where it is easier to see and is protected from incidental damage. Now you have a custom scale.”
Adding to the Partnership
John Zegar, who had worked in the scale industry his whole life, met Mark through a job he was working. In 1995 John bought out Norm’s half of Koehler Scales and became 50/50 partners with Mark in an S corporation, which allowed Norm to “retire”. Norm is now 86 years old and still active in the company. He welds, cuts, paints, works on restoring his prized 1936 Ford truck and does some consulting, but states that he is retired and has no financial interest in the company. Norm calls this the “perks of retirement”, he has the room for his toys and can work on them while keeping his finger on the pulse of the business. He will stay available for the mechanical help if they have need of his knowledge or experience.
John and Mark have continued to grow the company using creativity and great service. John explains, “Our advantage is service. Buy from me and I deliver it to your facility, I set it up, I calibrate it, I press the buttons and show you how to use it. If it breaks you call me.” Every scale they sell or install has the Koehler Scale sticker on it and calibration certifications, so if a customer moves a scale to another facility the sticker stays on with their number. Koehler continues to service their scales wherever there is a need. Flexibility is the key to a long-term successful business.
John noted that the Internet has added a new challenge to the sales end of the scale industry. Customers will hunt on line for the “best price” while not considering the total cost after installation, calibration and certification. There is no common source for all the different scales manuals, calibrations and operations and each scale can be very specific and different. Koehler Scales offers strong value in a multi-generational team of professionals who have the experience and resources available to sell, service, certify and deliver scales.
The Third Generation Joins the Team
John’s son Michael Zegar is the third generation moving into the company. He has a chemical engineering degree, and says he spent his whole life hanging around the shop and helping his dad. John plans to retire by June of next year and will pass on his shares of the business to his son, making Michael and Mark 50/50 partners. Following Norm’s example, John will stay on as a consultant during the transition. During the next five to 10 years, Mark will work to pass on his skills and shares to Michael as well.
Michael is looking forward to putting his unique stamp on the company, build relationships with customers and vendors and “bring Koehler into the 21st century.” He hopes to create a stronger Internet presence and develop a mobile web site that customers can purchase through. Koehler will continue to do a lot of what they do now, as it is working for them. Michael has experience working in the lab and medical industry with balances and equipment and says he hopes to develop that arm of the business as they move forward. Michael’s specialty is troubleshooting scales. He says that “every day is its own new adventure, especially on the service end.” One experience was troubleshooting a scale that wasn’t returning to zero. Michael says he observed the process and determined that due to a faulty process there was still water in the cooling jackets when the customer thought they were empty. His knowledge and ability to troubleshoot add another level of service to an already successful company. Mark says “guys like Michael see and understand both ends of the processes. Both mechanical and electronic.”
Ingenuity, creative solutions, knowledge, experience and service is “the way we’ve done business and will continue to do business,” says Michael. Ultimately, combining three generations allows for a natural progression to a successful future.
Michelle Hoffman has been a licensed Life and Health insurance adviser, in the states of IL and WI, for many years. During that time she has specialized in educating individuals on retirement planning and success. Michelle enjoys doing seminars and educational events to help simplify the process and understanding for those aging into Medicare. For questions regarding retirement planning, you can email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published by WAM Publishing Co.