Fred Keller - Cascade Engineering - 2017 MFG Lifetime Achievement

Even though Cascade Engineering has experienced the same economic downdrafts, ruthless Lopez-style cost cutting and jarring changes in U.S. policy as other manufacturers, Fred Keller has kept remarkably consistent with his desire to run a profitable company that makes a difference for employees, his community and the world at large.

For his work of more than 40 years as the driving force of Cascade Engineering in Grand Rapids, Keller was named a 2017 MFG Lifetime Achievement Award winner.

As founder and top executive for much of Cascade Engineering’s history, Keller managed to grow the plastic injection-molding company from a six-person shop in 1973 to a far-flung corporation that employs about 1,600 people across 15 facilities at six U.S. locations and operations in Budapest, Hungary.

During all that time, Cascade Engineering has taken forays into several areas that other companies consider well beyond the scope of for-profit organizations: a welfare-to-career program with an on-site social worker, a program to introduce former felons to manufacturing as a career and a strong emphasis on reducing the impact of manufacturing on the environment.

“People often think doing the right thing takes away from the profitability of the company,” said Keller, who continues his philanthropic work after having stepped down as CEO of Cascade Engineering in 2014. “My experience is the opposite.”

Keller said that the benefits a company receives from devoting resources to improving the social fabric of a community may not be readily apparent before a program is launched. In many ways, a company has to have faith that — between tangible and intangible benefits — the journey will be worth the effort.

“When we started on our Welfare to Career journey, we had no idea that it might actually be beneficial to our company,” Keller said. “We learned along the way that in order to retain people from welfare at high rates, we had to be extraordinary in our ability to understand what it means to be in poverty.

“The stress of providing for your family when resources are so scarce that one car breakdown, one sick child or one abusive incident can mean the end of your employment, is hard for people of middle and upper classes to understand. By supporting these folks who are transitioning out of poverty, we learned that the entire organization felt more supported. And this has had incredible benefits for us as an organization.”

Cascade Engineering estimates that the Welfare to Career program has helped about 800 individuals to leave welfare and engage in careers since its inception in 1999. The company provides training in the operation and processes involved in design and manufacture of large-part plastic injection molded products for heavy truck and automotive, trash collection, office furniture and reusable pallet and container applications.

Having learned valuable lessons through the Welfare to Career program, Keller decided to tackle another social problem; helping convicted felons who were struggling to find decent jobs due to their criminal record. Under the Returning Citizens program, Cascade Engineering removed the section in its employment form that asked about an applicant’s prior convictions and set up a system of support to help former inmates succeed in a work environment that may be new to them.

Of the about 690 people who worked at Cascade Engineer’s facilities in metro Grand Rapids last year, more than 75 were formerly incarcerated, the company said.

“It has made us a stronger, more resilient and, frankly, a more long-term, steady growth organization,” Keller said. “Large or small, if it is the right thing to do, my advice is to do it! It may seem like it is costly, but in the long run it is a benefit.”

Keller also is a long-time proponent of Triple Bottom Line concept that places equal importance on People, Planet and Profit. According to the company’s website, Triple Bottom Line basically means:

  • People: “Our goals shouldn’t come at the expense of our people, but because of them.”
  • Planet: “There’s only one earth, so we do everything possible to reduce our impact on it.”
  • Profit: “With our model, generating positive returns benefits all stakeholders, not only the shareholders.”

Although he has retired as CEO of Cascade Engineering, Keller remains quite active as an educator, speaker and proponent of community causes such as the Kellogg Foundation Board, the KConnect organization, Talent 2025 and the Grand River Restoration Steering Committee. Keller serves as an Executive in Residence at the Center for Positive Organizations at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and he is a visiting lecturer at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University.

“I will continue to work on developing new ways for the community to communicate and solve some of its toughest problems,” Keller said. “Grand Rapids and West Michigan is a wonderful part of the world, and I am so honored to be working together with so many wonderful folks to allow it to become even better.”