Every parent hopes to see their children become more successful than they have been, and the Melka family is no exception. Born and raised in the Midwest, it was there, at an early stage in his life, that Brian Melka learned good work ethics.
His father worked for the railroad for his entire career of 30 years. His mother had a number of positions while the kids were growing up, but she ultimately retired as a high school principal’s assistant. It was probably a good thing for him that the kids were no longer in high school by the time Mom got there.
Melka started working at the age of 14. For most of his high school years, he worked for the local A&W, where he was a cook, along with his other chores. It was not unusual for him to put in 40 hours each week at his job, while still attending high school. But Melka had other jobs as well—he worked at a tire shop, and at one time, he had a job delivering mattresses.
Upon graduation from high school, Melka attended the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, for two years before transferring to the University of Wisconsin, in Madison. “In college, one of my favorite jobs was working for a tree care company, where I stayed for two years,” he said. “I would climb trees to trim and prune them; I also ran some equipment, like chippers and stump grinders. It was actually one of the best jobs I had, up to that time.” He graduated with a degree in finance and while working, immediately enrolled in night school at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, where he received his MBA.
Needing to earn some money the summer before his senior year at college, Melka took a full-time position with the Parker Pen Company.
Working in the human resources department, he gained a good working knowledge of hiring people, learning about employee benefits, mediation, etc.
Two years later, Melka was recruited to join Greenlee Electric, a division of Textron. He spent 13 years with Textron, working in four different businesses, and several others on assignment. “Every step I took, whether it was in operations or finance, or IT, I learned a lot,” said Melka. “Ultimately, marketing is where I spent the last six years, which gave me an opportunity to learn every step of the way. In that respect, because I was able to move around to a variety of jobs in the company, it was a fantastic company to work for.”
Working for a large company that has various locations around the country, one ends up moving around. Although it’s good for a person’s career, it wreaks havoc with family. Melka ended his stint with Textron in Charlotte, North Carolina.
He was offered a position with Rexnord in Milwaukee, and he seized the opportunity to move back to Wisconsin. “My three-and-a-half-year stint with Rexnord was a great experience, but I wanted the challenge of running a bigger business,” he said.
“When I got a call from Kohler, my first reaction was that I wanted to be part of a strong company with a strong brand presence. That company fit all the criteria I was looking for,” he continued. “I like the industrial commercial side of business, it was an industry I had been in before, and was local enough that I didn’t have to move my family again.”
In October 2013, Melka joined the Kohler Company as vice president of Engines Americas. Kohler was then going through a transition. There was a gap in the gasoline and engine business, and under Tom Cromwell’s leadership, they were adding more structure. “My responsibility was for sales, marketing, engineering and finance,” said Melka. In the summer of 2014, when Cromwell was promoted to president for the power group, Melka was promoted to president of Kohler Engines.
When asked about the future, Melka replied, “I see a business, specifically in the lawn or turf area, that will continue to grow. I see mowers that will be going faster, so we need to focus on fuel efficiency and power density. How can I get the job done well, how do I get it done faster, and how do I get it done less expensively? These are questions many landscape contractors ask.”
“I believe that’s the innovation and technology we want to continue to bring,” he added. Reducing the carbon footprint is another concern for Kohler. They have a lot of initiatives around getting to a zero footprint. The 824, a new engine that was introduced last fall, is more powerful with a larger displacement, but actually uses less fuel than Kohler’s Command engine. Melka also sees hybrids in the company’s future, and battery-powered engines somewhere down the road.
He and his wife Mary have three boys: Jacob, 13, Joey, 9, and Ryan, 6. What do they do in their offtime? “My wife comes from a large family, so spending time with her family and my family is a big part of it. With three boys who are active, who enjoy the outdoors— camping, hiking and being by a lake—that keeps us pretty busy.”
Melka has some big shoes to fill, and he has set the bar high. “I believe we have to earn our stripes every day,” he said.
At the age of 41, Brian Melka has achieved successes that most people don’t achieve in a lifetime. He is a bright, talented man, but more importantly, he is compassionate and shows concern for the people he surrounds himself with.
It seems that, with the Kohler Company’s philosophy and Melka’s abilities and concerns, this was a match made in heaven.