David Watkins’ story starts with an eyelet, a cocktail party, computer giant IBM, and a small textile guide manufacturer founded in New Jersey and later moved to Brevard – Howell Ceramics.
In 1968, Howell Ceramics became the first manufacturing company to apply technical ceramics to the textile industry. The New Jersey-based company produced ceramic eyelets for circular knitting machines. As polyester suits and wide lapels grew in popularity, the need for ceramic eyelets skyrocketed. Each circular knitting machine needed nearly 1,500 eyelets. In response, Howell’s completed its first order, which called for more than half a million eyelets.
The Beta Site Guy
After graduating from the University of Michigan, Watkins received job offers from banks – an industry his father found success in – and from other professions in high-rise buildings. The Detroit native was even given the chance to be the fourth man employed by the Mott Foundation, a charitable organization led by the family behind General Motors.
Undecided, he returned from a camping trip with close friends in Canada, and attended a cocktail party with his parents. There, he met a stranger affiliated with a nearby technical ceramics company that produced nuclear control rod material.
“It was a ceramics company,” he reflected, “unlike anything I had imagined.”
He was offered the position of Systems Manager, simply because he knew more about computers than his colleagues. At the time, inventory was kept on paper ledgers. The math to determine hours of labor for every product and costs were still rolled up by hand.
But, Watkins’ new employer had reason to invest in a Systems Manager. The company would soon become the beta site for IBM’s first manufacturing software, MAPICS, which integrated manufacturing data with accounting data. The 14-module package tracked everything from inventory control to shop data and cost.
“We were the first site in the country to get it fully functional,” Watkins said. “And I was in charge of it.”
At 25, Watkins admits he was hardly an expert.
“I wasn’t a techy. I wasn’t into code. I was just the beta site guy,” he said. “More importantly, I drove the cultural change that was needed to implement the software. The whole idea of a computer system was brand new to the manufacturing environment.”
A Brevard Company's Big Reach
The following year, word of a struggling ceramics company in western North Carolina reached Watkins.
“I drove here from Michigan in March with my wool suit on. It was 85 degrees!” Watkins said. “I walked into this building, and I immediately saw potential.”
In 1983, Watkins purchased the old Howell Ceramics operation and moved to Brevard. The company took his middle name and became KEIR Manufacturing. At the age of 26, it was a professional and personal move that he now refers to as: Dave’s Great Adventure.
Watkins saw opportunity in the variety of products the existing company was capable of creating. Within one year, KEIR was diversifying its portfolio.
By re-purposing scrap textile parts, KEIR created sandblasting nozzles for use in carving out letters, roses and prayer hands on tombstones. Later, the company began manufacturing brick extrusion tips, fishing pole eyelets, textile thread guides, scraper blades for coal dust on conveyer belts, spreader beams for paper printing, high-temperature furnace components, guides for wire manufacturing and sharpening stones for knives.
For each new market, KEIR served as the only supplier or one of just a handful of suppliers in the country manufacturing the particular goods. To survive changes in technology, demand, international production and business climates, Watkins continuously adapted to meet new customers and needs.
“We solve process problems for manufacturers by applying our material knowledge,” Watkins said. “We are a solutions company.”
Six years ago, KEIR acquired a carbon-composite product line with several international patents from Kaman Aerospace, a billion-dollar company that makes military helicopter airframes. These international patents joined other patents already held by KEIR for its designs, including patents for Air Wipes used to dry wire in wet processes and carbon composite flyer bows.
Today, KEIR’s ceramic products for the cable and wire industry alone serve 1,400 customers in 43 countries.
“For a little business in Brevard,” Watkins said, “we have a big reach and an impactful one.”
Best Opportunity You’ll Ever Have
Despite KEIR's reach, Watkins admits that his company receives few applicants.
“We want to hire smart people who are motivated and who like to work,” Watkins said.
“We’re looking for bright people who want to take their knowledge of the world and their good habits and apply it to a manufacturing setting – where no two days are the same, and every day offers opportunities for problem-solving and critical thinking.”
Perhaps, Watkins muses, the lack of interest is due to the company’s low profile on McLean Road or how little Transylvania County residents know about the kind of work KEIR employees do – or the perks they receive.
There are no supervisors at KEIR. Every employee is self-directed and sets priorities based on project deadlines. In addition to a good hourly wage, employees have the opportunity to earn monthly bonuses based on the performance of the individual and team to exceed customer expectations. Turnover is low. The average employee tenure at KEIR is 10+ years.
KEIR does not provide a formal training program for employees. Instead, training occurs through the sharing of ideas and collaboration among colleagues. The environment enables collective critical thinking and certain benefits, such as flexible scheduling, better work-life balance and shorter Fridays.
“We hire people to think and engage,” Watkins said. “That’s empowerment.”