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A plant manager whose roots run deep

Jerry Keimig:
A plant manager whose roots run deep

3M Co.’s Rochester plant is a long stretch from the farm of Jerry Keimig’s youth. Yet this farm boy turned manufacturing plant manager finds fertile ground in the industrial flatlands of Mt. Read Boulevard, where his field these days is strictly high-tech: The Rochester facility makes graphic arts, X-ray and polyester printing-plate films.
Farm metaphors keep cropping up, though.
“He’s got more horsepower between his ears than most people I’ve met,” says Daniel Davis, a colleague from Keimig’s early years at 3M.
That horsepower has driven Keimig up the ranks at 3M over the past 21 years, from shift worker at a South Dakota plant to production manager for two of the firm’s top product lines to plant manager here in Rochester.
Headquartered in St. Paul, 3M is a rambling conglomerate with operations in 38 states and nearly 60 countries. Post-it notes and Scotch brand tape are among the firm’s high-profile products; the information, imaging and electronic sector–of which the Rochester plant is a part–accounts for nearly one-third of total company sales and some 13 percent of net income.
In 1994, sales rose 2.5 percent to $4.6 billion for the information, imaging and electronic sector, up from $4.5 billion the previous year. Profits climbed 7.6 percent to $292 million from $271 million in 1993.
Keimig is tight-lipped about sales and profitability of the local operation, which is part of the sector’s printing and publishing division. The plant lost a major customer last year, he notes, but is recovering from that blow. This year’s strategic outlook is solid in terms of sales and volume, he adds.
Along with its manufacturing operation, the Rochester plant includes research facilities for silver haloid technologies. A $10 million expansion of the 300,000-square-foot plant, set to be fully operational by early 1996, will house new technology to sharpen the plant’s competitive edge, Keimig says.
Since stepping into the top spot nearly four years ago, Keimig has led his 400 workers through the throes of changing technology, which brings ever-shorter life cycles for products in an intensely competitive market. And, like leaders of other Rochester firms, Keimig must deal with the sometimes painful process of streamlining: In November, 60 contract workers were cut from the plant’s work force.
A stocky man with dark, piercing eyes, Keimig initially strikes an intimidating pose. His deep, rasping voice accentuates that impression. Judy Keimig, his wife, tells how years ago he had to speak in falsetto to their young niece, who cried in fear when she heard his normal voice.
Yet intimidation is the antithesis of Keimig’s management style.
Before Keimig arrived on the scene, for example, managers had a separate parking lot from other plant employees. Now, one lot fits all.
He greets each employee by name on his frequent rounds through the plant. Indeed, Keimig views one-on-one communication as a critical part of his job.
“You’ve really got to listen to your people,” he says. “No idea is dumb, because you never know where that quantum leap in being competitive is going to come from.”
With one of the plant’s largest rivals–Eastman Kodak Co.–only a few miles away, competition is never far from Keimig’s mind.
“A short product life cycle will drive a lot of change very quickly in an organization, because you have to bring in new equipment, new methods, and you’re required to do a lot of training very quickly,” he says.
“We have to change very rapidly. In order to do that, people have to know, have to understand and have to link with the business objectives and common goals. The only way you can accomplish that is to help them understand the business and communicate as much information as possible.”
Sharing information was a part of Keimig’s management philosophy even in his earliest days as a 3M supervisor.
“He’s always been straight up, direct and open,” says Davis, a product development specialist at 3M’s research and development center in St. Paul, who has known Keimig since the late 1970s.
“You know exactly what he’s thinking and why he’s thinking it. He’s just taken that skill from four people to a plant of several hundred.”
The eldest of five children, Keimig grew up in Estelline, S.D., a small farming community on the banks of the Big Sioux River. Though bucolic, the area struggled through periods of drought and economic hardship. That experience convinced Keimig at an early age that his future lay beyond the region’s furrowed fields.
In high school, he worked nights and weekends at Karlsbeck Manufacturing, a maker of farm and livestock equipment. Certified as a welder and blacksmith soon after high school, Keimig stayed on at Karlsbeck, taking a two-year break in 1969 to study engineering at South Dakota State University in Brookings.
In the early 1970s, Karlsbeck began downsizing. Sensing that the end was near, Keimig landed a job at 3M’s Brookings plant in 1974. His timing was right: Karlsbeck folded six months later.
Keimig’s entry-level job at the plant, which manufactured surgical products, was in production.
“But I wasn’t interested in production work and shift work the rest of my life,” he says. “The only way to get out of that was to finish my education.”
3M picked up the tab for Keimig’s part-time studies at South Dakota State, and in 1982 he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in engineering. That channeled him into process and industrial engineering jobs at the plant.
In the early 1980s, Keimig got his first up-close look at the total business cycle. As technical project supervisor for a new transthermal drug device, Keimig had hands-on experience with scale-up, production and marketing of the new product.
By now Keimig was ready to move beyond the Brookings operation. In 1984, he was promoted to department manager and transferred to 3M’s Hinsdale, Ill., plant on the outskirts of Chicago.
This was the first of many moves over the next decade.
“I never dreamt that we’d be leaving South Dakota,” says Judy Keimig, who met her husband in high school. “But he has a drive for success. He’s worked very hard to get where he is. He gives it 100 percent.”
Keimig usually leaves for work by 4:30 a.m., and rarely misses a Saturday or Sunday, she adds.
That commitment paid off. In 1988, Keimig was promoted to product manager of 3M’s videotape technologies, and the family moved to Hutchinson, Minn. Two years later, he transferred to another plant in Hutchinson and became product manager for the line of Scotch brand tape.
Keimig’s experience managing two of 3M’s top five product lines laid the foundation for his next move.
In 1991, Keimig was tapped to lead the Rochester operation as plant manager. And though assignments usually last three to five years, Keimig is not yet looking for a change.
“I’m at a point where I’d be considered for other opportunities,” he says. “But I’ve got enough challenges right now that I would choose to–if I were given the choice–to stay here another year or two.”
For now, the Keimigs live in Webster with their son John, 17, and daughter Jill, 23. When not occupied with 3M duties, Keimig crafts furniture, bowls and other objects in his garage cum woodworking shop.
Though not particularly eager to leave Rochester, Keimig says he’ll enjoy the chance to move again, to explore new territories. He tells the story of his grandfather, a German immigrant, who came to America by sailboat, crossed the country by horse-drawn wagon, converted a Model T to a truck, farmed with a tractor and bought a motorboat after he retired.
“About a year before he died–and I’ll never forget this–he told me this whole story, and he said: “I’ve seen a lot of change in transportation, and yesterday, I saw a man walk on the moon and come back to earth. Just imagine what you’re going to see.”’
Keimig adds: “He opened up the possibilities–just imagine.”

[Rochester Business Journal Profile, 4/14/95


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