A Business Built on a Sense of Family
01 Apr 2019
A little known landmark in Aberdeen has deep roots within the community
By JONATHAN SCOTT >> Photos by MOLLIE TOBIAS
Spend just a few minutes inside the Kolcraft plant and it becomes clear that the words of Production Supervisor Ann Charles-Dick aren't just hype. “I love my job,” she says. “I love the people I work with. Even though we're people from all sorts of different backgrounds, I feel like we're a family.”
Like any family, there are bound to be difficulties even in the most tight-knit company, but the employee photos on the walls, the environment inside the plant, and the way the workers speak to each other, support the Production Supervisor's comparison. “When someone has a problem, work or personal, we try to do what we can to help,” she says.
If you've every traveled from southern Moore County going east, maybe on your way to the beach, you've passed the Kolcraft plant on Hwy. 211. It's a landmark at the traffic light at East Indiana Avenue which connects it to Southern Pines. Thousands pass by every day and an astonishing number of local people don't know what actually goes on there.
The familiar building is part of a company founded in Chicago in 1946. Leo Koltun had the foresight to predict the population wave that was about to change the American economy—the Baby Boom. He started a business manufacturing products for babies—crib pads, play yards, and high chairs. “We found our niche with crib mattresses,” Kolcraft says on their website, “and quickly became one of the category's leading manufacturers in the U.S.”
Of course, the very concept of the baby product industry is inextricably tied up with the idea of families. That's why the words of Charles-Dick seem so metaphorically connected to the products, as she keeps returning to the word “family.” Until February of this year, she was Human Resources Manager, and her job was closely involved in both the work and personal lives of the employees.
“I know how stressful it can be to start a new job,” she says. “So, we try to welcome new people like we're welcoming them into our family. Our people work really hard here. They give their full 40 hours, but I love it when I hear people say how relaxed everyone seems. I have to say it again, it's like we're a family.”
Charles-Dick's own career started from her own family situation. Sixteen years ago she was a single mom, struggling to survive. Through a temp agency, she landed a part-time job answering phones at Kolcraft. It was probably her own strong work ethic that caused the company to hire her full time, but she attributes it more to the company's supportive culture. “Mr. Dan always says, 'There's enough room at the top for all of us.' I don't think this means we'll all be executives, but it means that they give us a chance to grow and do our best.”
“Mr. Dan” is Dan Hige, Kolcraft's Director of Manufacturing. He came to the company with a career in manufacturing for the Sealy Company on his resume. His personality is more that of a kindly pastor than a tough plant boss. Part of his relaxed demeanor likely comes from the confidence of having years of experience. But part of it comes from his natural ability to understand the people who work there, all of whom he knows by name.
It's not surprising to hear him repeat his Product Supervisor's favorite word. “We concentrate on trying to find the very best in our employees, by treating them with respect,” he says. “We listen to them and offer advancement opportunities so that they can have the chance to achieve more without ever leaving the Kolcraft family.”
Dave Schuchard worked for Kolcraft for thirteen years, retiring as Plant Manager in 2008. Through bringing in a consulting firm, Distinctive Human Resources of Sanford, he came to appreciate the value of empowering the employees. “Collectively, you all know a lot more than me,” he remembers telling the workers. “Our most important asset isn't the machinery. It isn't the building. It's you.” He insists that Kolcraft's financial success is due to that type of company culture. “The employees,” he says, “are the ones who deserve the credit.”
At the head of the Kolcraft family is Tom Kolkun, the grandson of founder Leo Kolkun. When Tom recounts the story of the company's growth, he speaks with genuine family pride. He tells how his father, Sandy, joined with Leo in 1954 to expand the fledgling business into manufacturing other baby products, such as car seats and strollers.
In 1983, Sandy was approached by the plant manager of a company named Pride Trimble, which also manufactured products for families with babies. Just off Yadkin Road in Southern Pines is a street that still bears the name of the facility which was once located there, Trimble Plant Road. Pride Trimble was moving its operation to Mexico, and the plant manager desperately wanted to save the livelihoods of the workers.
“He said he had a trained crew and they could be ready to work fairly quickly,” recalls Tom. “My father decided to take a chance. He rented a building and the rest is, well... history.”
A few years later, Sandy decided to close Kolcraft plants in Atlanta and Philadelphia and consolidate the manufacturing in the location he eventually built in Aberdeen—the current landmark location along Hwy. 211. “My father liked to tell the story of how he visited the Aberdeen plant when it was up and running for the first time. As soon as he walked in the door, it started lightning and raining, breaking a 30-day drought. He told me he took that as a good omen.” Tom laughs. “Even though it finally knocked out the power.”
Tom grew up near Chicago, infused in the family business. “I have many favorable memories of being in my father's office,” he says, “which was then tied together to the manufacturing facility. One of my favorite memories from being a teenager is driving one of the forklifts in the plant.”
“The experience of being around all that manufacturing got me intrigued about how things are made. If you just look around a room, you realize that everything has to be made—every cover for a light, every wheel for a chair. It led me to look at things a little differently.”
After Tom received an MBA in marketing, he went to work for Colgate-Palmolive in New York City. “I wondered if I should work for someone else before joining Kolcraft,” Tom remembers. “I wanted to be able to bring more than just my last name to the family business. Based on my father's experience, he thought it would be the best thing to do. And he was right.”
After three years, both Tom and Kolcraft had grown—Tom, to where he felt he had enough corporate experience to bring to his family's business, and Kolcraft to where it needed someone with fresh marketing skills. In 1997, Sandy retired, Tom became President, and Kolcraft entered its third generation of family leadership.
Today, the facility in Aberdeen manufactures only crib mattresses. Products get shipped to destinations all across the county. You can find them at all the big box stores like Target and Walmart.
Tom, too, keeps coming back to that same word. “Twenty-five percent of our people have been here for fifteen years or more,” he says. “Five have been here for more than thirty. It's a sense of family.” He seems to really mean it.