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Grandfathers Keep This Clock Factory Ticking

Internet: Web site boosts Minnesota firm's sales, but dependable workers keep the orders filled.

May 22, 2000|JASON WOLF | ASSOCIATED PRESS

EXCELSIOR, Minn. — Harry Carlson may be 90, but he knows he's not likely to be forced into retirement soon.

Carlson repairs cuckoo clocks at Kuempel Chime Clockworks and Studio. Even though his colleagues kid him about being cuckoo himself, he's not much older than the rest of them. And he's not worried about his faculties, either.

"I'm not any master clockmaker or anything, but there's lots of things I can do," he said. "You're doing something that you like to do and it's useful."

The average age for employees at Kuempel is 72 1/2. The company has employed grandfathers for decades. Why grandfathers--and the occasional grandmother?

Not, as some have suggested, because they have a lot of time on their hands.

Nor is it because they make clocks named for one of their own--a grandfather immortalized in the popular post-Civil War song "Grandfather's Clock." The song by Henry C. Work was about his grandfather, for whom a clock "bought on the morn of the day that he was born" was "a servant so faithful" but eventually "stopp'd short never to go again, when the old man died."

It's not a gimmick, either. The company's founder, Reuben Kuempel, first hired retired men when he started the business in his family's hardware store in 1916 in Gutenberg, Iowa. They'd hang around his workshop and Kuempel eventually put them to work when his business started growing.

"It's a great use of a tremendous resource," said John Swon, the company's current owner. "I think we give people a real reason to get up in the morning, to get excited about what they do, to interact with people, to work on something that means something."

Kuempel, which sells ready-to-assemble kits and hand-crafted clocks that range from wall clocks for $995 to $7,000 grandfather clocks, doesn't turn its back on modern business practices.

Sales have increased dramatically since the company's Web site (http://www.kuempelchimeclock.com) was launched 4 1/2 years ago. The new technology has kept Swon's staff of senior citizens busy building clocks modeled after the timepieces that were popularized as status symbols in 17th-century Europe.

Gayle Anderson, 68, who started at Kuempel a week after he retired as a manager for Unisys Corp., said the chance to be responsible for something as intricate as a grandfather clock can't be underestimated.

"It's a real luxury to make my own decisions and work on the clock and then see the finished product," he said. "It's something you can be proud of."

Alex Schumacher, 74, a retired dairy farmer, said he enjoys the regular interaction with colleagues and customers.

"It's a very nice place to work, certainly," Schumacher said. "I like the fellowship with the fellows. On top of it all, I like the customers. Clock people are different people, I think."

The grandfathers don't work at Kuempel for the money; new employees start at $7 an hour.

Schedules are flexible and the senior citizen staff works an average of about 20 hours a week. And the elderly employees can go home any time after about 3 p.m. to catch an early bird dinner, go fishing or visit with friends and family.

Carlson is happy at Kuempel and has no intention of being replaced by someone younger.

"Who knows how long I can stay? I'm fairly healthy," Carlson said. "I'll keep going as long as I can, as long as they want me to show up, if they let me."

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