Klobuchar visits Kahler plant

VIP TOUR — Cole Lightfoot, left, electrical designer at Kahler Automation, and company founder Wayne Kahler, center, explain a wiring panel to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., during a tour of the plant on Wednesday in Fairmont.

FAIRMONT — U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., stopped by Kahler Automation Wednesday as part of a sweep through the south-central section of the state.

Klobuchar visits every county in the state each year, and her stops Wednesday included Mankato, Fairmont, St. James and New Ulm, before heading to Farmfest today.

Wayne Kahler, founder of Kahler Automation, gave a brief history of his company, which designs control systems for bulk material handling of grain, chemicals, fertilizer and other materials. When he started the company in the 1980s as an offshoot of his father’s electrical business, Kahler traveled around the country, knocking on the doors of businesses to see if he could do anything to help their industry. Today, Kahler Automation customers saturate the center of the country but also are located throughout the United States, Canada and other foreign countries such as Belize and Ukraine.

Klobuchar asked Kahler about the possibility of growing his market in foreign countries.

“Some of the other parts of the world aren’t quite ready for this technology yet,” said Kahler, adding that the business’ focus is on the United States and Canada.

Klobuchar was impressed with the variety of uses for Kahler’s control systems, from loading grain to prison access.

“They’re all similar in that they make things more efficient, but they’re all different in their subject area,” she said.

Kahler talked about the company’s three airplanes that are used to move engineers, technicians and sales people to different sites for sales calls, pre-installation meetings, installation, maintenance and support.

“All the small airports around the country are important to us,” Kahler said. “We go to locations where rural customers are at.”

“We were very concerned about some of the proposals that are out there,” said Klobuchar, citing recent suggestions about privatizing certain areas such as air traffic controllers. “That actually was not good for small airports. We were able to push back on that.”

Kahler thanked Klobuchar for her work to expand broadband technology.

“It’s very important to our customers to have that broadband,” he said.

“We’ve done a lot on getting more money. There’s $600 million more in our last budget, but we still have 25 percent of rural America that does not have broadband,” Klobuchar said.

Kahler Automation automates about 150 facilities each year. Current employees number more than 70 people working as software engineers, computer programmers, electrical engineers, design engineers and support staff.

“These are all people we have to attract,” Kahler said. “Fortunately, Fairmont has lakes and recreation, but it’s still a challenge to get people here.”

“There’s so many job openings right now in Minnesota. Yet we’ve got kids getting degrees they can’t use, and they have a huge student loan debt,” Klobuchar said.

“We have a lot of people here that started in the last few years that went to (vocational) school in Jackson and Mankato, but we’re always looking for programmers of any kind and electrical technicians,” Kahler said.

Klobuchar asked about the availability of workforce housing.

“We struggle with that just like most communities our size, finding places that are affordable,” said Fairmont Mayor Debbie Foster, who was on the tour.

Foster praised Kahler for his innovation and leadership role in working with Fairmont Area Superintendent Joe Brown in encouraging students to strongly consider service trades as a career and offering high school classes with basic knowledge of those careers.

“There was a time when you got a two-year degree, and you couldn’t raise a family with it,” said Foster, noting this is no longer the case because of the strong demand for trades people.

“That is the message,” Klobuchar said.