John Kahle

Executive Vice President, General Counsel & Secretary | Kimball International, Inc.

John Kahle

When John Kahle became Kimball International’s first in-house counsel in 1987, much of what the company manufactured at its founding had changed. Kahle shares how the company has survived and grown in spite of that—and how his role and business philosophy have been refined over time.

» I learned after a few years in private practice that the legal service business more or less just moves money around, or complies with any rules that are out there. Nothing is being created.

» It seems to me it’s most important to manufacture things, invent things, be in the challenge of a business where on any given day, you’re not really sure if you’ve advanced the cause or not, or made the correct strategic decision, or figured out how all the ambiguities fit together.

» I believe that no country can thrive economically unless they apply intellectual capital to the manufacture of  goods—that’s simply the way it is. So that’s why I think manufacturing is so important to our economy.

» Without a doubt, the biggest change in US business since I started is the flight of manufacturing capital outside the US. There’s no question that has been, to some degree, a devastating thing for manufacturing in the US.

» We’ve experienced it [at Kimball]—not just the fiscal cliff, not just the financial crisis, not just 9/11—the last 10 years have been a heck of a decade in terms of major shocks and changes to business in general, and certainly manufacturing. Outsourcing, offshoring, whatever you want to call it—that’s definitely had a huge impact on us.

» Kimball has maintained a constant entrepreneurial edge: the idea that you don’t really just set up a company and sit back. If you’re not growing, you’re dying. So there was never any fear at Kimball of constantly challenging the status quo.

» We’re also very self-critical and fact-intensive. We didn’t like that the TV-cabinet market went away, but you didn’t have to go to too many consumer-product shows in Las Vegas—when the LED and LCD products started to come out—to say, “All right; they’re not going to need wooden television cabinets anymore.”

» We do talk a lot, in our legal team, about being a generalist. We’re not large enough to have an in-house tax lawyer, intellectual property lawyer, etc. So you’ve got to enjoy doing a lot of things: being comfortable with legal knowledge a mile wide and an inch deep.

» Specialty has become a big factor in the legal profession, and not everybody enjoys doing what I do. Embracing that kind of a philosophy and having a willingness to not get pigeonholed—that’s important to me.

» The variety of this job is what gets me going each day. If you’re comfortable with the inch-deep, mile-wide approach, I think you welcome variety.

» There are probably other jobs like this, but if you wake up assuming x—and by the end of the day, most of the time, experiencing y—some people may find that very disconcerting. But, for me personally, that’s the fun of doing what I do.

» The advice that has stuck with me most applies in private practice as well as the legal area here at Kimball: you don’t let the legal tail wag the dog. Even though it’s humbling to a trained legal person—the fact is that a lot of people do not care what the law is on a certain subject. You’ve got to keep that in mind; you don’t want to write a treatise—you want to solve the problem, and relate it in a way that people who aren’t lawyers can understand.

» I define hard work in terms of intensity, the ability to get some quality of work done in a reasonable amount of time. Hard work can be defined by the difficulty of the problem, the unpleasant problems you face, and the things nobody likes to do.

» I do not believe there is a correlation between the intellectual product you produce and the amount of time it takes. One of the reasons private practice didn’t appeal to me was the hourly rate, the idea that the value of what I did was based on how long it took me to do it.

» Certainly, to me, every experience is a learning opportunity—everything you do right, every mistake you make.

» I don’t know that I’m better adapted to my role than anyone else, but I do try to do other things besides business. I read other things, like novels, and just do a lot of other things that have nothing to do directly with business, with the idea that it’ll expand my viewpoint of things. And that’s a critical skill for being able to solve the big-picture problems you’re confronted with.