At just over 6 feet tall, Chris Kujawa is standing in front of his employees after a meeting with some of Kujawa Enterprises (KEI)’s most important clients. A broad smile reaches across his face as he proudly announces the amount of satisfaction the clients expressed, but he doesn’t take credit for the work. “You’re the ones who made the customer happy,” he says.
Humble yet proud, Chris Kujawa began his career in the landscape industry as a laborer in his early teens, working with maintenance crews. Since the 1980s, when he became an official employee, Chris has held many positions at KEI, an $11 million, full-service landscape business that began in a small building in the town of Cudahy, Wis., about 10 minutes outside of Milwaukee. At 46, he leads his father Ron’s company, KEI, as executive vice president of sales and marketing.
“Chris brought in the business,” says Sally, Chris’ mother and KEI’s president. “He’s very sales driven. He sells honesty and integrity and you can see that. Our clients know that if he says it will happen, it will happen. There was a lot of growth because of his initiative.”
In addition to one-on-one marketing, Chris has involved KEI in its clients’ associations, which not only helps in understanding their issues, but it also addresses how to solve those problems. He also participates in service organizations with which KEI shares something in common, and he promotes customer interaction as KEI’s brand. The recurring themes of honesty and integrity, the platform of the Kujawa family work ethic, have spawned the rapid growth of KEI and will lead them into the next five to 10 years, he says.
“We concentrate on who we are as people,” Chris says. “It’s the fact that you can look across a desk at a client and say, ‘Put your confidence in me’ and they can do that. You need to understand what you do to be the best and know what your clients respond to.”
At 6 years old, Chris already exemplified the ability to solve problems and help people when he went with his father Ron to talk with clients and work in the field. The Kujawa family lived in the top floor of KEI’s offices and each morning walked down the stairs to begin their day. “Both my husband and I had the philosophy that since it’s a family business you start as soon as you can,” Sally says.
While the other three Kujawa children were not excited about going out on the job, Chris jumped at the opportunity to help solve customer’s problems and pull weeds, even though he was only paid $2 an hour. He still relishes working in the field, even though his day begins in the office. “I would travel with my dad and walk into someone’s office who had a problem,” he says. “Whenever we left, everyone was happy. It was about going in and making a connection with somebody, understanding their problem and helping them achieve a solution.”
When he graduated from college, Chris was sent to an industrial psychologist to gain insight on his career potential. The psychologist confirmed Chris was a born leader with strong people skills. Nothing would stop him from becoming head of his father’s landscape company. “It stems from being a social and public person,” he says. “It’s just kind of the way I’m wired.”
Ron and Sally Kujawa, who founded KEI in 1968, made sure their children took part in the company’s daily operations, but the stigma of being an employee of his parents has never been a problem for Chris. Although he is known to disagree with his father on the way some solutions are achieved, Chris always enjoys the trust that comes with working with family. He feels it is an honor to follow in his father’s footsteps. “We both have ethics and we operate from a foundation of morality and a strong sense of right and wrong,” Chris says.
Sally, on the other hand, assists Chris in daily operations such as handling monetary transactions and cost accounting. She stressed the importance of balancing family time and workload to Chris.
“It’s a huge relief to have someone back at the store keeping track of all those critical functions that keep a business breathing,” he says. “Sally is able to do all that while still filling the roles of wife, mother, grandmother and sister.”
Chris’ parents are two of his biggest influences. He cites their enforcement of work ethics and training in different business operations as a reason why he is successful. “Bringing me up in the business, I’ve talk to a lot of people and learned what their problems were, learned how to listen and come up with solutions,” Chris says.
Chris has also used his Catholic faith to inspire KEI employees and encourage company growth. The Magis initiative, derived from the Catholic Saint Ignatius, founder of the Jesuit order, was introduced to employees about three to four years ago and is Latin for “more.” Chris took the word one step further and turned it into a campaign within KEI that encourages employees to do their best. He plans to promote the concept of Magis as the vision of KEI for the next five to 10 years.
This is the third installment of a weekly series that recognizes six green industry leaders. Lawn & Landscape, along with Bayer Environmental Science, will honor these professionals at a reception Oct. 24 at the Green Industry and Equipment Expo in Louisville, Ky.
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“It’s kind of a never-ending journey,” he says. “If I can instill a little of the Magis philosophy and watch it bloom and have people understand it, it would be terrific. It’s about always doing your best and becoming a real leader within the industry and the community.”
A Natural Leader. While many executives in an organization remain in the office, Chris works in the field most of the day, getting dirty and making sure the job is done right. He trains employees personally to try and bring out their leadership potential. These workers, many of which have been with KEI for 10 years or more, rise in ranks to become some of KEI’s leading people. One man, Tom Drusinsky, received encouragement from Chris from the beginning of his employment with KEI. He started in the lower ranks with maintenance crews, working alongside Chris and has recently become the new operations manager.
“Chris saw leadership qualities in him,” says Sue Dufek, Chris’s godmother and aunt. “He looks to move people up in the company.”
Recruiting and training reliable employees who can handle the unexpected is difficult, he admits. But, unlike many business owners who fail to accept help, Chris is able to recognize the needs of the growing business and keeps this in mind. For example, he called in his younger brother Joe four years ago to assist with the administrative aspects of KEI. “He hates administrative and paperwork,” says Joe. “He hates all those things sales people don’t like.”
Employee satisfaction and retention is important because Chris believes it builds a stronger company. He is known around KEI to cover duties when an employee gets sick and even visit employees in the hospital when a baby is born.
Rick Rollo, vice president of the interiors division, has worked at KEI for more than 25 years and recalls a time when he took his wife out for dinner. As he was walking out of the office, Chris asked him why he was leaving so early. Rollo responded that it was his wife’s birthday. Later on at the restaurant, a waitress presented Rollo and his wife with a bottle of champagne.
“I asked, ‘Where’s this from?’ and she said, ‘Happy birthday from Chris,’” Rollo says. “He cares a lot for the people who work for him and with him.”
Making time for family and hobbies is essential to Chris’ philosophy. He enjoys spending time with his three children, who are 11, 16, and 20 years old. In the past, Chris has coached his children’s sports teams while working long hours at KEI. But, his wife Judy and their children have been an strong support system. Whether it’s the task of getting up at 4:30 a.m. to get to work, leaving work late or traveling, his family has always given Chris the freedom to do what he feels is good for the industry and company, he says. Although Chris has always wanted to work in the family-run business, he is leaving it up to his children to decide if they want to join KEI. “They’re all good kids and work hard,” he says. “If their career path happens to be KEI, that’s great too.”
Taking time to relax is always on Chris’ agenda as well. When free time is worked into his schedule, cruising around town in his Harley Davidson is one of his favorite things to do. Since he was young, Chris has been an avid hunter, going on trips with his parents every year. He enjoys traveling around the world in hopes of catching some interesting game. In the past, he has been to South Africa and Tanzania and has taken home trophies such as kudu, nyala and impala. Chris hopes to bring back buffalo and elk some day. “I love going on dangerous game safaris with mom and dad,” he says.
Charity Work. In addition to being actively involved in KEI, Chris Kujawa is a leader in his church and organizer of many charity events. He comes from a long line of Kujawas who have been involved in their communities whether it was through volunteering, participating in church council or holding local political offices.
Being involved in community organizations and attending conventions has helped Chris discover how to be a leader through surrounding himself with successful people and emulating them, he says. “It’s imbued into the fabric of who we are as a family and rooted in the traditional Catholic sentiment of ‘to whom much is given, much is expected’” he says. “Giving back shouldn’t be a luxury, but a responsibility.”
Serving as the current president of Project Evergreen, Chris has been able to promote the benefits of green spaces. His goal is to promote a sense of community and neighborhood through landscaping and also address labor, energy and productivity issues within the industry.
“We’re projecting a vision of Americana that people like,” he says. “We’re managing green spaces responsibly. We’re the front door to this vision. We’re the first impression you see when you enter a city, community or campus, and that’s a good thing. We work hard at that.”
Chris’ hospitality spans beyond the Milwaukee area and even the landscape industry. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, Chris and his brother Joe knew they needed to help in some way. Under Chris’ direction, they organized an employee collection drive, and within a week KEI drove down a trailer load of water, clothing and other essentials. “When I look at the people he’s touched or have been impacted by him it amazes me,” Joe says. “People will say to me when I meet them, ‘Oh, you’re Chris’ brother. I worked on this with him’ or ‘He helped me in this way.’”
One of Chris’ greatest accomplishments is founding the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA) Educational Foundation, which provides scholarships to future leaders of the landscape industry who are studying landscape architecture in college. Over the last few years, the educational foundation has given out more than 370 scholarships and has raised more than $2 million in assets. When the program started in 1997, the average scholarship given was $545. This has increased to more than $1,000 in 2008.
“He’s extremely interested in making sure the educational part of the industry is taken care of,” Dufek says. “He’s very dedicated to the industry as a whole and he’s got a great sense of humor.”
Looking to the Future. Chris Kujawa has proven to be the hard-working, dedicated, driven individual that is needed to run a company. From the minute he stepped into the field, Chris was destined to become the head of Kujawa Enterprises, and this is because he holds the same values and goals as his father, Ron, who is a previous Leadership Award winner.
“He’s very much a clone of his father, which is one of the biggest compliments I can pay him,” Rollo says. “He’s the leader people will follow. Chris can lead the troops forward.”
Chris has learned many lessons in his quest that have helped him gain the experience and knowledge that are needed to grow as a leader. He has learned to slow down and let situations sort themselves out. Problems tend to address themselves, he says. A leader also needs to be willing to excel. “Not everyone is willing to lead. It’s very rare these days,” Chris says. “They have to say, ‘I will take this project and with it this responsibility.’”
Family and friends agree that Chris has personified the characteristics it takes to be a leader since he began working at KEI, and he will lead the landscape industry in it’s strive for excellence, whether it’s assisting a family member, friend or someone who needs a helping hand.
“He knows the industry from top to bottom,” Dufek says. “He has some type of quality that draws people to him. He expects and wants everyone to succeed. It isn’t just for Chris or the Kujawas. He wants everyone in the company to reach their highest potential.”