Robert Burger was about 10 years into his career at General Motors when his father called, asking him about coming back to work at KC Jones Plating in Warren, Michigan.
“It’s time to make a decision,” Robert Sr. told his son, who was a supervisor at GM’s AC Spark Plug Division, where he was assigned quality control responsibilities in the heat treating, brazing, and finishing departments.
“After college, I wanted to express my own independence, so I went off to General Motors,” Burger recalls. “Lo and behold, I ended up operating from a quality function plating and heat treating operations in the plant. So maybe that’s what predestined what the balance of my career would be.”
Burger eventually did come back to KC Jones, which was started in 1955 by Ken Jones, Al Sayers, and Robert Burger Sr. in Hazel Park, Michigan. And when he did come back, he and his father decided it would be best to buy out the other partners and make it wholly owned by the Burger family.
“I was somewhat opposed to it as we had three operations at that particular time, so I said, ‘Why cut some of it up? We’re just now growing,’” Burger says. “And he said something very intelligent; he said, ‘Son, just because Al and I got along well together for 25 years doesn’t mean that you and his son will.’ And it was a very profound statement.”
Expanding KC Jones in U.S. and Mexico
Burger, who has ceded the title of president of KC Jones to his son Mark, led the company through several expansion projects, including buying the assets of a second plating shop in Michigan to expand KCJ’s capabilities. In 2003, the company expanded to a third location, purchasing the former C&R Plating in Columbia City, Indiana.
In 2016, they expanded the company’s presence south of the border into Mexico, opening its fourth facility, KC Jones Galvanoplastia, in Apodaca, Nuevo Leon, near Monterrey.
Burger says he hasn’t been much of a risk-taker in his career, but the expansion projects often kept him up at night.
“I’m not sure if there was much in the way of assurance that it would work,” he says. “We see the industry changing as there is a lot of consolidation going on. The customer base is far broader. A Mercedes-Benz, BMW, or Hyundai have maybe not have different requirements, but they have different asks, and they want to see a different level of sophistication in the plant than you typically get. So we had to grow with our customer base.”
Burger was also very active in the metal finishing associations and served as the last president of the National Association of Metal Finishers before it merged with two other groups to form what is today the NASF.
“There were a lot of emotions going on,” Burger recalls. “The three associations all had distinct personalities, but it was very clear at that particular point in time that we could not maintain the overhead of three separate organizations and three different paths. It was something that simply had to happen.”
Backing Away from the Business
Now in semi-retirement and spending more time at his vacation home in Florida, Burger says he is excited by where his son Mark is taking KC Jones, and he tries to stay out of the way as his son commands leadership of the company.
He recalls when his father retired to Florida and how his father’s background as an active Army reservist as a colonel, he would come back to town and march in the front door, and start giving orders.
“He would say to whoever was at the front desk and beyond, ‘I need this from you, I need this from you, and I need this from you,’” Burger recalls. “It did not matter what else they were working on and who they were working on it for, he took over, and every now and then, it was a little bit disruptive. I’m trying to make a conscious decision not to do that; I just want to be the sounding board, not interfere, and not get in the way.”