2016 Leadership Award Recipient: The Road Home

Joe Kujawa may not have been raised in the snow business, but he was born for it, and his professional detours along the way prepared him to impact the industry in unique ways.

Joe Kujawa runs the day to day operations of the family-owned Kujawa Enterprises, Inc. business with his older brother and partner Chris. To say that he took a road less traveled to his present position would be an understatement, but one that in retrospect makes perfect sense.

Unlike Chris, who has worked with the company full-time since 1982, Joe never aspired to join the family business. He dreamed of becoming an architect, and took the first step by earning a five-year professional architecture degree at Cornell University, joining prominent national engineering and architectural firm HOK after college. Rather than hitting the drafting board, however, he found himself in a business development and consulting role, which he discovered he had a flair for. A few years later, he added an MBA degree from Vanderbilt University, and relocated to Chicago, where he found himself on the road far too often to suit him, his wife Patty and their three young children.

After visiting the new KEI headquarters and the family in Milwaukee, Joe asked Patty on the drive home if he should consider asking his father Ron for a job with the company. Concluding that it might not be fair to brother Chris, who had worked so hard to grow the company, he shelved the idea. Then, while on a consulting trip to Washington, D.C. just over 13 years ago, his cell phone rang and it was Chris, asking if Joe would consider coming home to work with the company. It’s tempting to say that the rest is history, but Joe’s operating philosophy is based on the future, not the past, and it was soon apparent that he brought more than the family pedigree to the KEI table.

“Joe was doing very well, but his job involved quite a bit of travel, which was not conducive to raising a young family, and we realized that we needed some more help, so the planets aligned, I’d have to say,” Chris says. “Joe is very intelligent, and looks at the business side. He manages much of the business end of what we do - insurance, banking, keeping an eye on the balance sheet, job costing, those kinds of things. He works directly with the operations people, and keeps an eye on the nuts and bolts side of the business.”

At KEI, that’s a lot of different nuts and bolts. From the company’s humble beginnings servicing a relatively small and primarily agrarian community with a variety of retail and service businesses in 1926, KEI has evolved into what Joe calls “a full service, four-season service company” with four major divisions: landscape management, snow management, interior plants and holiday decor, and landscape construction. The revenue breakdowns, according to Joe, are 40 percent from landscape management, 30 percent from snow management, 20 percent from interior plants and holiday decor, and 10 percent from landscape construction.

Kujawa chuckles as he recalls how some of those businesses have evolved, saying, “In one case, my dad was at a Lions Club meeting and one of his friends asked him if he knew anyone who did restoration work. The friend says his company was good at digging holes, but not so good at filling them back up and restoring the site. My dad thought for a second and then told a little lie and says, ‘Sure, we can do that.’ We didn’t have anyone who did that, but two of my uncles were football coaches, so they rounded up a bunch of their players and got the jobs done. From that point, we went from zero to 20 restoration crews in one year. We got into the holiday decoration business the same way. At one of the companies we worked with, the executive secretary was always responsible for putting up the company Christmas tree in the corporate office. One year she decided she’d gotten too old to do it any more, and asked if we’d do it. We said we didn’t do that, but she was a good client, and when she told us ‘You’re doing it this year.’ We said, ‘OK.’ And we’ve been doing that kind of work ever since, including things like the lighting for the Downtown Milwaukee Business District which we have decorated for a number of years. We used to be able to just borrow some people from the snow side for holiday decor work, but both businesses have gotten too big now.”

While those examples may sound like serendipitous good fortune, they are far from typical of the way that Joe makes decisions. To a person, everyone interviewed cites Kujawa’s dedication to facts and data as the basis for business decisions, rather than opinion or speculation.

“Joe is not one for last-minute changes,” says KEI’s operations manager, Tom Jurasinski, who has been with the company for 26 years. “He’d rather forecast than shift on the go. He relies very little on opinion, and almost totally on data and facts. He’s very much a structure guy, steady and stable, and not really a risk taker.”

Although Kujawa’s professional career in architecture was relatively short-lived, that education and training has played a key role in his success as both a business consultant and in guiding KEI through its diverse business challenges.

“I’m amazed every day at how much I draw on my architectural background in my current job,” Kujawa says. “Cornell had more of an analytic approach [to architecture], not so much aesthetic. Sometimes I think maybe I’m too basic, always thinking about how things work, but you also have to understand how market demands are changing and how to adjust to that.”

Brother Chris agrees with Joe’s self-assessment, saying, “Joe approaches things from a very logical standpoint. He stands back and analyzes things, and he’s able to take personality out of the equation. He’s able to move the ball forward with people who otherwise might not see the big picture.”

One more obvious demonstration of Kujawa’s architectural training is his participation in a number of different community gala celebrations in the greater Milwaukee area. He and his wife Patty, a professional journalist and freelance writer in addition to her roles as wife and mother to the couple’s three children, have worked on numerous occasions with Kathy Lockwood, a successful freelance design consultant.

“Joe is very generous with his time and talent,” Lockwood says. “He’s incredibly talented, and his architectural eye, plus his ability in landscaping, has helped us create some amazing designs for some really neat events.”

In addition to community involvement, Kujawa is active in industry affairs, whether they involve snow management or landscape services.

“I’ve known Joe, his father Ron and brother Chris for 20 years or so,” says ASCA Executive Director Kevin Gilbride, “and they’re committed to doing the right thing in both their community and the industry. Their operation runs itself right, and Joe remains a leader in the industry. He’s been a great sounding board for me.”

On the landscape side, National Association of Landscape Professionals President Brett Lemcke, VP of RM Landscape in Rochester, N.Y., says, “Joe has been a good friend and a valuable mentor. He breaks down barriers in terms of communications. The whole family speaks their mind, and they make you think. Joe has elevated the professionalism of our industry.”

While not limited to either the snow management or the landscape industry, a peer group of business owners in a variety of industries to which Kujawa belongs has also made an impression on him and he on them. Bruce Wilson, CEO of the Bruce Wilson Company and a longtime former president of ValleyCrest Maintenance, is one of Kujawa’s admirers.“I’ve known Joe and the entire family for quite a few years,” he says. “Joe joining the business was great for the company, because he has a great business mind. He has the highest degree of integrity, and a passion for the business and taking care of its employees.”

Kujawa, in turn, credits Wilson for sharing what has become one of the central tenets of KEI’s operating philosophies.

“In working with Bruce Wilson,” Kujawa says, “he used the sentence, ‘You need to push the decision rights the farthest down the company structure that you possibly can.’ He was saying, and I agree, that you should empower the people who are on the scene to make decisions. The way I look at our staff is that it’s made up of a bunch of people running their own little businesses. It’s all about the care and feeding of the clients and the employees. Some people like to be micromanaged, but those people don’t do well in our company.”

Another type of person who doesn’t do well at KEI, according to Jurasinski, is someone who doesn’t live up to the rigorous standards for integrity and honesty that the Kujawa family has set.

“Joe is probably one of the most trusting people I know, and the most trustworthy, but when someone doesn’t have those same values, we get rid of them, no matter how valuable they are to the company,” Jurasinski says. “We actually had to do that with one of the most valuable members of the company, but we didn’t hesitate, because the company’s reputation is too important.”

That kind of thing is rare, though, because of the importance Joe and the rest of the Kujawa family place on employee development and well-being. Kujawa has implemented what the company calls Higher Ground University for key employees, a way to share thoughts and ideas and spark creative thinking. He has actually started a book club on staff, with employees assigned to various business or management-themed books and invited them to share their thoughts on the books.

Creative and critical thinking is encouraged at KEI. Freedom to formulate their own solutions to problems is part of the company’s culture.

“Joe believes that where some people will tell their employees how to do something, Joe will tell them what needs to be done, but challenge them to find the solution to how to do it,” Ron says. “Good people need to be challenged, or they’ll go somewhere they will be. And, that’s how you develop tomorrow’s managers, and Joe knows that.”

As one might suspect, given his 26-year tenure and how closely the two work together, Jurasinski is a big fan of Kujawa - actually the whole Kujawa clan.

“Joe is one heck of an awesome boss,” Jurasinski says. “You always know where you stand, and he’s very consistent. He truly conducts himself by the Golden Rule, and that makes him an awesome guy to work for. And, he believes in job fulfillment and a life balance between home life and work. During snow season, you might work 40-50 hour weeks, but in slow season you might work 35-40. He doesn’t want anyone’s home life to suffer because of too much work.”

Despite accolades like that from the staff, family members and industry peers, Kujawa says he still feels somehow unworthy due to his status as a relative newcomer to KEI’s various industries. The feeling was amplified, he says, when he received the call from this magazine’s editor notifying him that he had been selected for an ASCA Leadership Award.

“I almost felt like Sally Fields when she won the Oscar: ‘They like me, they really really like me,’” Kujawa says. “Sometimes I feel like a fraud in the room because I’m not experienced in landscaping, horticulture or snow. This is such an honor because I’m sort of an outsider.”

By all accounts, Kujawa may not have been raised in the business, but he was born for it.

Jim Dunlap is a San Diego-based writer and frequent Snow Magazine contributor.