Sandy Keathley and Ben Kinnebrew of Bellingham were not looking to open K&K Industries in 2004. The small business found them.
Keathley was working as an accountant at Western Washington University in the college of education. Her husband was working for a Canadian firm that had a metal fabrication shop in Ferndale, north of Bellingham.
It offered the only laser metal cutting between Vancouver, B.C. and Seattle. When the Canadians closed the shop and moved the operation across the border, Keathley and Kinnebrew decided to buy a metal-cutting machine.
“It didn’t happen overnight,” said Keathley. “Between March and September of 2004 we operated out of our house. Ben would job-out the work, taking orders for laser cutting to be done in Seattle,” she said.
Keathley was keeping the books. At the same time she was meeting with a Small Business Development Center (SBDC) counselor at Western Washington University, which hosts an office for the Washington Small Business Development Center network.
The SBDC office in Bellingham is part of the WSBDC network of 34 advisers, counseling at 24 different locations. The service is partially funded by the SBA and Washington State University, along with other public and private entities throughout the state, and offers free, confidential, one-on-one business advising and classroom training.
Coincidentally, Keathley had worked for the SBDC office as a graduate student while finishing her MBA. She helped others with their businessplans; now she was working on her own plan that would justify buying a half-million-dollar piece of equipment with an SBA-guaranteed loan through a local bank.
“One of the first things I did was call the SBDC and set up monthly meetings,” Keathley said.
Despite her own knowledge and background, having the assistance of the SBDC was reassuring.
“I wasn’t used to such big numbers,” she said, or the notion that everything the couple had worked for up to that point was on the line – including their house, pledged as security for the loan.
“It was a leap of faith,” she said, although a calculated one.
“Ben and I are a good combination,” Keathley said of her husband for 23 years.
“He knows metals,” having started work as a welder when he was 19, eventually becoming general manager of the Canadian operations in both Richmond B.C. and the Ferndale Washington operation that was shutdown.
“I had an MBA, worked at the SBDC office and knew accounting.”
Plus, she had entrepreneurialism in her blood: in the mid-1950s, her father built a lodge in Alaska near Anchorage at Portage Glacier. Portage Glacier Lodge was built with financing from the SBA, making her a second-generation SBA borrower.
Everyone worked at the family-owned and operated business, serving busloads of tourists on the way to view the glaciers.
“As an eight-year-old youngster, I would stand at the door so long greeting people and waiting tables, my feet would hurt” at the end of the day, she said.
“At the time I really resented it, because my friends would go to summer camp and I would be waiting tables. But that experience served me so well, learning about customer service and employees. Between that and the SBDC, I became the boss I had always wanted.”
The business kept growing, and by 2007 the couple knew they needed more space. At first they planned to build a new building, but after investing a year and a half and $150,000 on plans, surveys and plat/application costs, they gave up on building; as the permitting process was too long and cumbersome.
But as it had many times before, serendipity struck again for K&K Industries and the couple found “the perfect building.” She said when she saw it, it reminded her of the house her dad built in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright.
It turned out the building’s architect went to the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. The business was on a roll.
The new facility was filled with new equipment, also financed by the SBA through a 504 equipment loan. K&K’s financial plan, put together by one of the best accountants around – Keathley – projected continued strong growth for the business.
To celebrate the business expansion, an open house was scheduled. About two weeks before the open house, the financial crisis of September 2008 occurred, followed by the recession.
All the best planning could not have prepared the couple for what lay ahead. Keathley said she and Kinnebrew managed the crisis without laying off a single employee as well as retaining all their benefits, although they had to cut back on hours and put their own money and savings into the business to meet payroll.
Their SBA lender at the time, Elizabeth Rusnak, didn’t panic. Rusnak, who manages the SBA’s 504 loan programs for Northwest Business Development Association for Whatcom County, said Keathley and Kinnebrew “are amazing to work with.
Ben knows the business inside out, and Sandy – she has been a bionic financial manager. When I received a financial statement from her, I knew I could count on it.”
An SBA 504 loan, in coordination with a private commercial loan, offers long-term fixed financing for commercial property purchase or construction, and for equipment financing. Rusnak said the SBA program for equipment purchase, as it was used for K&K Industries, should be a first consideration for other small business owners needing to buy expensive equipment.
“Not many people know they can buy through the SBA,” she said. “They think they have to lease, and our rates are going tobe more competitive.”
With the help of the SBA-backed financing in 2004 and the later 504 loan, the firm has manufactured some remarkable products, including all the cut aluminum for the three new Washington state ferries including The Chetzemoka, The Salish , and The Kennewick.
“When you see all the different things we do and all the customers we have, it’s pretty amazing,” she said.
“It is important to stay focused: we do not export, we sell to companies that export. We don’t do government contracts, but our customers do. We just cut and bend metal,” she said, adding there have been opportunities to add welding and powder coating to their services, but they stuck with what they do.
K&K’s success and growth in the metal fabrication market did not go without notice. In June 2012, Keathley and Kinnebrew sold their business to NaiMor, Inc.
Keathley said the deal means they will not have to work ever again if they don’t want to. But it was vital that their employees were taken care of too, and the deal guaranteed them their same job at the same pay with the same benefits for six months if they wanted to stay.
She said there were 24 employees at the time of the sale, up from 3.5 "plus Ben, and me working half-time” when the business opened eight years earlier.
“This is testament to (the idea that) everything you do in life leads you to where you are,” she said. Keathley reflected upon the couples' life and the opportunities, challenges and coincidences along the way, including the chance meeting Keathley and Kinnebrew had in a calculus class at Whatcom Community College more than two decades ago that lead to marriage and a business partnership.
“It’s been an amazing ride,” she said.
As far as what’s next, Keathley said the couple will take some time to travel, visit family, and sort it out. And maybe do some gardening.
She won’t rule out another small business, but doesn’t have any plans for that.
“You never know,” she said, “you might see me back at the SBDC at Western Washington University” helping others with their businesses, sharing first-hand knowledge about how to build a successful small business.