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52 Faces:  Ryan Oleson of KPI Concepts

Ryan Oleson easily is described as someone with a bright outlook on everything and anything.

That includes the current coronavirus chaos that has many Americans hiding under their beds.

As store fixture division manager for West Burlington company KPI Concepts, Oleson oversees day-to-day activities.

"However, because we are a small company we all wear a lot of hats here at KPI," Oleson said. "I am also the lone salesman for KPI Concepts ... which is the fun part of the job."

Oleson likes to tell people that KPI is an easy sell to any potential customer.

"Frankly, it's our employees here at KPI that make selling KPI products extremely easy," he said. "Our people are proud of what they do, which is evident when you look at metrics such as quality, production efficiencies, on-time deliveries, and customer service — no other company can match what KPI does, and I'm very proud to work with such a great group of people."

COVID-19, also known as coronavirus or SARS-CoV-2, first appeared in China in December and has spread worldwide. The lack of a vaccine is a principal force driving the public's fears of infection.

By comparison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated last month that 29 million cases of common flu have bloomed in the U.S.in the 2019-2020 season.

Compare that to the current number of COVID-19 cases in America: more than 100,000 at the end of the week. Then again, you can get vaccinated for the flu.

COVID-19 has America holing up to create social distance and there's little reason to leave home except to shop for groceries — with Iowa's bars, restaurants, health clubs, movie theaters and all other forms of public entertainment shut down, there's nowhere to go.

That's where Oleson comes in with some good news: KPI Concepts is manufacturing and installing temporary checklane panels at Aldi USA stores around the Midwest. Those shields help protect Aldi checkout cashiers from customers who may unknowingly be infected and contagious.

KPI has good coffee in their break room, too, and Oleson sat down with The Hawk Eye to talk.

"I grew up right here in Burlington, graduated from West Burlington High School," the 44-year-old Oleson said over a cup. "I went to SCC and Lincoln Christian University in Lincoln, Illinois. I didn't graduate college, but I did graduate from tech school, Midwest Institute of Technology."

Oleson lives with his partner, Elizabeth Cason, and Oleson's 10-year-old son from a previous marriage, Owen. His two grown children are son Cordell and daughter Calysta.

Cason said she asked Owen what he thought of his father.

"He said he’s really good at making paper airplanes and helping me with my water park projects," Cason said. "He always makes me laugh and gives me hugs."

Oleson has a musical brother, Micah, who plays bass with two bands: Eric Pettit Lion and David Kroll & Heartland.

"Ryan's always been a hard worker," Micah said. "He's a very good problem solver, and he doesn't ever seem to get frustrated with anything, takes things in stride and is able to really get after the problem and come up with a good solution."

Micah recalled a childhood example of his brother's ingenuity: In the winter, the pre-teen boys were playing baseball indoors with a wadded up shirt, using their arms as baseball bats.

"Dad told us, 'Don't do that anymore, you're breaking too many things.' We did it anyway, we broke something special of Mom's, so we had to get a spanking," Micah said. "Ryan comes down the stairs with a pillow shoved in the back of his shorts. Even my dad started laughing. We still got a spanking."

Micah said bands aren't gigging at all right now.

"Three shows cancelled so far: two with Eric and one with David," he said. "It's kind of weird. I used to have that to look forward to on the weekends."

He said the bands aren't even rehearsing right now due to the shuttering of bars and restaurants.

"We're trying to do the responsible thing of social distancing and all that," he said. "I don't know how long that will last; hopefully just a couple more weeks. Who knows?"

Perhaps KPI can put together something like shields on microphones so musicians can get back to work.

Oleson's been employed at KPI for 13 years.

"KPI was hiring a purchasing and production scheduling person," Oleson said. "I was a traveling salesman for Mid-Am Building Supply. I was tired of traveling and I wanted to be closer to home."

KPI was located on Beaverdale Road at that time, just a few blocks Oleson's home.

"I put my application in, did purchasing and production scheduling and took over the account management, and over the past 13 years I've grown with this company. Now I'm the division manager for our Concepts division," he said.

KPI has three divisions in the Burlington area.

"We're a great company. We've got a lot of good people here," Oleson said.

So what does KPI stand for?

"KPI stands for nothing," Oleson said, chuckling. "KPI was Kitchens Plus Incorporated. When we started the commercial side of our business, we sold off the residential portion of it. To keep the commonality, we kept the Kitchens Plus Incorporated as KPI. So we went to KPI Concepts."

KPI founder Craig Upton retired to Florida last year.

"Ryan is a good salesman and a real asset to the company," Upton said from Florida.

Oleson said KPI has approximately 160-170 employees company-wide, most of them in the Burlington area.

"We bought the old Antennacraft building and put our metal shop down there," he said. "We have a facility out in Utah as well."

Oleson said he still travels a lot for work.

"Not only do I run the division, I'm the lone salesman for the store fixture side of the company as well," he continued. "We do business with Target and Aldi's and Hy-Vee and Casey's. We're pretty excited about Casey's."

Another client is Northgate Markets in Anaheim, Calif.

"I love to go out and see those guys; I plan those trips for January or February," he said with a chuckle.

Has the current virus panic affected Oleson personally?

"We were supposed to go on vacation next week," he said. "We were going to go on a road trip; we love to do road trips. I still travel a lot with my job here, I do sales and I take her with me a lot of times. We love to travel and see the country. Not by plane; we like to just drive. Flip a coin and go."

The couple had planned to drive down to Saint Petersburg, Florida, and get an Airbnb.

"You can't do that right now," he said. "I planned on taking two or three days just to get down there, two or three days to come back, have a vacation."

"I wish I was typing this from the beach with a fruity drink in one hand and Ryan’s hand in the other, but unfortunately with everything going on we had to postpone our trip," Cason said in an e-mail. "Ryan simply amazes me. To be honest, I am not sure how he manages to do it all, and with a smile on his face and usually a joke to crack."

Cason described Oleson as one of the most hard-working and compassionate people she's known.

"He loves his KPI family. He is an amazing father, son, friend, brother, and partner," she said. "I am so blessed to have him in my life. He never goes a day without making us all feel loved and putting a smile on our faces. Ryan puts everyone and their needs before himself. He would give the shirt off of his back for a stranger. I could go on and on."

Oleson said that when the current crisis is over, he has another trip in mind.

"I always wanted to take the Great River Road down to Saint Louis, just a fun trip," he said. "I want to get back to normal, but we'll see what the new normal is when it's all said and done."

With people like Ryan Oleson on the job, Iowa is likely to get back to normal a lot sooner.

"Ryan’s a beautiful soul," Cason said. "I adore him and I can’t wait to spend forever listening to his jokes, ha-ha."

Oh, and Ryan? Elizabeth's ring size is a five. Ha-ha. Just joking.

This article originally appeared on The Hawk Eye: 52 Faces: Whether work, pandemic or family, Ryan Oleson takes life in stride

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