At Fire Dept. Coffee, we never have to look far to find amazing women who inspire us with their intelligence, compassion and commitment to saving lives.
They’re all around us, every day. We travel often and meet so many more. And sometimes, we’re lucky enough that they come to see us — just in time for International Women’s Day.
Laura Kappler-Roberts is the president and CEO of Kappler, Inc., a respected producer of chemical protective apparel and leader in hazmat suits. Founded 1976 by her father, George Kappler, in Guntersville, Ala., Kappler, Inc., started with just eight employees and six sewing machines. Through consistent excellence and innovation, it has grown to become a global leader in the industry.
Kappler-Roberts took over as president of the company in 2014 and, four years, later Kappler, Inc. self-certified as a Woman-Owned Small Business.
She recently visited our team in Rockford, Ill., and we had the opportunity to show her around our area while talking about the lessons she’s learned while running a highly respected and incredibly important business.
We began with a tour of Fire Dept. Coffee’s roasting facility, where she met our team, sampled coffee and drew us all in with her Southern charm. We dropped in on Rockford Fire Department’s Station 7, where our hazardous materials (Hazmat) team is based. And we visited SupplyCore, a Rockford-based company that provides weapons systems support and base operations supply for the U.S. military and other industries.
Kappler-Roberts was also gracious enough to answer a few questions for this blog to share some insights gleaned from her years leading a business that is dedicated to protecting the lives of brave men and women around the world.
Describe for us in a nutshell what Kappler, Inc. does as a company and how you’ve grown and evolved to help provide the best products for your customers?
Kappler was founded in 1976 as a contract sewing operation by my father, George Kappler. Today, Kappler is a world leader in fabric development and protective clothing for hazmat, industrial, healthcare and military markets. We have a strong commitment to investing in the research and development of the latest technologies in materials and garment designs.
We now have opportunities to pay forward our knowledge in fabric and seaming development by doing contract project work for others as well as offering training in protective apparel. We are currently breaking ground on a new building to house this entire division.
In what ways has Kappler, Inc. changed how it does business since you became the president and CEO in 2014?
We have formalized our process for long-term strategic planning and for defining our annual operational plans. We are laser-focused on accomplishing our goals and holding ourselves accountable.
We are using a single computer system to run our business — an ERP (enterprise resource planning) system. The amount of data and analytics we have at our fingertips is mind-blowing.
How has becoming a woman-owned business become a part of the identity of Kappler, Inc.?
Kappler has always had a strong presence of women in the business. Today our workforce is almost 80% women (77% to be exact).
It has also brought a new awareness of the diversity in the industries we serve. For example, we are dedicating resources to learn more about the need for a female-friendly fit in protective clothing. We hope to launch the new fit options in some of our product offerings by 2021.
Taking over the family business, do you feel that you’re being compared to your father in the way you run the business? If so, how do you handle that?
Many times my level of passion for the company, our employees and customers has been compared to his, and I take that as a compliment. Other than that, we have two very different styles of operation. He is a big picture guy and I’m a details girl.
What is it like being a woman owner/CEO of a business that serves male-dominated industries?
I really don’t think of it in those terms. I work with a group of people who are just as passionate as I am about protecting the people doing the jobs many of us wouldn’t dare do. Whether they are women or men, they are all heroes in my book and it’s an honor to develop and make products that will protect them.
What challenges do you face that your male business owners may not?
I’m sure we all have our own unique set of challenges but juggling the roles of being a mom, a wife, a friend, a homemaker and a community servant can weigh heavy on me.
How have you worked to overcome those challenges?
By owning the fact that I’m the boss over my time and I’m okay with not being “perfect” in all of those roles.
What woman business owners and entrepreneurs inspire you?
Definitely the women in my local community who have pursued their dreams of owning their own businesses. They have started restaurants, accounting firms, children’s clothing stores, wellness spas, shoe stores and investment services. They aren’t big celebrities, but they are wives and mommas and they are brave! They represent the entrepreneurial heart and soul of our country and have pursued their passions, not fame or fortune.
What can you do to inspire the next generation of woman business owners?
I’m not shy about sharing my own struggles and insecurities so I feel like I can best “pay it forward” by being a mentor and encourager to other women.
Oh, and obviously buying their products and services!
We are so grateful that Kappler-Roberts visited and spent time with us. She’s the type of person who immediately makes you feel like you’ve known her forever. It’s easy to see how she’s earned the loyalty and respect of her team.
Before she left, she gave us a copy of one of her favorite books, “The Hidden Life of Wolves.” The lesson, she said, is that in business there is always a wolf at your door ready to take you down. And you have to become like the wolf to survive. You remain relevant by being innovative and staying one step ahead of the wolf at your door.
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