20 Questions with Michael Kane, President of UEI

Originally published: 08.01.10 by Terry Tanker


Recently Publisher Terry Tanker caught up with UEi President Michael Kane, who had just returned from a quick trip to Asia. The two discussed travel, management style, economics, and product innovation.

1. Where did you get your start in the industry?

My father was an orphan refugee from Austria and, shortly after World War II, started a business in London using my grandmother’s kitchen as an office. I joined the company when I was 30, and shortly after that my father began handing over the business to my brother and me. In 1994, my wife Juliet and I moved to UEi in the United States “for 18 months,” and here we are 16 years later, and grateful American citizens as well!

2. Like many executives, you travel a lot, and often internationally. What’s the longest period you’ve spent in a hotel?

I try to keep the trips as brief and as productive as possible. So, this week, I was away for four nights but slept three nights on a plane, one in a hotel.

3. When you’re on the road, what do you miss?

My family.

4. Do you have a favorite hobby?

Eleven years ago, Juliet and I helped start a school located close to UEi. The school has grown to over 160 students, and that project has taken most of my spare time. Our four daughters take up most of the rest of my time, but I also enjoy cycling and live performances of almost anything.

5. What’s your leadership philosophy?

Over time, we have been fortunate to attract a great team. Since we’re stewards of other people’s funds, we’re frugal and careful about meeting our financial obligations. We invest heavily in new products and promoting them. So, it’s people, products, and promotion.

6. What trends do you see in the market?

Our industry has always been concerned about energy and the environment, and our customers have increasing expectations in these areas.

7. What advice would you give to contractors about managing growth?

Long ago, someone reminded me of the importance of cash flow, especially in challenging times. Ever since, we’ve worked hard to ensure we’d always have room to maneuver to take advantage of opportunities.

8. What should contractors be doing to be more effective marketers?

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9. What tools do you use to stay organized?

I’m relatively old-fashioned; I keep a schedule on my MacBook, write a daily “to do” list, and fight a constant battle to keep paper off my desk.

10. How involved are you in internal and external communications for the company?

  Externally, UEi has a great Director of Marketing who takes care of that; internally, we’re a small business, so it’s easy to be involved.

11. How did you choose your management team?

 One of the great stories at UEi is how many people have completely different responsibilities than the ones they started with. Our team has worked together for a while now, we have complementary skills, and time has knocked off our rough edges — well, most of them!

12. How do you manage product innovation?

It’s a process that takes a team approach and close cooperation with our partners. We have a general plan for the next three to five years. Each project starts with a blank sheet of paper and a wish list. We try to define how we would market the product and keep revisiting that throughout the process. Our customers want innovative products that are easy to use, reliable, and backed by great service.

13. What do you view as your most important job?

Focus relentlessly on a few tasks that will make all the difference five years from now — and delegate everything else. It took me a while to realize that.

14. Where do you envision the hvacr industry in the next five years?

Our customers want to take advantage of technology, and their customers will still want to find ways to reduce fuel costs.

15. What do your customers want from you?

Our customers vote with their pocket books every day and set high expectations for us: They want innovative products that are competitively priced, in stock, and backed up by great customer service, warranties, technical support, and information.

16. What hvacr products and services do you think are most marketable today?

There’s always been strong demand for products that solve real-world problems.

17. What are the most important things leaders do when the economy falters?

I’ve faced a number of challenging times over the last 16 years and learned from all of them. The months after 9/11 were brutal and, of course, the last couple of years have been difficult. In 2008, a lot of companies started cutting back, but we decided not too. We kept advertising, traveling to visit customers, investing in new products, and working hard to get new business. We’ve taken on staff, and we’ve kept our benefits intact. Those were tough decisions, but looking back, it has paid off.

18. Do you have leading indicators that you watch?

We’re one of millions of small businesses. No one is going to bail us out, so we just have to keep going whether the economy is up or down. Rising interest rates and taxes take cash out of our business that would otherwise be invested in the future, so they’re probably our two main areas of concern.

19. How do you approach the daily management challenges that often morph into a management grind?

Having a fine management team makes all the difference for me.

20. Why is the relationship between the manufacturer and the contractor critical?

For almost 45 years, UEi products have helped our customers earn their living by enabling them to serve their customers efficiently and safely. The better we understand how our customers work in the real world, the better our product development process. 


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