Samuel Edwards: My name is Sam Edwards today is December 1st 2016 and I'm here
with Frank--actually Frank I don't even know how to pronounce your last name.
Frank Kebbell: [Ke-bell]
SE: Yeah, I think, I think Paul has actually corrected me in a different
pronunciation; I've been confused since. Anyhow I'm here with Frank Kebbell, and
today we're talking about employee ownership, the culture of it, structure and
the history of a company he used to work with and helped found, Chroma
Technology. Frank, would you like to go ahead and tell us a little bit about yourself?
FK: Ok. I've always had a scientific background to some degree. I was lab
technician in, oh, many different fields in my early, in my early days. I got a
job at Omega Optical in doing thin film coating, around 1979. Omega Optical
00:01:00wasn't--was a very unconventional high-tech company. It was a sole
proprietorship run by a hippie boss of sorts and he believed in empowering his
workers to, in every way possible: we used our initiative; we were able to
innovate and be inventive; we would tackle every kind of job; we would tear the
machines apart, work on them and figure out how they work or how to put them
back together again. We were, we were very much self-managing. I met my
wife-to-be at Omega Optical '79 and she, although she'd had no experience of
optical coating, [she] ended up managing production, the production group there
for a while. Everything was was left up to the employees and they felt very
empowered. It turned out in the long run, that was a carefully crafted illusion
00:02:00because Bob Johnson, the owner, had very firm ideas about how, would take us. I
mean, it would, it would get us bonuses perhaps and do a lot of the legwork that
he didn't wanna do; but when all said and done he kept tight control over the
company. By about my--I left after about four years and started the
stained-glass business for a while. And then decided to go back and carry on at
Omega optical. So I worked there with a hiatus from 1979 until 1991. Yeah, just,
just around 1991, some of my associates that Omega optical decided they had
enough of putting out as though there was worker participation and not getting
anything back other than a sort of an autocratic response from the boss. So for
00:03:00various reasons one person quit another person was fired some of us were decided
we'd had enough. A group of us got together and decided to start around company,
which we did in 91. There were seven of us to begin with and which soon was
reduced to six. And my role was primarily in the beginning to be, to be the
person that designed and built the first little production shop that we, and,
put together equipment and that's how it all began.
SE: So when certain members, uh, I guess, when certain founders of Chroma had
left Omega at the time, you're not working with Omega?
FK: Right I had, well, I knew that this was going to happen soon so I handed in
00:04:00my resignation to Omega and spent a brief period doing odd jobs until such time
as Chroma became fully established. But I was right in there pretty much the day
that the doors opened. Then we had to start building walls and hauling in
machinery. So, yeah, I was there from the ground up, from the get-go.
SE: Were you part of, you know, the telegraphing conversations with Paul Millman
and a few of the other founders before that all kind of came to fruition?
FK: Yeah, yes; we would meet--I can't even remember now--but I think I might
still have been working at Omega when we, when we would gather informally in
bars and various apartments to talk about "what if", "what if we started the
company? how would we do it?" I had no real axe to grind one way or the other in
00:05:00terms of its company structure, but Paul was very adamant that any venture
should be fully employee-owned and there would be no one boss of any
description--benevolent or autocratic. So I went along with that, sounded like a
good idea. Dick Stewart and Paul Millman were the two that were most concerned
with the structure of the company, its governance. Jay and Wim and myself and
Rusty were much more concerned with the technical aspects of the company: how we
would simply get the equipment and make it work for us. And Wendy was the sort
of--[she] greased all the wheels: she was purchaser and accountant to begin
with, and 'Paul-minder' and sort of held it all together with common sense. And
00:06:00because the original concept was, was equal ownership, we all pretty much
drifted into our own fields of strength and just took it from there. We didn't
know what each other was doing to a lot of the time but we assumed that
everybody was doing the right thing: Wim was off writing software in one room,
Rusty was off building electronics in another; I was constructing work benches
and ventilation hoods and plumbing and pumps and equipment. We all, we all went
our own separate ways and Paul was probably the most frustrated been he was
getting the orders in but he was not a very practical person. He was waiting for
the rest of us to actually get something online and I think it took us about six
00:07:00months before we made, six to eight months, before we made our first product.
SE: So up until now in my interviews, I've, I have not heard that Dick Stewart
was also one of the champions for employee-ownership. For the most part I've
heard that it was, you know, essentially Rusty wanting, you know, some--some
unbeknownst people who wanted some part in equity, an equity stake in ownership,
in owning the company. Contrasted with Paul, who wanted it to fully employee-owned.
FK: Yes and that, and I think Paul and Dick were the most adamant that they
didn't want any outside investment. All the investment came from ourselves and
from family members so that we could retain full control. But I think it was
mostly-- well in fact I don't know it was it was Dick's in-laws, his
father-in-law and mother-in-law, who together provided the most significant
00:08:00portion of the startup capital--Did you know that?
SE: Maybe not that explicitly. I know today when I was talking with Paul, he
said that for the most part, maybe it was Dick, those loans, that I guess the
original founders and yourself had taken out, were probably paid back in full by
like '97, '98. I mean I know that much
FK: I'm not quite-It may even have been earlier than that. But I think that the
entire startup capital for the company was, I think, about 250,000, maybe. and
of that, something like a hundred thousand came from Dick's wife's parents. And
Paul actually put up the lines of a significant, much more significant portion
of the start-up of the capital than anybody else, I think. He had done well in
other ventures years before and had a certain amount of money invested in the
00:09:00stock market. And he basically liquidated all that in order to--there was a time
when we ran out of money and we still weren't ready to go into production so
Paul resignedly offered up the rest of his life savings and I remember him
saying "this had better work; this had better work. I'm gonna be broke." We were
all, we were all taking a risk, and Paul took a pretty big risk with his
personal finances but people basically they did what they could. I didn't have
much capital at all. In fact, in fact, Paul went around lending to everybody
money so that they could put in money of their own and then we paid it back to
Paul. But in the end it all, it all worked out and all of the investors were
paid back and full with a high return and I think something like 12%by within 7
or 8 years so it went well
SE: So what was, you know, after you got into production, what were the couple
first couple of years of producing like for the company, for the founders.
FK: It was a very enjoyable time. There were a small number of us, we were able
to keep abreast of things, we slowly added more people. We, we unconsciously
kept up the decision-making process that we've started with: we were just a
bunch of friends that trusted each other and we would make sort of decisions on
the fly as it were. There'd be a crisis of some kind, something, and we'd solve
it--We'd solve the problems that arose in a very informal way. We never really
felt that there was much need for structure. And I, and I think most of us, as
00:11:00maybe many entrepreneurs do, don't like structure; they don't like governance
that's why they strike out on their own. And we'd come from a place, of a
workplace that didn't have much structure at all so not having structure was,
seemed the reasonable thing to do--the way-- I personally, I had many years
before I had lived on a hippie commune for a while and our watchword there, I
forget coined it, it was "system-less accomplishment," in other words if you
wanted to get something done and you had an agreement that it was a good thing
to do you got it done without too much system. But of course as Chroma grew and
00:12:00expanded at a lightning pace, there had to be, there had to be a system and it
would be unfair otherwise, it would be unfair otherwise to bring people in off
the street and expect them to know intuitively how a bunch of people that have
known each other for a long time work together, that you can't really just
expect people to fall into that understanding. So that, so there has to be
structure but what kind of structure that should be is always open to debate.
And I don't think--by the time I retired I don't think that structure had come
SE: I think it's still in a changing and in a continuing process. So I guess on
the note of the friendship, you know, the founders had, how long had you all
known each other because I know you had worked at Omega for quite a long time
before you came to start Chroma.
FK: Yes. I had known Dick Stewart prior to Omega; he was a neighbor up the road
00:13:00from where I lived on the hippie commune, so I first knew Dick Stewart back in
the mid-seventies. I didn't know Paul until-- I was, when I joined Omega Optical
I was on 1 of 12 people so it was a very small company when I when I started
working there and since, and after me came Dick Stewart, Jay Reichman, Wim Auer,
Wendy Cross, Paul Millman-- they, I probably had worked at Omega longer than any
SE: I think Paul Millman was the last one to be hired in '88, '89.
FK: Yes, that's, that's right. And he didn't get on with Bob Johnson at all and
he didn't last long. He was out-- he liked to pick fights, so he-- but on the
00:14:00other hand, he was a brilliant salesman so Bob Johnson tolerated him for his ability.
SE: And only for so long though--
FK: Hh yes, for only so long, yes. Yeah, so and he did get fired at the end.
Whereas Jay, Jay had come straight out of college, young, starry-eyed scientist
and I think he, after a few years, he saw the shortcomings of the amateur--the
sometimes amateurish way--that Omega Optical was run and he took a sabbatical or
he quit I can't remember which but he didn't intend to go back to Omega, he had
enough of that, he might have gone to join a high-tech company in Boston or
something like that.
SE: Yeah, yeah. You know I'm looking to interview him next week, right. From
what I've heard he was doing some very high-intensity research possibly on the
00:15:00Hubble Space Telescope. So when he'd come back from that he was very exhausted
and had actually taken a sabbatical, but also then ended in quitting, and coming
to starting Chroma. [or even--]
FK: Yeah he was, I don't know, I think he was the project leader for the Hubble
Space Telescope. I mean-different optics, different coating companies got
different parts of the Hubble Space Telescope project and Jay, and, I think
Omega Optical, I think they made filters for what they call the 'wide field
planetary camera,' I think it was. I remember making some of those coatings
myself but I think Jay was in charge of the of the project which meant working
very closely with NASA people, who were very picky about quality control and so
on. So, yeah, that probably burned him out to some extent because it's not an
easy thing to do when you're working, when you're working in a company, you
know, that in Brattleboro, that doesn't even have a clean room-it was very, it
00:16:00was quite primitive. Omega started in the basement of a Unitarian church and
then moved and then expanded to another building, which was the old newspaper
printing building, so it was pretty dirty and funky.
SE: So, was the church operating at the time you were of producing in its basement?
FK: No, no; The church, the church had become defunct a few years
earlier-Well-the the Unitarian community had built a new building in West
Brattleboro call the West Village Meeting House, so there was an empty stone
church, which I guess Bob Johnson bought, because prior to that he'd been making
optical coatings in, in his shed at the back of his house.
SE: It just sounds very sketchy to me but I also don't understand the time or,
you know, I guess the industry.
FK: yeah, well, Bob Johnson had learned his learned his craft in and in Boston
00:17:00at various coating places, I think. Ed Barr, I think it was. And then he decided
to choose go into business for himself, hired about three people, friends
mostly, and started his first coating company with about 3 machines as I say in
a shed or barn on his own property in West Brattleboro. So by the time I joined
the company in the basement of the church, it was about three times the size it
was when Bob first started it. And, it seemed, I think, I mean, it was funky but
it seems ok to us something. I'd never had any experience of an optical coating
company before, though, I should have realized that most of them are a lot
00:18:00cleaner than any stone church could be.
SE: So, I think, because if Paul had got hired in the late eighties, was it
about eight to ten years that you were working with Omega before Paul got hired?
FK: Yes, yes; I got started in '79, quit in about '83, and then rejoined again
in about 85. And then I think Paul was hired about the look at a 86, 87. Would
that makes sense? maybe 88? He was there about three years before.
SE: Yea, Yea, I think 88, it's probably a bit closer. From what I understand, he
was able to help through his sales experience--actually talking, I talked about
that to him about that today, where, he didn't have any experience selling
FK: Right, none at all.
SE: It took about six months to get to the point where he thought he was very
00:19:00proficient in it. And then over those three years he went, I think, the sales of
the company went from about $300,000 to about a million.
FK: Yeah, I, there was a simple reason for that really. Bob Johnson was, was a
hermit: he'd he was always uncomfortable in the wider world of, scientists,
technology. He just liked to stay in the basement and invent things. And-but he
didn't know how to sell and he never really went to any of the, of the trade
shows and the conventions and whatever. Whereas Paul is an entirely opposite
person. He's outgoing, gregarious, he loves to schmooze and he has, you know, he
has a background that fitted perfectly well with a lot of loud fast-talking
00:20:00academics in science and in the various sciences. He just, he just got on with
people. He learnt their names, he showed an interest in what they were doing,
whether it was National Institute of Health or you name it, or whatever, you
know, the astronomy community. He caught on and he particularly got excited
about fluorescence microscopy and all the new avenues that the optical coatings
were leading into. So, he just, he was natural as a salesman and that's what it
took. It took being enthusiastic and going out meeting people and being on the
road, which he still does to this day. Bob Johnson didn't understand that or
didn't want to do it. Maybe he understood it but he was reluctant to do it. He,
so, so it's no wonder that he was the first really successful salesperson.
SE: So, moving into the nineties with the development of Chroma, how, integral
was Paul's ability to sell the filters to the growth, you know, the lightning
fast growth that you said that Chroma had?
FK: Oh it was, it was entirely, it was entirely, it was entirely his ability to
just sell and interest customers in Chroma's products. Coupled with Wim's
ability to write software that for the first time enabled our machinery to be
automated, meaning that we could produce way more with far, fewer, fewer people
and more timely. So, I mean it's, I mean Paul would say 'everyone was important
as everybody else,' which is true to some extent, but it was Paul's ability to
00:22:00network and, I mean, he would, he was accused of stealing, stealing customer
files, and addresses, and telephone numbers from Omega which is all nonsense.
The fact is, Paul had made personal friends with many of the people that turned
out to be our best customers. He knew them, you know, their families. He would
stay with them after trade shows. So he just had that, he had that networking
ability and that base of friends and associates all across the country and
around the world. So him being able to sell whatever we came up with and
invented and Wim being able to, and Jay being able to make new, to come up with
new designs and faster ways of making that product. It all, it all, it just
worked for us, the time was right. Now everybody has automated evaporators but
00:23:00we thought we were the only people and we probably were back them. And in fact
some expert witness at the trial on behalf of Bob Johnson claimed that we
couldn't have done what we did. I mean, he said, oh I forget what company he
worked for, a company on route 128, or something, "We tried to come up with ways
of automating this machinery but you can't do it, it takes the human touch."
Well that was, that was not true, we had done it. We did it within a year or
more of starting out, thanks to Wim's genius. Paul's personality and Wim's
genius are probably what are the two most-- and Jay's scientific mind are
probably the three things that contributed to Chroma's success.
SE: In thinking about their skills and the ability to work competitively with
00:24:00other companies, how do you think their skills helped Chroma kind of compete in
the high-end filters and work with, you know, very high-level scientists and
other companies producing very advanced technology?
FK: Well I again it was the software that Wim wrote that was the key to it all.
That I mean, I don't want to go into too much technical detail but in order to
make an optical coating, you have to, you have to carefully monitor the
deposition of number of, a number of very precise microscopic layers. And prior
to, prior to the, prior to the, to the the invention, if you like, of, of
high-end, uh, high-end optical coatings, maybe an optical coating had 20 or 30
00:25:00layers. And that wasn't beyond the reach of, of a person, of a careful person to
do manually just like, you know, knitting a few lines of like--just like
knitting without dropping a stitch or weaving a carpet without making a mistake.
If you concentrated, you can get so far. But it, but the demands-- as the uses,
for especially in biology, as the uses for optical coatings became more
sophisticated and the demand was there for optical coatings, with way more
layers, in order to, to out-perform, or to adequately perform, it is almost
impossible for a human to make those coatings without making mistakes and if you
make mistakes it doesn't work right, the product. So, but, when you have a
computer making those coatings, it can just go on and on making, putting down
00:26:00precise layers one after the other and that was it. If it was, it was it was Wim
writing the software that enabled us to make the kind of filters with more
accuracy than anybody else had done, up to that point. This is how I understand
it. Others, other competitors might claim that they could also do that, but, but
we were able to do, we were able to make highly sophisticated coatings with the
aid of computer software that nobody else could do. And we could also, we could
also design them. Wim didn't, he didn't only makes software to control the
machinery: he wrote software to design them, to design coatings, very, very
user-friendly thin-film designed programs. So it--when I first started out, you,
you came up with a crude design from a chart and you tried it. And if it didn't
work for you, you tinkered with the design and tried it again. And you never
00:27:00really knew if it didn't work because you made errors or it didn't work because
it was a wrong design. Wim wrote a thin-film design program that meant you could
sit there for an hour and rattle off thousands of iterations of designs until
you came up with the right one and then you knew what, what, was how it was
meant to look and then you would get the computer, the automated machine to make
it and it was magic. It pushed, it pushed, it--in the 10 years, from 79 when I
started, it was all unbelievably crude. By 91 when Wim had, had come on board
and, and, and written his software, it was, it was, it was different as, I don't
know, drilling holes in people's heads to let the evil spirits out or performing
a sophisticated brain surgery. it was a quantum leap. It was a quantum leap and
00:28:00we were-- and that's why we were so successful with just a handful of people.
I'm still amazed at what we were able to do because I had been in there from the
early, earliest stages of the most primitive equipment. And, and it was all
hit-and-miss and some trial and error. And, and Wim brought it to a, an exact
science. and then Paul could say, "we make the best most accurate coatings.
you'll want to try ours." And people did.
SE: And they kept coming back.
FK: And they kept coming back.
SE: So what year, you know, move forward, a little bit away from, I guess, the
technicalities of Wim's work: what year was it that, you, I guess, left Chroma?
FK: Left Chroma? Oh well-- oh, well,
SE: --backtrack a little bit, I want to get that date, so we can kind of--
FK: When did I leave Chroma? Let's see. Maybe 10 years ago?
SE: So about 2005, 2006?
FK: Yeah, maybe a little, maybe a little earlier than that. I actually, I think,
I was, I would become a 59. And I'm now 60, 69. Yeah, so, about 10 years ago, yes.
SE: So coming out--.
FK: Why did I leave? Because I felt that I was no longer contributing in, in a
SE: Was it because of the size of the company and how it was growing?
FK: Yes, it was the size of the company. There was no room for, there was no
room for, um--I mean in the early days, for example, the first five evaporators,
the vacuum systems, we basically built them ourselves. But by, the, by the--we
would buy used machinery, used equipment and completely refurbish it; get some
help from one of our-- we did have one investor, I just remembered, other than
people's family and that was in-- David Bradford, who owned a precision machine
shop in Brattleboro, who was a good friend of Wim's and he not only invested
some money but he made the high-tech interiors of our vacuum assisted vacuum
00:30:00chambers which Wim, Jay and others had designed. I've lost my train of thought
now-- oh yes, but in the very early days we, we put together the stuff
ourselves, we made we made machines. By, by the time I left, we were buying our
machines for a million-dollars a piece from a company in Canada, such as the one
that Nic Day worked for. It was a whole, it was, it that, everything had shifted
to a much more professional level, if you like. And there wasn't much room for
somebody like me that liked to the invent bits and pieces and put stuff
together. All of the things we did in the early days, or I did, that worked
well, now look old-fashioned. I was also, I was no longer a plant manager: we
had a professional plant manager took care of things. In the early days, if
00:31:00something broke, we fixed it ourselves. We'd get the pigeons out of the air
cleaning ducts, and put some sort of, you know, new piece of screen over it. By
the time of, by the time I left Chroma, it was big enough that one simply hired
the air conditioning experts from all the rest of it to fix things so I was no
longer Mr. Fix-it; I was just somebody doing the same mundane job every day and
that was also a little, a little, I was still stuck to old ways, so I didn't
really fit in with the new, computerized structure of the --what's it called
--of the processing of the way, the way that the work flowed, I mean-- Shortly
before I left, I did something I was able to do something the old way but Dick
00:32:00wasn't very pleased. He said, in fact, he said, I had made some filters that
worked for a customer for a sample set of filters without any paperwork at all,
without going through all of the you know initiating the work orders, and the
invoices and all that stuff. I just simply made these things and gave them to
the sales guy to show his customer and Dick was outraged, "you can't do things
like that anymore!" and he wrote an email to the company saying I had gone
completely outside of the system, which I had and I was kind, of I was kind of
amused by that. But there was no room for that sort of renegade, entrepreneurial
spirit in the new structured Chroma. So I just felt I'd had enough; I was
getting old. I didn't want to be there until my seventies, until I was 70, so,
you know, I had a good run. I was older. For the most part, from Paul and Wendy,
00:33:00I think Wim is younger than me and Jay is considerably younger; and Dick was
younger, so I was one of the older people. And I decided it was time to bow out.
SE: So we've kind of we've talked a lot about the beginning of Chroma. Kind of
jump to the end of your tenure there so, you know, what was the, you know, the
end of the nineties like for the company, and going up to the 2003, when the
company left the Cotton Mill and came up to Bellows Falls?
FK: Of course the trial, I mean that the lawsuit, interposed, was right in the
middle of that period--.
SE: Do you want to describe the lawsuit briefly?
FK: Well I'm sure it's been described plenty of times.
SE: Actually I don't think I've had any of the other founders or employee-owners
describe it for the project but for the sake of it being part of this
conversation, just very briefly.
FK: Well uh it, it was a very, it was a very worrying time, I think, for some of
us. Probably because originally Chroma had been sued by Omega Optical, and then,
00:34:00and then a week or so later Bob Johnson decided to up the ante and, and sue us
as individuals so it wasn't just the company that was being sued, but we were
named the defendants, were named as individuals so we stood presumably if we had
lost, I mean if Chroma had lost as a corporation, it would have to of done
something: paid, paid fines or paid back, what, what Bob Johnson's lawyer was
calling "unlawful enrichment". But the fact that we were sued as individuals, I
don't know what that meant. We might have been, I mean if we'd been, if we --
what's-- not fine, but what's the word for when you --I mean it wouldn't have
00:35:00been --it was a civil suit so you would have to pay damages, I guess, the word
is 'costs'. So I mean I could have lost the house I suppose, or any other
livelihood, you know after the life savings, whatever. So it was, it was an
anxious time, for a while. But I can't really say too much about the middle
years. I mean Chroma grew steadily we probably hired on three or four people a
year, five people a year. Not everybody, not everybody got it there. I mean we
were looking at, the early company culture was "We'll find local people and
train them to do the work." But then after a while it became clear that you
know, Wim in particular, espoused hiring people with experience, if we could
find somebody that worked at the coating company on Route 128, or whatever, that
would be a good person. So, so we send out, we look we look further afield for,
00:36:00for people with the right technical qualifications. So we would get people who
had those qualifications but the same time it had such a, such a-- [they] were
so locked into a conventional corporate mode of work that they didn't they
didn't get it, they didn't realize, they didn't, they didn't realize often, that
you worked, that you worked the extra hour, and put out the extra little bit of
effort because this was your company. You get people that tried to goof off
whenever they could because that's what you did in Corporate America. You did
your job but it's no one's looking at you, when you know, go for a smoke outside
or something like that. So we would, so, I, I would say, if you can look at a
graph of our hiring and firing or hiring and letting go, it would, it would, it
00:37:00would be upward peaks but there would be dips. I mean we thought, to begin with,
this was such an amazing place that we started where you had all these benefits
and ownership and shares and whatever--nobody would ever want to leave. But
you've got people who didn't get it and they didn't last long, so we're, so, so
the middle years there were growing pains. A lot of, a lot of people that didn't
quite fit and had to be let go and it was an expensive proposition. You know,
people with he even if people had only been there for a year, later a year or
so, they would have gotten shares and so on, but-- it just, it just, very slowly
and in actuality, became more and more like a factory and less and less like a
bunch of, like a bunch of people putting together, you know, Microsoft in their
00:38:00backyard. That's typical of any company. I think, the real problem is that if
there is a problem, the problem probably was that some people perhaps, Paul for
example, were more wedded to having complete control or a lot of control and
didn't really trust people to come in and do that. So we've never really come up
with anything that was the model for the future, I don't think. But it never
bothered me, I just, because I just did my thing and assumed that everybody else
was doing their thing too and nobody was really worried about that kind of
stuff. I mean we were successful: we got paid; we expanded; we grew. It seemed
to me self-evident how you should manage yourself. So I was never too
concerned. I've always been a person that, that's worked for small companies and
managed myself and never really had any experience of an IBM or whatever. Even
when I was a lab technician I basically, you know, they gave me, they told you
00:39:00what you had to do and you got on and did it and didn't worry about governance
SE: So when Chroma was expanding through the late 90s and the early 2000s, when
you guys were looking at new employees or how people fit the culture, what were
you looking for? I understand that the founders, for the most part, because you
guys are such a tight-knit group, you, you already had an idea of what, who you
were and what you were doing and why--But when finding new people to put into
that team, what were you looking for?
FK: Ah I well I would just say to people you've got to be resourceful; you've
got to be able to solve your own problems; you're not going to get too much
help. You'll get all the technical help you want but if you tryna, if you're
trying to figure out what you're supposed to be doing, when, or who you are
accountable to, good luck and don't worry if somebody shouts at you. Paul shouts
with everybody but you're on your own basically, treat it as you would, your own
00:40:00company. That's what I told people. I said, you know, I'm not, that
doesn't--there are no managers. I could give you an idea, I can give you hints
about how to do your job better but I can't tell you what to do, I'm not, I'm
not over you: there is no hierarchy or anything like that. And, and it's a good
place to work, so it's in your own interest to, to make a success of it.
SE: So in the other interviews I've been doing for Chroma, and as you've kind of
indicated it too, you know, there is a sense of what it means to be an
employee-owner; and this might be kind of--it's hard to kind of nail down what
it means but if you could briefly try to tell me what it means to be an
employee-order, you can go for it. I'm just curious, because, yeah--
FK: Well I suppose it means that at some level it is, it means you have the
autonomy that you would if you were working for yourself. For a number of years,
00:41:00I had a stained-glass studio and I worked for myself and I always treated Chroma
as though that's what it should be like. You make your own decisions and you
cross-check with other people but basically you should, it should make you feel
like you're working for yourself.
SE: And I think Paul's indicated, not only in a company meeting yesterday, but
also an interview with him that I had with him, there's a relationship
between--individual interest and collective interest and I'm curious what you
know what your thoughts are on that relationship and being employing-owner.
FK: Oh, well I just assumed that it should be obvious to everybody that it
00:42:00should feel like you're working for yourself but at the same time you should be
aware that if you, that you're, that everybody is dependent on everybody else
for the success of the venture. I don't know I never, I never gave it too much
thought but then I've never been somebody that, like even being on the Board [of
Directors], I didn't like telling people what to do or making those, those big
decisions because that's just not my style. I'm not a, but, then, I don't think
any of us were. I mean that's the problem. I mean, yeah, I don't know, I don't
know the typical, I don't know what the typical number of entrepreneurs to start
a company is, maybe it's just one. Well maybe it's just two. Here you had seven
people all dovetailing in with, or 6 really, dovetailing in with each other
00:43:00forming a sort of collective startup person but if you separate them all,
they're all incapable of doing most of the things, you know, I mean Wim is
hopeless at telling people what to do. Paul just shouts at people to tell them
what to do. Dick sort of tells people what to do within a mild and friendly
enough away that half the time they don't do it. Jay's got his head in the
clouds and you know none of us were really-- if there was anything missing in
the mix it was management skills. None of us had or wanted to have management
skills and so we didn't. We had technical skills-- we had technical skills and
creative skills but not really strong on the management which is probably why to
this day it's it's the weak, it's the weak area. If it is a weak area, I don't know.
SE: I think to say that it might be weak is--I think--it's fairly reductionist
00:44:00because it's not-- there is management, but there is a formal structure but you
know it's still not clear but that's not to say that it isn't there and the
things aren't getting done; it's just the company, and as you've experienced
through your tenure there, trying to figure out how to be more-- I guess part of
the reason to contributing you leaving-- how to figure out how to make things
more consistent, record it, track it, and make sure that you know it's doing
what the system should be. And I think from my observations at Chroma that's
really what they're trying to do and have been trying to do for a long time but
it is interesting not only with Chroma having this third way form to, you know,
not even between, but apart from cooperatives and ESOP's that management-not
only the management and like how its owned-- were sometimes a lack for one thing
or another but also a want for something that some of those models didn't offer.
FK: Hmm yeah; it's hard for me to, it's hard for me to really see that part of
it clearly I mean--you, it could be that the closest model to Chroma is
00:45:00something like, you know, when people talk about evolution, for example, and
there are all these different forces at play, there's natural selection but
there's also environmental pressure and then there's also luck; and there's also
natural catastrophes; there are all these different pressures that come to bear
and somehow nature muddles along that changes or everything that it tends to
change and, and improve; well maybe not always improve. And I just think that
that the lack of deliberateness of Chroma maybe its greatest strength. I mean I
don't really know, I don't really know how cooperatives work but I suspect that
there are their autocrats and dictators in cooperatives too: people in charge
that tells everybody else what to do.
SE: I guess it depends on the cooperative. I'll give you two examples of this.
Burley Design Cooperative, um, it, was kind of the way Chroma had started when
00:46:00you had a group of people that were all very interested in doing one thing. They
wanted this alternative format so when they put together, it was a cooperative,
they all had one share, one vote; they all, you know, kind of rotated and did
all the work but as they grew they were meeting kind of same scaling pressures
but they had hired in a corporate manager to restructure. It went downhill from
there because they wanted to keep it more democratic, more fair in the voting
decision-making processes but as they hired more people because of seasonal work
and increases it diluted that culture; but on the other hand you have an
industrial giant like Mondragon Spain and I'm, you know, I can't speak to
whether or not they have autocrats and dictators but the technical level that
they took to developing their culture and their management systems was at the
forefront of you know really researching and looking with academics and you know
00:47:00people who are actively doing it and I think one of the major parts at their
internal banks spent a lot of money on was that research alone. yeah, because I
think by maybe the early nineties, maybe even before then they had upwards of
about a hundred different industrial manufacturers and actually in a whole range
of different, I guess, industries. There's different relationships there, so
going back to Chroma--I think what you're talking about there's you know, to
pull a word from something from a previous conversation we had, there's this
element of magic that you can't quite pin down what has pushed Chroma along for
you know for 25 years now.
FK: Yeah, I, yeah, there is that element of magic but also I think, I don't, I
think, I think people confuse employee-ownership with employee governance.
SE: And they're not all, I mean, they're not mutually exclusive but they're not
always together in the same boat--you're right--
FK: And so often when people say to me, you know, "I did this and I got shouted
that" or whatever by whoever, I would say look, you know, just because you get,
just because we all get paid the same, we get great benefits, doesn't mean you
know as much as somebody else so I wouldn't try and do things that you're not
just competent to do. Let, you know, you know, if Paul knows best in the sales
department, let him to it. Don't, you know-- you're not being asked to take an
active, you're not necessarily being asked, to take an active part in the way
the company is run. You're being asked to be, to do what you know how to do and
do it well and get well compensated for doing it. And I'm not even sure this
idea of everybody in a room together making voting on whether we hire this guy
or that guy is really necessary. I mean, I'm not even, I'm not even sure that
00:49:00democracy is the best in the workplaces is the best approach really.
SE: What's the immediate alternative? An autocratic hierarchical structure?
FK: Well, a benign autocracy or a benign dictatorship is, is not an unreasonable
thing. I'm not sure that I know, I mean if people, people, if people in the
department will say "we need we need better ventilation; we need this equipment;
I've seen that; I thought of a new way of doing this can we do that?" We'd say
"Sure that's great go for it; order what you need," but don't, but that doesn't
mean you're in power automatically to you know call the contractors in a
building addition, you know. Let somebody else worry about that. So that's going
to be, there's going to be a balance between democracy on one level and benign
authority on another; not malign authority, where people are raking all the
00:50:00money of the workers backs and sorting it away. But a benign small group running
a company. I don't have a problem with that. I didn't even want to be one of
those benign authority figures, you know, let the people that know how to do it
best, do it. I didn't want to be on the board half the time--it bored me.
SE: I think what you're kind of describing as benign authority is kind of
consistent with the way I'm seeing the management structure develop at Chroma.
In fact that, so what they've recently created its five chief positions--we'll
see if I can remember all of them-- operations, technical, customer, executive,
and finance. Currently held by three people but you know that is for the c-suite
then you have I guess the set of managers that they're putting together. They're
not necessarily the same people that would have been on the steering committee
where, you know, they're the head of this [work] group, with this leader, etc.,
but you hired in or you know from the actual company itself, internally, into
00:51:00these positions to do all that coordination and you know making sure that
there's planning going, on they're not ordering people what to do; but they're
maintaining that autonomy within the individual worker and the workgroups and
kind of putting all that together so there you have the, individual work of the
work groups, the management team (while I don't think it's officially called
that), the c-suite, the board. I think for the most part they are kind of
hitting now what you talked about, what is this benign-- [authority]. It's very
interesting to see how it's being pulled together because all their doors are
always open; they talked in a company meeting yesterday that you can, you know,
if you don't know who to talk to you can literally just go to the chief of X
position and have a conversation. Um yeah, so, I think it's very interesting.
FK: And I, and I, in a way I would have said that its probably always been that
way on some level. You take any, I mean, if I think about any work group, I was,
00:52:00I was always able to recognize who would be the natural leader of that. I mean
it's just something that evolves, you know. If it was configuring, I believe
that's what it used to be called, paneling, you know handling the glass, having
it drilled, it shaped it and all the rest of it, and inventing machines to do
that-- there was always somebody that was obviously the natural leader of that
group, that would be the person you would talk to if you had a problem. I guess,
I guess, I guess in my view of the company culture, there was never a problem
with going to somebody and saying, "Hey you know we got to do this, we gotta do
that," but it is true that in, that in the later years, I would see a lot of
people who didn't feel empowered enough to even go and find out, or even know
how to recognize the natural leader of a group and say, "we have a problem to
00:53:00address." They would sort of, I don't know, I mean, not everybody is intuitive
about who, who's got the right answers and who doesn't or who's gonna be the
best resource, but.
SE: I would say that and maybe one of the down falls of the expansion of the
company, now you know grossing a hundred and ten that sometimes because of the
way the building and I guess different parts of the production facility and I
get the company, one person is always in this room over here and never ends up
going to the other room on the other side of building so may not ever--.
FK: You see, that's their own fault. I made it, I made it a point always to
wonder around during the day to see how people do things, what's going on: "oh!
that's new; how--where'd you get that? Oh, Dan made that." You know, I like, I
liked to know what's going on and I would wander around and say 'hi' to people
and people would know who I was, who I, you know, who I am. If people don't
want, if people don't want to leave their Department go to other departments,
00:54:00"Oh, that looks interesting; what are you doing?; tell me, you know, who are
you; what, what are you doing; how's that work?," then they should! that's part
of, that's part of what you expect employee-owners to be doing is, is "I'm not
trying to steal your job but I don't expect you to have secrets from me either,
I want to know what's going on." good, this should be an open book. the whole
place should be an open book.
SE: Alright Frank, I'm here, or I guess we're here, at 55 minutes or so, yeah, I
think like most of the interviews but, you know, in closing the interview, are
there any final comments you want to make about the company, any specific things
in the history or the culture that you want to remark on? That we haven't so far?
FK: Ah, having left, I don't think, having left the company, I don't really
00:55:00think about, I don't, I don't really worry about it. I presume it's going to go
on because, because it seems to have a life of its own. So it--a--I presume but
from what some people say including yourself, one wonders if that, if it really
does have a life of his own or if it's still almost, almost entirely dependent
on founder, the founder influence and culture. I mean is that, that would be the
big question for me is: if all of the founders vanished overnight, for whatever
reason, I mean if, Paul and Jay killed each other in a duel with pistols and
Dick fell out of the window and the Wim's head exploded from too much coding--if
all the founders vanished, would the company keep going? Or is there in some
mysterious way is everybody there highly dependent on the founders that are
00:56:00still there and if they left could it-- I don't know what, in other words, I
don't know if the model that is Chroma is sustainable.
SE: Honestly from my observation, it seemed like that, a constant question, a
constant concern and is constantly being worked on, to what degree in how much
time, is a question of what is really important at the moment.
FK: Yeah, yeah so right: the big question is if you can define-- if anyone to
define --what Chroma is, in terms of its structure and governance, is that
something that's sustainable or without, or with, without the force of certain personalities.
SE: Well, thank you very much Frank.
FK: Thank you. I hope that-- thank you!!