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March 23, 2009 | last updated January 24, 2012 3:05 pm

Ken Priest is Mainebiz's 2009 large company Business Leader of the Year | Ken Priest's focus on the cutting edge has kept his 50-year-old family business thriving

Photo/David A. Rodgers
Photo/David A. Rodgers
Ken Priest, president and CEO of Kenway Corp., talks to a worker assembling a boat for its subsidiary, Maritime Marine. Boatbuilding was once Kenway's mainstay, but now makes up only 30% of its revenues.

VIEW: See more Ken Priest and Kenway Corp.

Ken Priest

Age: 64
Favorite place outside of work:
To really get away from work we go to the Caribbean
Leadership icon:
Probably my dad. He taught me the most important thing is quality, integrity, honesty; those are just some of the basics.
Maine's biggest challenge:
Its remote location
Maine's biggest opportunity:
Collaborating with University of Maine on research and product development
Best business advice: "Work hard."

Kenway Corp.

President/CEO: Ken Priest II
Founded: 1947
Founder: Ken Priest Sr.
Employees: 72 full-time
Products: Composite fiberglass industrial parts and recreational boats
2008 revenue: $6.5 million
Subsidiaries: Maritime Marine LLC
Contact: 622-6229
www.kenway.com

The Maine state motor carrier inspector is lingering in Ken Priest's front office. He's already spent 20 minutes giving Priest the rundown of what he can do and cannot — heavy on the cannot — when transporting the resin Priest's company, Kenway Corp., uses to make its composite boats and industrial parts. Priest has to make sure all the proper paperwork is filled out, monitor the hours of service of his drivers, verify the type of chemical being transported is recorded in the driver's cab. Priest listens carefully, arms across his chest, his lanky 6-foot frame looming over the blond inspector. Working with state regulators like this one is just part of leading the company Priest's father started more than 50 years ago.

Watch an audio slideshow on Ken Priest

"You have one of those emergency guidebooks in here?" the inspector asks of Priest's two female assistants, who sit at adjacent desks in the brightly lit room that doubles as the lobby to the Kenway manufacturing facility here on the outskirts of Augusta. One of the assistants lifts her head to scan the desk around her computer.

"I've seen one," says Priest, with his thick Maine drawl.

"We do," says the assistant. "It's around here somewhere."

The inspector promises to drop another guidebook by. It's important to have one of those, he says cheerily, in case there's an accident and emergency technicians need to know what kind chemical exposure someone might be dying of.

"Yep," says Priest, nodding calmly. He's heard the routine before. "Yep."

The compound in question is called styrene, and making sure it doesn't leak all over the highway or make someone sick is a relatively new challenge for this third-generation family business launched in 1947 as a wooden boat maker. Styrene is a colorless liquid used in plastics and rubber, and at Kenway Corp. it's part of every product the company makes. Even at safe levels, the acrid smell of the liquid permeates the air inside the 40,000-square-foot facility, making a walk around it the olfactory equivalent of touring the inside of a permanent marker. The smell is a shock to a visitor's system, but composite innovations like styrene are key to the company's future.

New markets, new services, new facility

Kenway Corp.'s future is, naturally, built on past successes, and 2008 was filled with them. The company developed unique technology to prevent warping of composite parts during manufacturing, and Priest says this technology will be bankable right away as the company moves into new markets like transportation infrastructure and wind power turbines. In January of this year, in a press release announcing that Kenway Corp. has won its 2009 "Award for Composites Excellence" for the anti-warping technology, the American Composites Manufacturing Association said, "As a result of this technology, Kenway was able to manufacture a part which exceeded the customer's technical specifications while also dramatically reducing manufacturing costs, thereby making the company far more competitive in the marketplace." That national award arrives on the heels of a prominent local accolade — in June, Kenway Corp. was awarded "Manufacturer of the Year" by the Maine Manufacturing Extension Partnership, for, as Maine MEP President Rod Rodrigue said, "continually reinventing themselves." Kenway also last year streamlined its existing efforts, consolidating manufacturing into its facility in Augusta, spending $2 million to upgrade that building and expand it by 20,000 square feet, and hiring 20 new workers.

Observers say much of Kenway's success is owed to its Kenway Corp. CEO and President Ken Priest II, whose father, Ken Priest Sr., started the company.

Under Priest II, a University of Maine engineering graduate who joined the company as vice president in 1977, the company has proven agility equals success. Taking a cue from his father, who first diversified the company in the 1960s when he added industrial clients to the boatbuilding mix, Priest's career has been defined by a willingness to try new markets and abandon aging ones. Priest became Kenway's president in 1989 and immediately set about shifting the company's focus from making parts almost exclusively for the struggling pulp and paper industry, which at the time provided 85% of the company's revenue, and into other industrial areas like aquaculture, wastewater treatment and energy. Expanding the company's reliance on industrial clients such as power plants has allowed it to mitigate the effects of what Priest says would otherwise have been a devastating bottom-line blow this year from the failing recreational boat retail industry. In January, the company laid off six people from its boat-building branch, but would have had to lay off at least 10 more, Priest says, if it hadn't been able to place those workers in the industrial arm of the company.

"To me, the company is the poster child of what a Maine company should be," says Steve Von Vogt, executive director of the Maine Composites Alliance. Von Vogt has collaborated with Priest on composites projects on and off over the last decade, and worked with him about a decade ago to revive MCA. "They started out as a boat builder in the 1940s and recognized other opportunities as they came along. Ken is a first-class leader and a visionary. It's not very often that you meet someone these days where you do business on a handshake, but I do business on a handshake with him."

Priest's knack for chasing down opportunities in composites has sometimes led him astray — in 2005, the company's sales team couldn't figure out how to break into the ATM manufacturing market, and a $200,000 push last year to convince the Navy to buy composite rudders rather than the traditional steel has yet to bear fruit. But more often than not, Priest's ingenuity has strengthened Kenway. Annual revenue has more than doubled since Priest's first effort to diversify Kenway's client base — from around $2.5 million in 1995 to $6.5 million in 2008, with a 10.5% profit last year — and the number of employees has grown from around 30 to 72. In February, Kenway Corp. closed its Palermo and Vassalboro facilities and consolidated in Augusta. Today, boatbuilding makes up 30% of the company's revenue, and the remainder comes from sales of industrial parts.

Priest, a 64-year-old recreational sailor with a wind-burned face and the careful, straightforward demeanor of a high school science teacher, wanders among a dozen gleaming white boat skeletons in Kenway's facility, past two men in jeans and T-shirts aiming a popping and hissing glue gun at a boat deck. Across the room, the hum of belt sanders and buzz saws meeting composite pipes adds to the cacophony of productivity. The recreational boat industry's in real trouble, Priest says over the din. He's never seen a recession like this one. The opportunity to gain market share is there, especially in boat building where some of Kenway's competitors have gone under, but there's the challenge of maintaining quality while cutting costs. Priest says he held a strategy meeting with his managers that morning to decide which clients to pursue during the downturn. Right now, the man with the plan has a couple — wind power and culverts. Priest sees opportunity in offshore wind energy, and wants Kenway to build the base of the turbines, or apply its anti-warping technology to the blades. And the anti-warping technology could be used to shore up aging concrete.

"The state of Maine [Department of Transportation] has identified just over 300 culverts that need repair," says Priest. "So, to us, that's a lot of work out there. We see that as a brand new market that's out there, right here in Maine. Plus, if we're successful in Maine then there's all the other states that have these issues."

Sara Donnelly, Mainebiz managing editor, can be reached at sdonnelly@mainebiz.biz.

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