Robert D. Kern, a mechanical engineer who in the mid-1950s started a company in a garage making portable backup power generators and then transformed the business into an industry leader known as Generac, selling it in 2006 for an estimated $1 billion, died on Nov. 8 in Waukesha, Wis. He was 96.
The company announced his death.
With the sale of Generac Power Systems, Mr. Kern shared some of the proceeds with employees, some receiving as much as $40,000 each. And in the years afterward, he and his wife, Patricia Kern, who had helped him found the company, became prominent philanthropists.
“The company is way beyond anything we dreamed about,” Mr. Kern said in an interview with the Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois, his alma mater. “My vision was incredibly small compared to what it became, but tenacity is what it is all about.”
He and his wife and a few investors started the business after the rise of the airline industry had cost Mr. Kern his job making motors for railroad cars. Generac became a leading developer, manufacturer and marketer of portable and backup electric generators for homes and industry.
Today, Generac, based in Waukesha, about 18 miles west of Milwaukee, accounts for roughly 75 percent of standby home generator sales in the United States.
The Kern Family Foundation has donated upward of $100 million to the Mayo Clinic, where Mr. Kern was treated as a child, and helped establish Project Lead the Way, a science and math curriculum for kindergarten through high school. It has also donated to the Milwaukee School of Engineering; Marquette University’s College of Engineering; and the Medical College of Wisconsin, to which the foundation has given, or pledged to give, about $100 million.
Robert Daniel Kern was born in 1925 in Osage, Iowa, to the Rev. John D. Kern, a Baptist minister, and Irene (McPike) Kern, a homemaker.
He received a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering in 1947 from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he met his future wife, Patricia Exter.
Mr. Kern was hired by the Waukesha Motor Company to design generators for combustion engines to be used on railway passenger cars. With the growth of the jet airline industry, rail travel in the United States plummeted, and Mr. Kern’s division was eliminated.
But remaining passionate about internal combustion engines, he decided to adapt developing technologies in generators for potential new markets and establish his own company to reach them.
In 1954, with his wife as the new company’s bookkeeper, he began making portable generators for recreational vehicles and for farmers and construction crews out of a garage in the village of Wales, Wis., about 28 miles west of Milwaukee. The business, originally called Electric Controls Inc., marketed the gear through Sears under the Craftsman brand. It became Generac in 1959, combining the word generation with AC.
“If you are only working to solve problems you can accomplish in your lifetime,” Mr. Kern said, “you are solving problems that are too small.”
Generac also developed an affordable backup generator for home emergencies and then expanded the business to produce permanent emergency generators for the commercial and industrial markets.
In 1967, the Generac factory in Waukesha burned to the ground, but with help from the local community, production resumed in six days later, and the plant was rebuilt in seven weeks, without layoffs.
“A company is not defined by its bricks and mortar,” Mr. Kern once said. “It is defined by its people.”
When Mr. Kern retired in 2006, at 81, Generac was the world’s largest producer of portable and standby generators, employing 2,000 people taking in revenues topping $700 million.
It was bought that August by the private equity firm CCMP Capital Advisors, a spinoff of J.P. Morgan Chase.
Since then the company, with five manufacturing plants in Wisconsin, has profited handsomely from a national trend toward emergency preparedness in the wake of extreme weather and natural disasters like the superstorm Sandy in New York and New Jersey in 2012, when demand for portable generators spiked.
Generac’s “dominance of the market and the growing threat posed by increasingly erratic weather have turned it into a Wall Street darling,” The New York Times reported in 2021.
Mr. Kern’s wife died in 2017. He is survived by three daughters; two sisters; grandchildren and great-grandchildren.