KMA Design & Construction

Lucy & Chuck


Photos by Kris Kathmann

Imagine Lucy Van Pelt of Peanuts marrying Charlie Brown and the two becoming U.S. Navy captains, then constructing and remodeling homes. In a Sunday cartoon strip this never would happen. But in this story, in Connect Business Magazine, “Lucy” is Pauline Marlinski, 53, and “Charlie” is Chuck Klimmek, 56, married co-owners of KMA Design & Construction in Gaylord, Minn.

MEET LUCY – Pauline grew up Polish Catholic in ethnic Buffalo, New York, shepherding younger siblings through snowdrifts and the rigors of parochial school. She was the oldest and leader of eight kids. Her steelworker dad made just enough dough while mom stayed home raising the growing brood. “As the oldest, I had to scrub floors and clean house by the age of 10 to help my mother,” said Pauline from her Gaylord office on a rainy, cold day. “We had lots of fun, though. My mom’s sister had ten kids and I was the oldest child of both families. So there was a whole bunch of them and a whole bunch of us getting together for birthdays and holidays.”

Such a morass of chaotic children at times needed bossing around and Pauline was a natural doing it. “When I look back and wonder how I got to be where I am today,” she was saying, “I attribute it to having to be bossy from being the oldest of so many kids. I naturally took charge. Today, because of my family background, I can’t help being bossy.”

Mom and Dad Marlinski placed a high value on education and made their children do their homework. Pauline carried this work ethic and a parochial education on to Canisius College, a western New York Jesuit school, where she graduated in four years. “I majored in psychology,” she said of a field of interest also shared with Lucy Van Pelt, who has been known to sell her psychological advice for five cents. “But I didn’t want to continue on in psychology, so for almost two years I was a secretary in the college language department. Being secretary for 13 professors wasn’t appealing.”

So what would the natural-born leader do? After interviewing with the Air Force, Army and Navy, she chose the latter because it had the most non-nursing career paths open to women. The Navy also has a career option in which four-year college graduates can enter its Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Newport, Rhode Island, for 18 weeks of intensive officer training. OCS is one way of three to become a naval officer; the Naval Academy is another, where potential officers can earn an undergraduate degree and a commission. The third route is ROTC, in which a potential officer can take “military” classes while attending any of a number of undergraduate schools.

“OCS was more of a cram course,” said Pauline of her option. “They take people having been through college and teach them the specifics of navigation, operations, and communications. As an officer, you need to know how to communicate to others in all those areas.” In 1974, the Navy began noticing her leadership potential: she was named company commander at 24 for the all-female Foxtrot Company at OCS.

After OCS, she was picked for Communications School and an additional four weeks of training as a Communications Officer. Beyond that, she had 20 weeks of training as an Equal Opportunity Program Specialist and Navy Race Relations Instructor in Florida and Tennessee. Other classmates went to such places as Destroyer School, which was for officers desiring to command ships, or to a school for intelligence officers, such as one chosen by classmate Ann Rondeau, later an admiral.

MEET CHARLIE BROWN – Like his cartoon namesake, “Chuck” Klimmek grew up in love with baseball, though he played with a bit more swagger. He graduated from Gaylord High School in 1965 with varsity letters in baseball, basketball, football and track. “I was a jock,” he said unashamedly. “Though I liked all sports, basketball was my favorite and I was team captain. The school in Gaylord still has a couple of our trophies.” His stint as basketball team captain helped develop leadership skills.

Then he went off to Dartmouth College to major in engineering and in his senior year drew a low No. 33 in the military draft lottery. “Though I looked into the National Guard, I ended up choosing the Navy primarily because I didn’t want to be drafted into the Army,” Chuck said. “I also was interested in the Navy’s Officer Candidate School.”

Immediately after graduating and before entering OCS he worked four months as an engineer with the facilities department of Eli Lilly in Indianapolis. The pharmaceutical giant hired him with the hope he’d rejoin them after his military service. That never happened. Klimmek instead chose a career in the Navy, where he could work as an officer in his chosen profession. At OCS—the school Pauline would attend only a few years later—Chuck was in the same company as David Eisenhower, son of the U.S. president.

“The Navy Civil Engineer Corps gives you responsibility right off the bat, forcing you to become a leader,” Chuck said. “After all my schooling—Officer Candidate School, a speciality school in the Civil Engineer Corps, and another specialty school in the Seabees—my first job was in the middle of the Indian Ocean managing 30 Seabees for nine months while building a half-million-dollar structure. I was only 23.”

He stayed with his Seabee battalion three years before moving on to Navy-paid graduate school at the Univ. of Colorado. He then had an assignment in 1976-77 with the Defense Nuclear Agency before being assigned to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

In 1975, Pauline began her four years in Hawaii as Human Resources Officer administering alcohol rehabilitation and race relations programs at Wahiawa, one of eight naval bases on Oahu. Within a year, the Navy named her the Port Services Officer at Pearl Harbor, making her the first woman ever to hold that position.

Chuck came to Hawaii two years later in 1977 to be the Public Works Officer at Pearl Harbor, managing a $7.5 million annual budget. He was in charge of everything from mowing lawns to maintaining piers, and managed a staff of 15 including two engineers and a budget analyst.

“We met at a beach party,” said Pauline. “I was on a date there with the person Chuck was scheduled to relieve as Public Works Officer. Chuck and I ended up playing volleyball across the net from each other.”

They worked in different departments under the same command two years until 1979 when for a brief period Pauline worked directly for Chuck. They continued seeing each other after he left the Navy that year and the next while he was in Gaylord designing and building his first home, one for his widowed mother. In 1981 and while departing the San Diego airport after a visit, Chuck slipped a ring onto Pauline’s finger. The next year, she left active duty, they married, they both changed careers to home construction and she moved to Minnesota. It was a wild ride.

For Pauline, Gaylord was a culture shock. “It took me two years to adjust,” she said. “For instance, you had to keep a list of everything you couldn’t find in town and then go on these long shopping trips to Burnsville. And everyone seemed to be related to everybody else.”

After marrying, the two immediately began a construction company, pledging to quit in five years if the work proved unprofitable. Pauline kept her birth name, Marlinski, and the two named their company Klimmek Marlinski Associates, later changed to KMA Design & Construction. Their headquarters building in time would be the one that formerly housed Chuck’s father’s old Ford implement dealership.

“I learned construction right from Chuck and the subcontractors,” said Pauline. “When we first started, Chuck and I did the energy-related work ourselves, including all the insulating, sealing, and caulking.” He had been hooked on the importance of energy efficiency while waiting in long gas lines in the ‘70s. Initially they dabbled in “passive solar” energy, but soon learned it didn’t work well in cloudy Minnesota. So they switched to constructing “super-insulated” homes.

In their fifth year, just as they were reevaluating their five-year pledge, a customer at the last minute decided to halt construction on a planned $400,000 home, causing KMA nearly to fold. The owner would decide to build the next year. To fill that summer’s income and work void, they expanded their marketing to a Minneapolis home show. Business has only increased since.

Navy skills transferred well. Said Pauline: “The Navy put me in charge, yet in certain situations I didn’t know everything about the work of the people under me. Homebuilding is similar. I’m not a specialist in carpentry or heating; but as a construction manager I know enough to know when I’m getting a line of baloney. Like the Navy, I have to identify problems and talk intelligently.”

Said Chuck, “In the Navy you have give-and-take discussion, but once the Captain says go, you go. It’s done and you don’t argue. It’s the same with homebuilding. It’s our job to take the lead, incorporate input from everyone else and go forward united as a team.”

Chuck saw another, not-so-good parallel between their homebuilding business and Pauline’s first days as Port Services Officer at Pearl Harbor. “Early on, subcontractors went over Pauline’s head or were hesitant to ask her questions because they weren’t sure she knew what she was doing. Often they hesitated asking her anything until she could prove she knew what she was talking about.”

So what happens when the two disagree? “Sometimes we argue and probably embarrass our employees,” said Chuck. “But then it ends, like in the Navy. In fact, we were arguing this morning about whether there should be a fan or a hanging chandelier in a particular home we’re building.”

Pauline pointed to her husband. “However, he’s the boss of KMA. Someone has to have final say.”

Today, their sales are equally divided between building new homes usually in the $300,000-400,000 range and constructing renovations or additions. Sometimes they have five projects under construction, with an equal number on the drawing boards; other times they’re scratching their heads for new business. Both are typical in their rollercoaster industry. Their business peaked in 2002 at $2.5 million in construction, far more than they dreamed of in 1982. “We’re at the point now where I don’t worry if the phone isn’t ringing because it always does,” said Chuck. “We’ve been around long enough, and most of our business comes from word of mouth.”

And now Pauline and Chuck can more fully devote their resources to managing customer projects: Pauline ended her 20-year career in the Navy Reserve in 1995 and Chuck just finished his 30-year stint in 2002.

“Our job duties do overlap somewhat,” explained Pauline. “I manage accounting and bookkeeping. Chuck manages the engineering and job site. We both design—and both manage construction, though Chuck does more. Joe Kuphal is our drafter, site supervisor and insulator.”

So does she mind being painted as Lucy Van Pelt? “I read Peanuts growing up and identified with her,” said Pauline. “At times she tries to micromanage everything. Like her, I have to get things done, whether it’s through crisis management or just taking care of issues as they arise.”

Famous Alumi Abound

While in Officer Candidate School only three months, I was chosen company commander because I was bossy and could take charge. After 18 years I made Captain before retiring. Debbie Gernes, the battalion commander over me, was also an oldest child. She later would become the first female commanding officer of a deep draft vessel, the U.S.S. Cape Cod. The next level above Debbie was regimental commander and that was Ann Rondeau, who is currently an admiral on active duty.—Pauline Marlinski

Deutschland Uber Albuquerque

In 1976-77, I had a tour in Albuquerque, New Mexico, working at a joint command for the Defense Nuclear Agency where we did high-explosive testing. The nuclear ban was on then. We couldn’t set off nuclear devices in the atmosphere, so we simulated them with large piles of TNT over a two-mile test bed. Branches of the military and friendly allies asked us to perform various experiments for them. My job was in support construction. Once, West Germany wanted us to build these cute, miniature German-looking houses using German-type construction. They wanted to see what nuclear shock waves would do to their homes. So I was building German homes in New Mexico—the first homes I’d ever built. —Chuck Klimmek

Knocking Down Walls

Before we met, Chuck had seen my picture in the local newspapers in Hawaii as the first female Port Services Officer at Pearl Harbor Naval Station. The position had been exclusively male, filled usually by a more senior officer. In that position, I had to learn how to be treated with respect and cut through the sexual tension. I was going on board meeting Commanding Officers senior to me, having to assure them that I could handle the job and take care of their problems. I didn’t want them going over my head to my boss, which was what many threatened. The Commanding Officer of the naval station hired me to prove that a woman could do the job. So he backed me 100 percent all the way up and down the chain of command. —Pauline Marlinski

The Lieutenant Governor’s “Mansion”

We built the lieutenant governor a new home near Lafayette in Nicollet County. The Molnaus wanted to move here because they felt the suburbs were encroaching on their Chaska home. We began working with them even before Carol was a candidate. She stayed in St. Paul during construction, which meant Steve, her husband, was our main contact. They were down-to-earth and it was nice working with decisive people very open to advice. As farmers, they are used to relying on experts in various fields, such as in veterinary medicine. They built a spacious, contemporary rambler that has a welcoming feel. —Pauline Marlinski

Category 1 Isn’t A Tornado

KMA Design & Construction specializes in “Category 1 construction.” “It’s an outdated term,” said Chuck, “but right now there isn’t a better one. Technically, the 2001 state energy code says every builder is supposed to be building in the same energy-efficient way we do. But the industry had this code dumped on them quickly and they often don’t.”

The State of Minnesota considers Chuck an energy expert. He has been a licensed instructor for the Minn. Dept. of Commerce, teaching courses for builders applying for or renewing licenses. And he was one of only 15—and the only southern Minnesotan—appointed to a task force under Gov. Ventura to reexamine the energy code and recommend improvements.

“When you build a ‘tight’ house now you have to worry about combustion appliances, making sure they exhaust properly,” said Chuck. “If something burns there has to be oxygen or air coming into the house to replace the air used up. There has to be some ventilation systems. It’s a complex code and the average builder doesn’t understand it.” The energy code currently is under review. Building inspectors and builders don’t like it and often don’t enforce it. For instance, inspectors in New Ulm, Waseca or Fairmont may have one interpretation and those in Mankato, St. Peter and Le Sueur another. Though the state building code division writes and distributes the code, it has no real power of enforcement.

Chuck said, “In fact, in large parts of the state the code isn’t enforced at all. State law says a builder must build to code. But in Sibley County, for instance, for whatever reason, there is no building inspector to check your work. In these areas builders are on the honor system.”

© 2004 Connect Business Magazine. All Rights Reserved.

Daniel Vance

Daniel Vance

A former Editor of Connect Business Magazine

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