Robert and Patricia Kern

$100 million in gifts is the legacy of upbringing and religious beliefs

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Ask just about any accomplished businessperson to describe his or her recipe for success, and you're sure to hear words like "diligence," "persistence," "hard work."

Ask Robert and Patricia Kern, who built Generac Power Systems, one of the largest manufacturers of generators in the world, and the answer may surprise you.

"Perseverance and tenacity aren't anything special," Robert says. "They are the outgrowth of establishing some goals in life. If you have focus, goals and desires, then they're just a natural outcome."

The plainspoken Wisconsinites know a thing or two about the power of setting goals, which they reveal through equal parts humility and wit. Robert, a mechanical engineer by trade, spent seven years building generators for railway passenger cars until the advent of the Boeing 707 jet airliner shuttered that part of the company.

"So we needed something else to do, didn't we?" Robert recollects with a knowing smile.

"Couldn't just sit around," Patricia answers, wryly noting that at the time, they had two young girls and a third on the way.

'A real eye-opener'

The Kerns grew Generac in the 1950s and early 1960s from a two-person operation run out of a garage to a 64,000-square-foot plant. Thanks to the sales platform of Sears, Roebuck, & Co., Robert says, business was booming.

And then the fire struck.

"Telephone rang and Bob said, 'I think you better come over, Pat. Plant is burning down.' So the girls and I got in the car and drove the back roads. And it was horrible."

Although Robert politely dismisses perseverance as nothing special, most businesses wouldn't have survived such a catastrophic event. But the Kerns rallied. And the people around them rallied. Within six days, they shipped a new batch of generators, which were assembled in the parking lot from pieces that weren't in the fire.

No one lost work or a paycheck.

In the years that followed, Generac rebuilt the plant, business flourished, and the Kerns traveled the world in pursuit of business partnerships. But as they reflect on the aftermath of the plant fire — the outpouring of support from employees, neighbors and people they didn't even know — Robert and Patricia are still in awe.

"We got home that night and there was food on the table," Patricia recalls, more than 50 years later. "It was a real eye-opener."

Generosity isn't a choice

The Kerns resist taking credit for the generous bonuses they gave employees after selling Generac in 2006, or for the philanthropic activities they now undertake through the Kern Family Foundation, which promotes engineering talent, K-12 education reform and pastoral leadership.

"It's not anything we contributed at all," Robert explains. "That came from the tradition of our parents and religious beliefs. I don't think we grew up thinking there was any other way of living life."

It was his father, a Baptist minister, who first drove 5-year-old Robert in a Ford Model A from Iowa to Mayo Clinic for specialized care in 1930, after an attempt to remove his tonsils by a local doctor created special concerns. In the early years, it was the Mayo tradition to provide medical support at no charge to clergy and their families, an unanticipated but welcome benefit.

More than 80 years later, the Kerns visit Mayo Clinic as loyal patients and generous benefactors. In 2013, the couple reached $100 million in giving to Mayo Clinic, with more than $87 million supporting the Mayo Clinic Robert D. and Patricia E. Kern Center for the Science of Health Care Delivery, and the remainder dedicated to neuroscience research and education.

Robert says any accolades are undeserved. "We didn't have anything to say about the way we were brought up."

The science of optimism

The engineer in Robert sees parallels between manufacturing a better product and delivering better health care. Consumers demand value, and patients are no different.

"We're living in a very rapidly changing world. It's true in the engineering world, it's true in the manufacturing world, and it's very, very true in the medical field," he says.

But while industry has applied engineering principles to optimize production, health care has lagged behind. Today, high-quality, safe, affordable care is not the norm in the U.S., where each year 100,000 people die of preventable medical errors and health care spending accounts for more than 17 percent of gross domestic product.

Home to leading physicians, systems engineers, social scientists and other nationally recognized experts, the Mayo Clinic Kern Center for the Science of Health Care Delivery seeks to eliminate that variability and share best practices that achieve best value. By employing data analysis, engineering principles, and scientific rigor, the center builds on Mayo's history of proven results translated into patient-centered care.

Well aware of the challenges patients face in getting the care they need, the Kerns, no strangers to setbacks, see a path forward.

"This can be a strong renewal effort" for health care in America, Robert says, believing the center will deliver on its promise of "more effective and efficient health care, bringing the dream of health care for all to reality."

For the Kerns, family and faith may have bred generosity, but for patients, their optimism breeds hope.

May 09, 2014