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Steve Kath and Wendy Fry

To talk about her own chapters in the tale of The Retrofit Companies, Inc, President Wendy Fry said she’s compelled to share her father’s story first. “My dad, Steve Kath, was and still is the heart and soul of this company. Even though he’s retired now, it still seems like everything he does is to continue the promotion and success of the company,” she said.

 

Fry said her dad worked “I don’t know….20 or 30 years with Northwestern Railroad until he was offered an opportunity with the railroad that would have required a move to Chicago. I know he thought long and hard about it, but ultimately decided to pass up the new job and leave the railroad. See, my grandpa Eddie Kath really had this thing about wanting his family – kids and grandkids – to be close by. He wanted to be part of everyone’s lives, and he especially wanted everyone to be part of his and Granny Kay’s lives in Meriden. Dad knew that and respected that, and I think that’s why he chose to try something new.”

 

Fry said her dad worked a variety of jobs for the next few years, sometimes three at a time. “He still had a family. He still had bills to pay. Staying ahead was important to him,” she recalled of her father’s efforts. Finally, Kath was asked to join a business that sold and installed lighting systems. It was owned by one of Kath’s buddies, and the funny thing is, it was a lot like Retrofit. Same idea, same principle, Fry said.

 

“Dad sold a local job – it was a big job, important. But for some reason it was not a good installation, and the customer was not happy with it. Dad promised they could start over and do it right, but the customer refused and the sale was lost. Dad was devastated by this. It really worked on him,” Fry said. She recalled one of her favorite ‘Eddie-isms’ that may have influenced her dad to later quit that job. She said her Grandpa always said, “You can shear a sheep many times, but you can only skin him once. Not long after that, Dad quit that job and consulted with the people at the Incubator, and that’s how Lighting Retrofit was born.”

 

In March 1992, Lighting Retrofit began operating in a “room smaller than this one (a conference room roughly 12’ x 8’ in size). It had two desks, two folding chairs and two typewriters. Not computers, typewriters,” Fry emphasized, adding that their warehouse was a space roughly the same size with a dirt floor. She said in the early years of the company, most of the work concentrated on fluorescent lighting retrofits, but not until after Kath had hired his first employee, a master electrician. “Dad still had that first job with the other company on his mind, and he didn’t want a repeat. He vowed to do the jobs the way they were meant to be done, and so he was always a stickler about having workers who were trained and qualified to do the work correctly the first time.

 

As the company continued to grow, Fry was finishing her college education, and graduated with an associate degree in business. “I had a few jobs here and there, and I was always interested in psychology. But I figured out early on that to become a licensed Psychologist would require at least eight more years of school, and I didn’t want any part of that. And so after much nudging from Dad I joined the company in 1998 and started out in Environmental Sales.”

 

Fry said it didn’t take her long to realize that sales and psychology “went hand-in-hand. It was like this big light bulb flashed for me one day. It made sense. If I could figure out what my customer was thinking, what was making him tick, I could get a good handle on what he needed and planned my sales pitch accordingly,” she laughed, sharing her revelation. And this method worked well for her, because soon she was named Sales Manager, a position she held for the next nine years, until 2016.

 

“Then one day, Dad came in my office and sat down. He said ‘Ya know, Wen, I’m thinking about retiring.’ He surprised me with that, and I asked him exactly when he was planning this big move. And he said ‘Well, like now. Today.’ And right then and there, he asked me how I felt about taking over as President of the company. I did everything to talk him out of it, saying I didn’t know enough, that I wasn’t qualified and anything else I could think of, but he wasn’t having any of it….and the deal was done. I was the President,” she laughed.

 

Fry said the first two years felt like she was back in college again, reviewing lessons and notes she had made while earning her associate’s degree. “And the pressure was on. I was a young woman sitting in the top chair of a multi-million dollar company, and I didn’t know what a D&B (Dun & Bradstreet is a global credit and financial reporting agency) report was. I didn’t know what anything was, I was so overwhelmed.”

 

So Fry set about learning to run a business – HER business. “One of the first things I did was change the name of the company to The Retrofit Companies, Inc. I have to make sure every time we submit a piece of paper to anyone, whether it’s a bid or a bill, that it’s listed this way so all the info gained from it eventually ends up as part of our D&B and tax reports. Then I started going through our files and learning what I could about our customers and their installations. I went on sales calls, I worked on installations. I learned this thing from the bottom up,” Fry explained.

 

When it became MN law in 1994 that fluorescent lamps and PCB ballasts could no longer be placed in landfills, Fry said the early years of the company were concentrated mostly on fluorescent system retrofits. Fry said that was “really hot for a couple of years. We do our best to work with disposal  companies that can recycle this waste into new energy, but sometimes the waste product just has to be moved to processors where it can be completely destroyed without harming the environment. The environmental side of the business has slowed down now, as so many companies, businesses and homes have already completed the retrofits or are being built with the new technology .”

 

However, Fry said, LED technology is really trending right now. “This is the technology that’s now allowing us to protect our businesses, start our cars or run our homes using a cell phone. It’s exciting and it’s going to be interesting to see where it all goes.”

 

Fry cited the company’s core values with not only the dedication of their 55 employees, but with the continued success and growth of the company. “Of course our core values include many of the same aspects and traits held by other companies, including things like honesty, integrity, respect, consistency and accuracy. Those are building-blocks to every good business environment. Around here, everybody counts, every opinion counts, every idea counts,” she said.

 

“But I think Grandpa Eddie had his hand in the last core value on the list: ‘No Bitchin! (without a solution)’,” she laughed.

 - Authored By Lisa Richmond

Owatonna Area Business Development Center

1065 24th Ave SW, Owatonna, MN    (507) 451-0517

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