by Joseph RADDER
Tenacious is a good word to describe Luiz F. Kahl. He doesnt let go of a problem
until it has been solved.
I guess I was born stubborn, he says. I remember a time when I was 3, maybe 4 years old. My parents had bought a sailor suit for me. I hated it, and I refused to wear it. My father seldom got angry, but this time he lost it. Wear it! he shouted. Needless to say I did.
|Luiz at age 1.||Luiz Kahl at age 3 in his sailor suit.|
That incident, however, was not typical of Luiz Kahls childhood in Brazil. He was
born in Rio de Janeiro, the nations capital, home of the Presidents Palace,
Brazils major Atlantic seaport and vibrant center of South American culture. Kahl
was indeed a beneficiary of his environment. His childhood was a happy one. Most of the
time was spent on the beaches of Rio where he enjoyed swimming, sailing and water skiing.
Summers were spent in their summer home in Petropolis, a historic city in the hills
outside of Rio. Past times were horseback riding and roller skating. In later years, he
brought his love of sailing with him to the United States, where he named his boat
Business. That enabled his secretary to say he was out on Business
and still be telling the truth.
Luiz remembers his kindergarten teacher fondly. She was a French lady who
established one of the first kindergartens in Brazil. Kahl spent 5 years of
elementary school in Brazil.His first three years of junior high school were also in
Brazil, but the balance of his education was in the U.S.
I was determined to get a good education, Kahl told us, and so I
applied to one of the best schools in Rio, a military high school run by the Army. There
were over 3,000 applicants that year for only 500 openings. I was one of the lucky 500,
however, and spent three happy years there.
Before Luiz was able to complete high school, his father was transferred to Washington,
D.C. as the Air Attaché to the Brazilian Embassy.
Even though Luiz had studied English for several years in Brazil and had a strong
grammar background, he found it next to impossible to communicate with his new American
high school teachers and fellow students. It was like a bad dream, Kahl
remembers. Concurrently his parents recognized the problem and hired a tutor for him.
Within a matter of months he had picked up the vernacular.
Young Luiz was very close to his father, who saw the need to compensate for the
isolation his family was feeling in a strange country. Therefore the family did a lot of
things togethertrips to Annapolis, Niagara Falls, Atlantic City and Canada, for
|Luiz (third from left) with very close cousins Vera, Manuel and Helen.||Luiz Kahl, 15 years old, in Washington, D.C.|
|Luiz Kahl at age 13 with his mother Nicia Kahl in Rio.|
After finishing high school in the U.S., Luiz wanted to go to M.I.T. for an engineering
degree. However this was not possible because the family was about to return to Brazil.
His fathers assignment in Washington had been completed and he was getting ready to
return to his work as an Air Force Officer in Brazil.
Luiz went to the Polythecnic School of the Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro and
earned a BS in Mechanical Engineering. His taste of North American life, experienced a few
years earlier, prompted him to return to the States for his Masters Degree at the
University of Houston.
Meanwhile he had met and courted Sonia. They were married in Rio during a summer break
in the Master program.
Their first son was born in Houston and after graduation Luiz landed a job with The Carborundum Company, the only company he would work for over the next 36 years. That summer of 1961, Carborundum sent Luiz to Niagara Falls for training. And so, he took his wife and two-month-old baby to the Falls where they spent three very hot summer months. It was hot as hell, Kahl said. Right then and there we decided wed never go back to Western New York to live.
As luck would have it, Carborundum sent him back to Sao Paulo Brazil to be an Assistant Technical Manager. Unlike Rio, a center of culture, Sao Paulo was an industrial city, the first of several in Luiz Kahls future.
|Sonia and Luiz celebrate their engagement in 1959.|
|The Kahl family in Rio, 1970.||Sonia and Luiz Kahl in New Jersey with their children Luiz Eduardo, Cristiana and Guilherme, their daughter-in-law Janet and grandson Justin.|
Again Lady Luck smiled on Luiz Kahl. His boss at Carborundum, an American, decided to
retire after Luiz had been on the job just 8 months. I was at the right place at the
right time, he says. At age 25 he was appointed Technical Manager and four years
later he was elevated to vice president.
Five years later in 1972, Luiz Kahl became one of the youngest company presidents in
Brazil. This had special significance since American companies with South American
subsidiaries were normally headed by Americans. At age 35 Kahl became the first native
Brazilian to be put in charge of a major subsidiary of an American company in Brazil.
By 1976 Argentina was added to his area of responsibility. And in 1978 Kahls sphere of influence grew to include Venezuela and Colombia. I had the courage of youthful ignorance, Kahl says. I knew everything. I knew a lot more than I know now!
For the next three years Luiz Kahl continued to zoom Carborundums corporate ladder. In 1978 he was made vice president of the corporation in the U.S., continuing to run the South American operations. In 1979 he was elected Group Vice President of the U.S. Corporation, and given responsibility for the Mexican and South African operations of The Carborundum Company. He was very happy in this role and hoped that Kennecotts recent acquisition of Carborundum wouldnt affect his position in the company.
He made regular trips to the home office in Niagara Falls to discuss the companys
international problems and opportunities. Kennecott chairman Tom Barrow knew this and one
day in 1980 he called Luiz in Sao Paulo and asked him to stop at Kennecotts Stamford
Connecticut headquarters on his next trip to the Falls.
One can only imagine what was going through Luiz mind between that phone call and
the minute when he sat down across the desk from Barrow. Ice was going up and down
my spine, Kahl remembers.
His fears were soon realized when Barrow offered him a promotion to a staff job in the
U.S. Kahl had always had line positions and knew he wasnt cut out for a staff job.
Would it be a black mark against me if I turned down this offer?, Kahl asked.
No, but would you be willing to move to the States if the right job became
available?, Barrow asked.
Kahl answered in the affirmative, telling his boss that a senior position in international operations would be something he would like to do.
In December 1980 Barrow called Luiz to Stamford again to tell him the international job
was his. In this meeting Barrow revealed that Luiz would be elected Senior Vice President
for International Operations, and since the Carborundum CEO was approaching retirement,
Luiz Kahl was his candidate to take the company helm.
By December 21 the move to the U.S. was a done deal. The new Senior VP International
job assignment was to be effective January 1, 1981.
Mrs. Kahl remembers it well and often tells the story of how Luiz returned to the Falls
by January3. She came on with their children a week later and took on the task of looking
for a house. Luiz, a workaholic in Mrs. Kahls opinion, said he couldnt take
the time to go house hunting and agreed to buy any house Mrs. Kahl selected. As it turned
out, her choice of a house in Williamsville suited them both just fine and in April 1981
they moved in.
By late 1981 Kahl had been selected president of Carborundum Abrasives worldwide. This
was an impossible job since most of Carborundum profits of the last several years had been
spent on the acquisition of several other businesses, on a very aggressive diversification
strategy, making Carborundum a small conglomerate, typical of corporations at the time.
The Carborundum basic business at the time was really suffering for lack of adequate plant
modernization and technology development in their research and development activity.
Aggravating the situation was the fact that the abrasives industry in the U.S. was
shrinking due to the introduction of new materials like plastics and composites replacing
steel components. The Carborundum abrasives business was going through a severe financial
hemorrhage and extremely tough decisions would have to be made in the very near future.
By this time, Carborundums parent company, Kennecott, had merged with Standard
Oil of Ohio (Sohio). Barrow was now Vice chairman of Sohio, a commanding figure,
66 tall and weighing about 280 pounds. Yet, I had to stand up to him and
tell him we had no choice but to shut down the Niagara Falls grinding wheel plant and sell
off the other U.S. and international abrasives operations.
March 16, 1983 was the worst day of my life, Kahl remembers. That was the
day he announced the shutdown of the plant to 2,000 people who would lose their jobs as a
result. This was even more difficult because there were no other jobs available to these
people. The Niagara Falls area was going through a period of about 20% unemployment in the
wake of Bethlehem Steels major plant closing. Being part of a major corporation
enabled Kahl to pull together a reasonable severance package for the hundreds of
Carborundum employees that lost their jobs, attenuating the impact caused in the Falls
He spent 1984 putting the rest of the company back together and in the subsequent years
focusing the company on being a high technology ceramic company, producing structural and
electronic ceramic products. He continued on as President and Chief Executive until 1996.
In 1990 Luiz was also elected Chief Executive of British Petroleum Advanced Material
companies with several operations on the West Coast and one major facility in the U.K. In
1987 British Petroleum had acquired the minority shareholders of Sohio and the group of
companies (Sohio, Kennecott, Carborundum) became subsidiaries of British Petroleum. One is
reminded of the cartoon of the big fish (BP) swallowing the smaller fish (Sohio),
swallowing the smaller fish (Kennecott) swallowing the smallest fish (Carborundum)...
smallest fish, yes, but indeed a huge world-wide company.
In 1992, British Petroleum decided to divest itself of all businesses not related to
the petroleum industry. This strategic decision led BP to divest its mineral businesses
(Kennecott and other mining companies), its nutrition, coal and industrial businesses.
By 1994 Carborundum was the only non-oil company left and it soon became eminently
clear that BP would sell Carborundum. Luiz then scurried about to put a group together to
attempt a management buy-out. They had only two weeks to raise $400 million. Amazingly,
they did it, but the two-week deadline, which BP refused to relax, didnt allow
enough time to satisfy all the environmental and legal requirements covering all
international operations, and the management buy-out could not be completed. In 1995 BP
closed the sale of Carborundum and Luiz decided to leave the group when the acquisition
was finalized. In February 1996 Luiz F. Kahl was out of a job for the first time in his
When we asked, What did you do then? he was quick to answer...
I took the afternoon off, but then immediately went to work planning the rest of my career. I soon decided to devote a great part of my life to service. I wanted to give something back to the community.
It wasnt long before the community became aware of Kahls desire to serve
and he was elected to several boards, adding to others such as the board of
Childrens Hospital that he belonged to. He soon became vice chairman. He also became
a trustee of the U.B. Foundation, a member of the board and executive committee of the
Greater Buffalo-Niagara Partnership, and in 1996 Governor Pataki appointed him as a
commissioner of the NFTA. In 1998 he was elected chairman. As such he automatically became
a member of the Peace Bridge Authority Board.
Meanwhile Luiz Kahl and his sons had set up an investment group called the Vector Group
LLC. With offices on Sheridan Drive in Williamsville, Vector is primarily an
estate-planning tool for the Kahl family. It does, however, invest in other businesses.
For example, Vector is one of the owners of Dinaire, a manufacturer of casual dining room
The NFTA, of course, occupies a great deal of Kahls time. When asked about the NFTAs recent accomplishments he cites the new airport, an airline passenger increase from a low 2.7 million passengers annually to 3.6 million in 1999, The best since the Peoples Express years. There has also been a 3.3% increase in Metro Bus and Rail ridership, quite remarkable after years of declining use of public transit.
How did you accomplish all of this?, we asked.
I wanted to make the NFTA a people-oriented organization. Previously, NFTA people
had little pride in their work. They resisted innovation and there were frequent
management-union problems. I went in with the philosophy which had worked so well for me
all those years at Carborundum...people are a companys most valuable asset. The NFTA
staff soon learned that somebody cared and would listen. Pride returned, and, generally
speaking, NFTA workers are now a happier and more professional team.
Over the years Luiz F. Kahl has received numerous major awards including high honors
from Canisius College and the University of Buffalo. Recently he was named one of the
Citizens of the Year by the Buffalo News.
The energy and dedication that have always been Luiz Kahls signature qualities continue in his present multi-faceted life. This was evident even on the day of his recent heart attack...
I had been under a lot of pressure, working my head off with Brian Lipke on the Peace Bridge expansion project, he told us. All of a sudden he found himself in the Intensive Care Unit at Sisters Hospital. He had been scheduled to meet Mayor Masiello for a press conference concerning the Peace Bridge and he never made it. Its unheard of to make phone calls from the ICU, but Luiz Kahl did it. I just had to phone Tony (Mayor Masiello) and let him know I couldnt make it.
Looking and feeling fit today, Luiz Kahl seems ready for any people-oriented project that comes his way. Like Elbert Hubbard, his philosophy has been and will continue to be; Develop good people and the rest will follow.
Joseph Radder is a freelance writer.
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