Business heating up for manufacturer of cooling blankets

Charles Johnston

You need not come from a big town or a big company to develop a hot idea.

The Kalb Corporation, run by Mike Kalb and his son, Rob, in the tiny town of Oneida, about 12 miles northwest of Galesburg, is a perfect example. Their specialty, which is to throw a cooling blanket over an overheated exhaust, has some people at the Pentagon hot and bothered.

The Kalbs design custom fabricated blankets that go over diesel engine exhaust pipes. They are designed to shield hot exhaust from areas where people might touch it or where random debris could ignite, creating a fire hazard. Their signature product, HeatBlocker, reduces exhaust temperatures of up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit down to between 200 and 225.

Its primary application has been on heavy diesel equipment associated with mining, landfill and construction applications. But the Department of Defense is looking to develop a new generation Humvee-type vehicle. The Kalbs’ product could both reduce the risk of fires from exhausts and dramatically reduce the thermal signature, making the vehicles less vulnerable to heat-seeking missiles.

The Kalbs are not dealing directly with the DOD but rather with one of the contractors competing for the project.

“The way it works is that there are five contractors still in the mix,” Rob Kalb said. “We are a subcontractor to one of them. Sometime this month or next the government will likely select two or three contractors to develop test vehicles. The prototypes those contractors develop will be examined and tested over a period of several years. Sometime in late 2011 or early 2012, the DOD will make some final observations based on the tests, the test contractors will have a chance to revise their designs and a final contract will be let for mass production.”

Rob Kalb will not release the name of the contractor he and his father are working with, as it is proprietary information and premature release could create problems or even terminate the relationship. At this stage, it is a little tricky because none of the potential contractors have decided what kind of exhaust their vehicles will have. Thus, the Kalbs had to provide a prototype blanket designed to cover a 3-inch exhaust pipe. After the test contractors are selected they will firm up arrangements with their subcontractors.

Fortunately, this has been the specialty of the Kalbs and they are used to doing custom work. One of their major customers is Peoria-based Caterpillar, one of the largest manufacturers of heavy diesel-powered equipment in the world.

The Kalbs’ backgrounds

In many ways this was a predictable journey for Mike Kalb, 59. He has spent most of his career in related fields. In 1979 he got involved with Peoria Tractor, which is a subsidiary of Caterpillar, eventually becoming its engine sales manager.

Mike has always been something of a tinkerer, inventing things and figuring out how he would bring them to market and promote them. In 1986 he took a plunge, becoming an independent manufacturer’s representative in the diesel engine market.

Mike was then the father of three adult children. His daughter was an educator who had stayed near her hometown. But both sons had moved to the Chicago area. One was a biologist. Rob had gotten a master’s degree in business administration from Bradley University. He landed a job as an international buyer for Ace Hardware Corp. and was headquartered in the far south suburbs of Chicago.

Rob’s wife Andrea had been working as a contract manager for a DOD contractor. They had a 1-year-old daughter, Rylie, and a second on the way in 1998.

The project Andrea was working on was winding down. She decided she really wanted to stay home with her children. That got her and Rob taking a hard look at quality of life issues. Rob began to compare Will County suburb they were living in with the small town of Wataga in Knox County, where he grew up.

It wasn’t long before a call went out to Dad.

“I decided to eat my words and come home,” Rob said.

Mike didn’t think his son had to eat any words at all

“When he called me I considered it a very great honor,” Mike said. “Rob has a master’s degree in international business and wanted to come home to work with me. I was both surprised and flattered.”

Mike was working with an exhaust insulation company and saw a need for a second person to do manufacturer’s rep work in the Midwest, so there was an opening to take his son on.

New venture begins

The company that had inspired the father to take the son on in the venture ended up phasing out its Midwest reps altogether. But with the father’s detailed knowledge of the diesel engine specialty market, especially the niche market of exhaust insulation, and the son’s business experience, it was not long before they launched their own venture, Kalb Corporation.

They handle, sell and export all manner of industrial engine parts. But their specialty is the custom design and manufacture of premium exhaust insulation products.

Their Oneida office includes the two of them, an office manager and Mitch Ekstadt, a draftsman from Altona they brought on eight years ago who helps in the custom design work. They entered into a joint venture with a Chicago firm that manufactures the products they design and market. But they do the final inspection and ship their products directly from Oneida.

The family business has been a success for eight years now, and being a subcontractor to the winning contractor it will open up a lot of doors. But the Kalbs aren't reliant on a winning bid to keep the company going.

Mike Kalb is delighted. He says it has been an eye-opener working with defense contractors and the DOD. He says he and his son owe a debt of gratitude to retiring Peoria-area Congressman Ray LaHood, who has been out to their site several times and has helped them navigate through the often complex corridors of DOD contracting and sub-contracting. Mike is especially glad that their invention might protect soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan from heat-seeking missiles. Most of all, he’s glad to be creating and building things with family.

“You never have to go to work when you’re just having fun,” Mike said.