Neal St. Anthony
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Gene Koehler at 19 took an entry-level job at the original Graco factory in northeast Minneapolis for $2.35 an hour in 1970.

He worked a lot of overtime and saved, planning a down payment on a truck and to become an over-the-road driver.

Instead, he stayed at Graco, despite the temperature topping 100 degrees many summer days on the factory floor as Koehler tended a screw-making machine that would help sew together Graco lubrication and spray-painting equipment.

“I found a good fit at Graco,” said Koehler, 68, the manufacturer’s longest-serving employee and who plans to call it a career at 50 years next spring.

“A supervisor, Ralph Lane, liked my attitude and asked me if I wanted to work on the Acme Gridley screw machines,” Koehler recalled. “It was right up my alley. I had a mechanical background. My dad was a mechanic and trucker. I had worked with him on cars and farm machinery.

“Graco had good people. They took me under their wings. And Graco had profit-sharing.”

Koehler, a humble gentleman, underscores that ethic about the “dignity of work,” fair wages and the right of the worker to prosper.

And he was fortunate to go to work for Graco, a global manufacturer of lubrication equipment, founded by brothers Russell and Leil Gray in the 1930s. They figured out a way to make the grease guns in their Northeast service station work in extreme cold.

“It’s fulfilling work,” Koehler said. “I ‘machine’ like I’m buying the parts myself. I want it to be perfect. I know people around the world are counting on me creating a quality part so they can do their job ... painting cars, or using our sprayers or other equipment.”

Then-CEO Dave Koch, a son of the working class and Leil Gray’s son-in-law, was an enlightened business man. He worked a short time in the securities industry, after college and the Air Force.

He took Graco public in 1969.

He said Graco owed its success and future to committed employees who made quality products for fair compensation and management’s commitment to an ethical business run in the public interest.

“He respected workers,” Koehler recalled. “It was slow sometimes, and we could tell he was worried about us. The Koch family also supported the Girl Scouts and a lot of schools and charities.”

Graco, which posted earnings of $267 million on revenue of $1.25 billion during the first nine months of this year, has been good to own, particularly over the last decade.

The stock, worth 15 cents per share on a split-adjusted basis 40 years ago, is worth about $50 a share today.

A veteran Graco factory worker can make $70,000 annually in base wages, plus benefits.

“Gene takes pride in his work and comes to work … with the intention of doing the best job he can,” said Jill Haubenschild, factory manager at the Anoka lubrication-equipment plant. “He is also proud of what he has been able to provide his family over his career at Graco.”

Koehler likes to work. And the conditions, in the modern plants in Minneapolis and Anoka, have improved markedly over 50 years.

Air conditioning is almost a given. No more greasy floors. A focus on worker education and safety.

“It’s clean and comfortable,” Koehler said. “And you don’t have to worry about slipping.

“The culture was always good. Graco listened to customers. Developed products. And improved them. People didn’t lose jobs.”

CEO Pat McHale, an accountant who started at Graco as a machinist in 1989, called the workforce “the backbone” of Graco’s success.

“I’ve known Gene for decades,” he said. “Gene has made millions of precision components. Those components are shipped to customers [around] the world who use them daily for mission-critical applications. Gene’s contribution to Graco’s success is something to be very proud of.”

Koehler also is proud he could provide for his family, thanks to good pay and shared profits.

He and his wife, Therese, still own the rambler in Ramsey, near the Anoka plant, that they bought nearly 40 years ago. Therese stayed home to raise two daughters, who are now college-educated.

Sarah Koehler works for Essentia Health in Duluth and Rachel Koehler works in research for the Minnesota House of Representatives.

“I’m very proud of them,” Gene Koehler said. “They appreciated their college education. We also lived within our means. We saved.”

Koehler remembers fondly company celebrations where workers and executives shared food and conversation.

“The purpose of business is to serve people,” Koch told me years ago. “The customers with a good product, the employees with fair wages, the shareholders with profits and the community through taxes and philanthropy.”

Gene Koehler, this Thanksgiving weekend, is grateful.

He and Therese look forward to retirement and driving trips.

They earned it.