Masters In Manufacturing: Kurt Sundberg of Simplex Control Systems

After 20 plus years in the corporate world, IT professional finds home in the manufacturing industry

ELMHURST, IL – When Kurt Sundberg joined Simplex System Controls in Elmhurst, Illinois 15 years ago, he was surprised and delighted with what he discovered about the industry and himself.

“I didn’t know at the time that I got involved how much I love manufacturing and learning what manufacturers do and the importance of manufacturing to our economy and our country,” he said.

Now, Sundberg says, he is “passionate” about the industry after focusing his energies for 24 years in the major corporations Arthur Andersen and McDonald’s.

While working for those companies, he focused on global business applications, IT functions and supplier relationships. After all that time in the corporate world, he grew restless and eventually decided to discuss his status with his father-in-law, who had gone through a similar career change earlier.

His wife Lianne’s father, Barrett Gleixner, left corporate sales to buy Simplex System Controls, a company that builds electrical and pneumatic control panels, from a friend he had known since childhood. The conversation with his father-in-law led Sundberg to consider a dramatic career shift.

The door was wide open for him to join Simplex.

“Actually I never thought it would be this business. But I was getting to the point in my career that I wanted to try something smaller,” Sundberg said. “He and I met for about three hours. At the end of the meeting he asked me, ‘Well aren’t you going to ask me about Simplex?’ “I said no, I don’t know anything about the business, and I think I’m dangerous with electricity. So I’m not sure I’m the right guy, and he begged to differ.”

Family business reaches second generation

What Simplex System Controls needed wasn’t control panel builders as much as it needed a visionary to take the business forward into a new season, Gleixner told Sundberg. That new season would demand expertise in interfacing with customers and bringing the manufacturing floor up to date in a world connected via the internet – the very skills Sundberg had developed while working in the corporate world.

Today, Sundberg, 61, and his wife, Lianne, own Simplex System Controls. As a teenager, Lianne had helped her father on the shop floor. After attending college and meeting Kurt while they were both working at Arthur Andersen, Lianne and he married, and she chose to back away from her career while raising their three young boys.

At her father’s urging, little by little, Lianne returned to Simplex, and eventually jumped all in when the boys began their junior high school years – just as Kurt joined the family business in 2007. Lianne is now the company’s financial officer and a crucial part of the Simplex team.

Simplex offers specialized services for electrical components

The services Simplex offers are unique.

“We take specifications that have been developed by an engineer of an electrical control panel that needs to be built. They can consist of 100 parts to 300 parts. We do anything from a small, one-push button station to large enclosures with six doors,” Sundberg said.

Simplex’s trained project managers review specifications and quote what the job will cost. When they win the projects, they purchase the required enclosures (usually made of mild steel, stainless steel) and all the other needed electrical components. Control panel builders then follow the specifications and wire the panel. Finally, they perform a full quality control process to make sure the panels are going to work when they get in the field.

Manufacturing is an industry Sundberg says he never expected to be in, but he is glad he made the conversion.

“I never saw this part of America and the importance of manufacturing and what all the members of the TMA do. It’s phenomenal and so fun for me to see,” he said.

Working with Simplex team members that have valuable advanced hands-on skills as well as crucial abilities to follow electrical schematics has worked to deepen Sundberg’s appreciation for those that realize there are other options besides college.

“There are a lot of good jobs out there to build middle class families. They are very important to our economy. Everybody looks at the big business owners, but they should also be looking at the middle part of America that got hollowed out through a lot of overseas hiring,” he said.

That realization led Sundberg into getting involved in the non-profit group, Coalition for a Prosperous America (CPA).

Business challenges stir interest in preserving domestic manufacturing

“As I got exposed to the CPA, I learned more and more about the value manufacturing brings to any country. I wouldn’t say it’s just important to the U.S., but that it’s important to any country to have a manufacturing base.”

However, Sundberg said, there’s another important aspect to a nation having a strong manufacturing industry base: national security.

“There are certain medications or antibiotics that the U.S. doesn’t even have the raw material needed to make them. So many are made in other countries. So if a war broke out with a certain country or countries, we couldn’t even get the antibiotics that we would need to take care of our people.”

Sundberg says he is realistic about the industry’s direction completely changing over the next few years.

“I’m not naïve in thinking everything is going to come back and be made in the United States. If we can get just some of it to come back, it’ll provide better jobs for the middle class. It will re- establish the middle class. And that’s going to make it better for everybody in the United States.”

What the future holds for Simplex

And leading at Simplex Control Systems is exactly the way Sundberg intends to make things better for everyone involved in the business. His vision is for the 52-year-old company to be strong and independent.

“My goal has always been a ‘sustainable Simplex,’” Sundberg said. “That means it can run without me or the other owner, Lianne, my wife. I want the company to have at least another 50 years. And I want to promote family, family values, the middle class, and the importance of manufacturing.”

The decision to move from large corporation thinking to small and midsized business perspective 15 years ago has clearly paid off for Sundberg, his family, the middle class, and US manufacturing.

More about Simplex Control Systems.

Used by permission. From TMA’s July/September 2023 News Bulletin. By Fran Eaton, editor.