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Fate has been good to Upton, KPI Concepts

Source: The Hawkeye

WEST BURLINGTON—Craig Upton credits his father, Frank Upton, and Southeastern Community College for a lot of his business success, along with his character trait to be a problem solver.

“I’m always looking how to do it better,” Upton said.

Upton is the owner of his second straight successful company in KPI Concepts in West Burlington.

“I’ve always been one of those guys who believes in fate,” Upton said.

Operating his own business would come after laboring for several local companies, and eventually fate did come along.

Upton graduated from Burlington High School in 1973, and immediately went to work in the job shop of Balzer Brothers, learning to fabricate parts.

He also attended Southeastern Community College and earned an associate’s degree in the mechanical technology program with a focus on design option.

Upton’s degree earned him a job at General Electric as a design draftsman. Later, he would go to work at the Caterpillar plant in Burlington as a welder and later moved into the data processing department.

Then fate stepped in. Caterpillar left town in 1984 and left Upton without a job.

Upton’s options were to find another job “or I could start my own business,” Upton said.

He chose the latter and started Kitchens Plus in his two-car garage.

“I pulled out the cars and there was my shop,” Upton said.

He credits his father for part of his decision to open a business.

“My dad could do anything. He taught me that,” Upton said. “On his personal side he liked wood working.”

It was in that two-car garage where Upton designed kitchen cabinets for homes and did some commercial work for local banks. In his first year of business, Upton made $5,000.

Then fate stepped in again.

Upton and his father had made some toe kicks for shelving for Aldi’s in Burlington. When he leaned against a dump table for bargain buys, Upton noticed it was wobbly and poorly made.

When high school students visit his business now, Upton tells them to “Recognize an opportunity when it is there. Try to keep that open mind.”

So, one lean against a table gave Upton an idea and he proposed a meeting with Vern Frazier, Aldi’s vice president in Burlington. Upton came up with a new table design and after the presentation was awarded an order of 10 tables as a test.

The initial order was built in his father’s shop, which led to building 5,000 more for Aldi’s stores across the country. That order prompted Upton to leave his garage and build a 42-foot-by-100-foot building for Kitchens Plus. The company also began to make shelving for Aldi’s.

When Upton moved out of his garage and into the larger building, “I thought I was set for life,” he said.

He expanded nearly every year after the original construction.

With the focus of his business largely being commercial, Upton sold Kitchens Plus and the cabinet side of the operation to Clark Knickerbocker in 2000. Kitchens Plus still exists today at 3615 Flint Ridge Drive in Burlington.

Upton formed KPI Concepts the same year, to focus his work on Aldi’s and other commercial accounts. Once again the business continued to outgrow its facilities as Upton built a 65,000-square-foot building at 1415 W. Mount Pleasant St. in West Burlington in 2008. He expanded the building by another 35,000 square feet in 2012, and bought the former Antennacraft buildings, totaling 100,000 square feet in 2015.

KPI Concepts also expanded to Hurricane, Utah, in 2013, where the company makes shelving and other items for Aldi’s stores in California and Texas.

Over the years, KPI Concepts has acquired many big accounts. Target was a big account for quite a while, as the West Burlington plant made check-out counters for stores in the U.S. and Canada.

KPI Concepts still makes check-out counters for Hy-Vee stores.

Siemens has become a large account as KPI Concepts manufactures two items for the wind blade manufacturer in Fort Madison.

One, the plant makes the wooden components for Siemens blades, which are shipped to Fort Madison in a kit. KPI Concepts also makes a plastic bag component for the blades, which are as long as the blade.

Siemens is planning a longer blade, which will require KPI Concepts to adjust both products it makes for the blade manufacturer.

Aldi’s has been KPI Concepts main customer throughout its history and spurred Upton to start a metal division in the former Antennacraft buildings. He bought a German-made Xcite 80 E press break and a Switzerland-made Bystronic laser-cutting machine to make metal shelving brackets in the beginning. Since, the two machines have been used to manufacture many other parts.

Upton visited the German and Swiss facilities in 2016.

“You could have eaten off the floor,” Upton said of each plant.

The metal division also has made products for Winegard Co. and Industrial Service Corp.

“We just had our biggest year in KPI history,” Upton added of the company’s 2016 results.

He hasn’t stopped adding to the metal division as a $1.3 million Lasertube LT Fiber machine, made in Italy, has been installed to manufacture vertical brackets for Aldi’s shelving.

Justin Henning, the metals division manager, said the machine can cut all the necessary notches and holes in a four-foot piece of rectangle-shaped pipe in one minute and 45 seconds. Four brackets can be made from a 24-foot stick of metal, and 48 sticks can be loaded onto the side of the machine, ready to be fed in for each stick’s turn.

Henning said KPI Concepts believes in cross-training its employees. Those employees in the metal division can be trained on three machines.

Since 2015, KPI Concepts has grown from 100 employees to 150 in the workforce. Fifteen to 20 of those employees work at the Utah facility.

The metals division has two shifts, while the main building has three shifts. Upton tries to keep the work to a five-day week, but occasionally work may need to be done on a Saturday.

“We have the mentality that family is important, too, and they need to be with family,” Upton said.

Upton, 61, is considering his exit strategy from the company. His son, Brandon Upton, has been with the company five years and oversees the Utah plant from the West Burlington office.

Only fate knows what holds for KPI Concepts in the future.

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