Larson Boats a little emptier without Kuebelbeck at the helm

Retirement called and he answered 

By Tina SnellStaff Writer

As of Oct. 7, Al Kuebelbeck, most recently the president of Larson Boats in Little Falls, officially retired, for good.

With 44 years in the boating industry, he said life will be just a bit different than what’s he’s used to.

“Mary and I will be getting used to a more relaxed mode,” said Kuebelbeck. “We will be spending more time with each other and more time with our grandkids and family.”

Mary, his wife of 52 years, said, “Maybe he’ll take me fishing again.”

The two built a home north of Freedhem about 12 years ago and Kuebelbeck said he has plenty to do keeping up the grounds, a large garden and hunting land on the 160 acres.

Mary, left, and Al Kuebelbeck are just beginning to contemplate the future and the time they will have together and with their family. Al officially retired as president of Larson Boats Oct. 7.
Mary, left, and Al Kuebelbeck are just beginning to contemplate the future and the time they will have together and with their family. Al officially retired as president of Larson Boats Oct. 7.

Kuebelbeck said he received a good work ethic from his parents. The family owned Kuebelbeck Dairy where they bottled milk and the kids delivered it before school, every day, door to door.

“When I graduated from St. John’s Prep High School, dad told me I had two weeks to either find a job or join the service. That was in 1959,” he said.

College was not given as an option.

“I chose work and began at Cold Spring Granite in a tough, laborer’s job,” he said. He stayed there for about two years.

In 1961, Kuebelbeck began a job with DeZurik Corporation in Sartell, a company which manufactures valves for processing plants. That same year he married Mary Surowski.

“I stayed with them for several years. I wanted to better myself and work in a non-labor position,” he said.

So he moved on to Nash Finch, where he worked in the warehouse filling orders and loading in an assistant managerial position.

It was becoming more and more apparent that college was an important step in rising in the ranks of any company. So Kuebelbeck took some management and business courses at St. Cloud State.

“Funny, I received poor marks from my professor in business theory and management,” he said.

Fingerhut, a distribution center in St. Cloud, was at that time a growing business. He procured a job in the warehouse.

“Fingerhut’s policy was to not promote anyone into management without them passing a ‘DeManns’ course from St. Cloud State,” said Kuebelbeck. “So I took the test, passed and was promoted to warehouse manager.”

But, he still wanted to be better. He looked to improve his position and make more money (he and Mary eventually had seven children).

In 1969, Kuebelbeck saw an ad for an inventory control manager at Larson Boats in Little Falls.

“That caught my eye,” he said. “When I got the job, I knew I didn’t have much knowledge with inventory, so I got the inventory control manager at Fingerhut to give me a crash course.”

Kuebelbeck said when he started at Larson’s, he got baptized by fire.

“They brought me out to the parking lot and showed me a pile of material that had come from a windshield company Larson’s had recently purchased. It was buried under the snow,” he said. “My job was to inventory the items plus set up a windshield department within Larson’s.”

The area, to this day, is still called the windshield department.

At that time, there were three shifts and 700-800 employees.

“With my past experience in manufacturing, I had the opportunity to move into production as management,” he said. “I took the night shift and that gave me an opportunity to learn all the different positions in the department.”

So, he put his gloves on and helped in every area, learning even more about the boating business.

“I needed to learn what my people were doing to direct them more intelligently,” he said.

When he returned to the day shift, he worked closely with customer service, marketing, purchasing and warranties, learning even more.

“I like the uniqueness of the industry. I knew I had found my career,” he said.

From that point, he was able to move up to superintendent, then to plant manager.

At that time, Larson Boats was owned by Brunswick Corporation. The oil crisis hit in the early to mid-1970s and things, said Kuebelbeck, began to fall apart.

“That was the first time Larson’s entered into bankruptcy and people were laid off,” he said.

It was then that the steelworkers union, strong in Little Falls through the Hennepin Paper Mill, got into Larson’s, said Kuebelbeck. He called it a dark time in Little Falls.

Kuebelbeck remembers the workers going on strike, at the urging of the union, for better wages and benefits.

“There were picket lines, fights, vandalizing and beatings,” he said. “It lasted about eight – 10 weeks. The union was decertified about a year later.”

In 1972, Irwin Jacobs purchased Larson Boats. A few years later, Kuebelbeck moved to Shell Lake, Wis., and became president of Lund Boats fiberglass division.

In 1980, Jacobs purchased Lund Boats, closed the Shell Lake facility and moved it to Little Falls. He also purchased Silverline Boats in Moorhead, part of Lund, and moved it to Little Falls, too. It was all, including Glasspar Boats, consolidated at the Larson facility.

The Kuebelbeck family moved back to Little Falls and he became vice president of operations.

“Lund and Silverline eventually disappeared,” he said. “Now there is just Lund aluminum in New York Mills.”

Crestliner in Little Falls, was also having problems and a group of entrepreneurs from Little Falls purchased the business. Jacobs bought the company in about 1989 and asked Kuebelbeck to become president.

“I was there for 15 years,” he said. “It began as a small regional company and it went national.”

Jacobs sold Crestliner and Lund to Brunswick in 2004 and Kuebelbeck stayed on for another two years or so. When he left, it was assumed he retired.

But, he returned to Larson Boats as president.

“Al had two families,” said Mary. “He had us and he had work. His employees’ problems were his own. He had many sleepless nights.”

Kuebelbeck said his most rewarding period during his 44 years was when he was president of Crestliner.

“I watched it grow. It was the most profitable company Jacobs had. That was my best period,” he said.

Even though he went through bad economic times, strikes and bankruptcy, Kuebelbeck said the toughest time he had was during the last six years.

“After the meltdown of 2006-07, it was just surviving and trying to keep Larson’s going,” he said. “We almost disappeared. In 2009, the company went bankrupt and it went from 840 employees down to 125.

“We owe a lot to Jacobs, he believed in Larson’s and the community, he said. “The company is celebrating 100 years this year. That says a tremendous amount about it’s stability,”

Today, there are 250 employees.

“I have always believed that for a company to survive and grow, it needs good employees. All the technology in the world means nothing without good employees. They need to be treated fairly and the company needs to respect them and help them grow and be successful,” he said.

Kuebelbeck said that the janitor in any company is just as important as the president.

“Rob Parmentier, who is taking my position, has the same ideas as I do and I know he’ll do a good job. I hope he carries on with the ideas established at Larson’s,” said Kuebelbeck.

Kuebelbeck said he still wants to be part of the community, to give service and to contribute.

“I won’t be crawling away and becoming a hermit,” he said.