Entrepreneur Kerns’s Internal-Combustion-Engine Electric Generators Gave Power to the People

(p. A21) Robert D. Kern, a mechanical engineer who in the mid-1950s started a company in a garage making portable backup power generators and then transformed the business into an industry leader known as Generac, selling it in 2006 for an estimated $1 billion, died on Nov. 8 [2022] in Waukesha, Wis.

. . .

“The company is way beyond anything we dreamed about,” Mr. Kern said in an interview with the Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois, his alma mater. “My vision was incredibly small compared to what it became, but tenacity is what it is all about.”

He and his wife and a few investors started the business after the rise of the airline industry had cost Mr. Kern his job making motors for railroad cars. Generac became a leading developer, manufacturer and marketer of portable and backup electric generators for homes and industry.

Today, Generac, based in Waukesha, about 18 miles west of Milwaukee, accounts for roughly 75 percent of standby home generator sales in the United States.

. . .

Mr. Kern was hired by the Waukesha Motor Company to design generators for combustion engines to be used on railway passenger cars. With the growth of the jet airline industry, rail travel in the United States plummeted, and Mr. Kern’s division was eliminated.

But remaining passionate about internal combustion engines, he decided to adapt developing technologies in generators for potential new markets and establish his own company to reach them.

In 1954, with his wife as the new company’s bookkeeper, he began making portable generators for recreational vehicles and for farmers and construction crews out of a garage in the village of Wales, Wis., about 28 miles west of Milwaukee. The business, originally called Electric Controls Inc., marketed the gear through Sears under the Craftsman brand. It became Generac in 1959, combining the word generation with AC.

. . .

Generac also developed an affordable backup generator for home emergencies and then expanded the business to produce permanent emergency generators for the commercial and industrial markets.

In 1967, the Generac factory in Waukesha burned to the ground, but with help from the local community, production resumed six days later, and the plant was rebuilt in seven weeks, without layoffs.

For the full obituary, see:

Sam Roberts. “Robert D. Kern, 96, Engineer Whose Idea For Portable Generators Produced Riches.” The New York Times (Thursday, November 24, 2022): A21.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Nov. 22, 2022, and has the title “Robert D. Kern, 96, Whose Emergency Generators Produced Riches, Dies.”)

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