Saturday, October 25, 2014
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Leadership Agenda: Obama visits K'nex, Michael Araten

We mere plebeians rarely get a visit from the President of the United States at our workplaces, but last year, President Obama came to K'nex Brands LP in Hatfield. He was impressed that the company had decided to bring back its manufacturing from China. I'll let Michael Araten, K'nex CEO, pick up the story.

Leadership Agenda: Obama visits K'nex, Michael Araten

President Obama looks at a rollercoaster with from left, K´Nex inventor Joel Glickman,  robotics expert Joao Silver, and chief executive officer Michael Araten during a visit to the K´nex factory in Hatfield in November.
President Obama looks at a rollercoaster with from left, K'Nex inventor Joel Glickman, robotics expert Joao Silver, and chief executive officer Michael Araten during a visit to the K'nex factory in Hatfield in November.

We mere plebeians rarely get a visit from the President of the United States at our workplaces, but last year, President Obama came to K'nex Brands LP in Hatfield. He was impressed that the company had decided to bring back its manufacturing from China. I'll let Michael Araten, K'nex CEO, pick up the story.

"It almost didn’t happen because it started with an email form the White House that I almost deleted because who gets an email from the White House," said Araten, who grew up in Cherry Hill, graduated from Cherry Hill West and had his first job with Zinman Furs.

"Because it had a Washington DC area code, I called. From there it was real -- the Secret Service and the security and they all came ahead of time. It was about a week prep, so we got the call, Tuesday before Thanksgiving last year. We met the advance team Sunday after Thanksgiving and he was scheduled to come that Friday.

"It was an incredible day, an incredible week, our team pulled together and built a flag out of Kn’ex -- 50,000 pieces in two days. We ran the pieces one day and put them together the next. When we were talking to the advance team, they said, `Wouldn’t it be great if there was an American flag out of K'nex?'  We said, `Sure, how big do you want it?' And we just did it.

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"We got a very quick window into the [Washington DC] bubble," Araten told me. "We were told he traveled light and light was five choppers, a hundred staff and a hundred press and security. They said, ‘Imagine what happens when we go internationally. Imagine what happens when we have to stand outside.' 

"So [his] ability to meet actual people is hard and he’s very interested in meeting actual people. Of course, we were able to connect on a personal level, because it just happened that his kids are the identical age to my two kids. He has a girl that's going into 10th grade and another going into 7th grade," Araten said.

I asked Araten what the president was like.

"What was very good is that he was an incredibly good listener," Araten said. "He clearly had been briefed, but beyond that he asked incredibly good questions and paid attention to the answers. He asked a lot about online shopping and Amazon and what impact it was having in our business. It was clear that he had been hearing about impacts it was having on business. It felt like he was very interested in what was happening in the real world.

"He seemed to be remarkably reasonable and personable and I imagine to be at the level of politics, you got to be that  and he was that," Araten said.  "I was impressed with the amount of time he spent with our people. He took pictures with everyone who wanted a picture to be taken, he signed every book, he wrote excuse notes for my kids for school. I know some of that is the politics of being a good politician, but I’ve met a lot of politicians. He seemed remarkably genuine."

I pointed out that the President is handsome. "My wife would agree with you," Araten responded.

Overall, Araten said, the experience was "as awesome. It was surreal. It was the honor of a life time. When you are selected as the example of American manufacturing and reshoring things from China for the whole nation, at a time when a fiscal crisis is going on -- all of that is super cool.

"It was one of those impressions, that for our people, anything is possible," he said. "If we can get the president here, we can do anything. And this was just an example of that. If you can reshore toys from China, you can do it with anything. Someone has to decide that it can be done, and then you do it."

Click here to read my colleague Tom Fitzgerald's story previewing President Obama's visit to the K'nex factory, here to read Araten's leadership lessons for fledgling CEOs and here to read the Leadership Agenda interview with Araten published in Monday's Inquirer.

Update: On Oct. 4, which has been dubbed National Manufacturing Day (Who decides these things?), K'nex subsidiary, the Rodon Group, will host an event at its Hatfield factory. As you may recall, the Rodon Group was the parent company of K'nex -- a plastic component manufacturer founded in the 1950s. In 1988, Joel Glickman, one of the sons of the founder, invented K'nex. He and his brother, Bob, were looking for something fun to make using Rodon's many injection molding machines. Now K'nex is the parent company.

Here is registration info. 

Jane M. Von Bergen Inquirer Staff Writer
About this blog

Jobbing covers the workplace – employment, unemployment, management, unions, legal issues, labor economics, benefits, work-life balance, workforce development, trends and profiles.

Jane M. Von Bergen writes about workplace issues for the Inquirer.

Married to a photographer she met at her college newspaper, Von Bergen has been a reporter since fourth grade, covering education, government, retailing, courts, marketing and business. “I love the specific detail that tells the story,” she says.

Reach Jane M. at jvonbergen@phillynews.com.

Jane M. Von Bergen Inquirer Staff Writer
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