A Conversation with John Heyer, Kettle Moraine

Heyer celebrated his 41st year with the company in November, and is considered one of the best—if not the nicest and most positive—custom coaters in the industry.


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PF: How did you get your start with Kettle Moraine Coatings, and how did you climb to ownership?

JH: I started in 1972 at KMC Coatings, the predecessor to Kettle Moraine Coatings, which was the coatings division of a stamping company. They approached my boss to see if there was interest in the management team buying the custom coating division. He was interested, and then a person who was a manufacturer’s rep and I were brought on board. We started on our own as Kettle Moraine Coatings in 1975. In 2003, I completed the purchase of the stock and assumed sole ownership, and things have stood that way since. 


PF: You’ve gone from 15 employees to 55. How has that changed your management style? 

JH: It has required added layers of supervision and management. I have needed to rely on them and trust them to do their jobs. I have never been a controlling manager, and this growth has made that mandatory. 


PF: You are chairman of your community workforce development board. What does that entail, and why is it important? 

JH: This entails a layer of multiple meetings, both at the board level and for multiple committees. The workforce board serves both employers and job seekers. We work to have a good pulse on what employers need, and with that, work to provide training to workers in need so they can then fill the open positions. The board plays a key role in the economic development of our area, as well as provides training that leads to employment for workers. 


PF: The Boy Scouts have been a big part of your life, especially now as an adult. How has it molded you?

JH: I was a scout as a youth and had a wonderful experience. Boy Scouts is a tremendous program for young people; it provides tremendous learning and fabulous experiences. Being an adult leader was always something I wanted to do, but I did not act on it until my son was in scouts and his troop’s scoutmaster position opened up in 1993. I stayed a scoutmaster for 15 years. After passing that on to now two other people, I have stayed active in my troop as well as with other volunteer positions at other levels of scouting. The experience has been very gratifying and tremendous fun. 


PF: What’s the best piece of advice you were given, either personally or professionally, and who gave it to you?

JH: I have several. Never carry a grudge; too much negative energy. Treat everyone with respect. Nobody is an enemy. Never burn bridges with people; you never know when an adversary today could be someone whose help you need in the future, or could even be a customer.  Do not push the “send” button on a nasty email until the next day; most likely it will be toned down. 


PF: What was your first job, and what did you learn from it? 

JH: I worked on the electric frypan assembly line for two summers at Sunbeam in Chicago. I learned what it was like to work in a factory and how valuable the workers are to the operation. 


PF: What was your first car, and what is your dream car?

JH: 1966 Pontiac. I don’t really have a dream car; just want a good and functional vehicle loaded with the latest gadgets with lots of room for all the stuff I pile in it. 


PF: What did you want to be when you grew up?

JH: A cowboy, just like Roy Rogers.  


PF: If you had $100,000 to give to a charity, which one would it be?

JH: Split among Boys Scouts, my church and my alma mater, Knox College. 


PF: What leadership traits have helped you along the way?

JH: Treat all with respect and as you want to be treated. Keep control of your temper; always operate on an even keel. Set a good example; I set the tone of the company, so I have to do it right. I also set the direction of the company, so I have to try very hard to spend time looking at the forest rather be buried in the trees. 


PF: Night owl or early bird?

JH: Early bird.


PF: Favorite place you’ve ever lived?

JH: Cedarburg, Wisconsin, where I have lived since 1980.


PF: What organization or company aside from your own do you most admire?

JH: Obviously Boy Scouts, but I admire the many job shop business owners I interact with here in Wisconsin in my business.


PF: If you could trade jobs with anyone for a day, who would it be?

JH: A first professional photographer, perhaps in sports or for National Geographic.


PF: Where would we find you on a typical Saturday?

JH: If I am at home, I often work part of the day. Many weekends have been on Scout activities. When possible I like to get away for a weekend.


PF: Best way to keep competitive edge?

JH: Keep current on technology and equipment. Be a part of peer groups. I am in two right now. One is a group in my area known as The Executive Committee, which is part of a group called Vistage, and the members are all noncompeting business owners. I am also in a peer group of custom coaters.


PF: Personal heroes?

JH: I most admire successful people who are very down-to-earth and relate to the little guy. The person that comes to mind recently is Arnold Palmer. The stories that were written after his passing brought out his humanity and how he could relate to everyone.


PF: How do you motivate people?

JH: Set a good example. Work hard.


PF: How do you motivate yourself?

JH: Associate with positive people. Get up every day happy.


PF: Three greatest passions?

JH: My family, my business, Boy Scouts, photography. Sorry, that is four.


PF: Most unique office décor?

JH: My office is very basic, and I am sad to say not particularly glamorous. I do have a picture of me with Lovy Smith taken after his first win as coach of the Chicago Bears against the Green Bay Packers. Also one of me whitewater rafting.


PF: Best business decision?

JH: Taking the leap and buying into Kettle Moraine Coatings.


PF: Worst business decision?

JH: I listened to some bad advice and let someone go who, in retrospect, I should not have.


PF: Biggest management myth?

JH: There is some big “secret” to management. It is pretty basic: set a good example, hire good people and treat them well and trust them, and set the direction of the operation.


PF: What advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago?

JH: Invest in good people and spend money to upgrade equipment.


PF: Word that best describes you:

JH: Positive.



Get to Know John

Family: Wife of 44 years, Colleen; son Sean, a brewer in Alaska; daughter Erin, married to Mike and they have a delightful 1-year-old daughter Teagan.

Favorite hobby: Boy Scouts and photography

Favorite movie: "Hoosiers"

Favorite book: Book about Bronco Nagursky and the early days of the Chicago Bears

What's playing in your car CD/radio: 1950s and 1960s oldies



Originally published in the February 2017 issue.