Entrepreneur brings hard work to his company, community
Jan. 12, 2013 at midnight
Updated Jan. 12, 2013 at 7:13 p.m.
Robby Burdge remembers the day not too long ago when he first made his way to the Lone Star State.
It was 1980, and the economy had tanked, he said, when he showed up looking for work.
"I came down to Texas with $85 and a full tank of gas," he said, recalling that day was the first and only time he saw a Cadillac with horns attached to the front. "I remember thinking, 'Yep, I'm in Texas now.'"
From humble beginnings, however, Burdge dug in. Today, he not only owns his own company but also keeps heavily involved throughout the Crossroads area.
"I have truly lived the American Dream," he said.
Getting his start
The self-made businessman was born in Norwalk, Ohio, as the youngest of eight children.
His father's military career meant the family lived everywhere from Newfoundland to Germany and Washington, D.C., he said, but Scott Air Force Base near Belleville, Ill., was where they eventually called home.
Burdge said the family never had much money, but hard work meant there was always food on the table and a roof over their heads. He remembered selling newspapers on street corners to help make ends meet.
"I started that before kindergarten," he said. "You wouldn't think of doing that now. But I've worked for as long as I can remember."
That initial start might have come from sales, but it was engineering - taking a strategic look at the big plants and how they worked - that really caught his eye and set him down his path.
Striking out on his own
Burdge worked a number of engineering and construction jobs through the years but got his start in Texas as a Houston boilermaker. It was a profession he knew next to nothing about, he said, but he went after it.
"They said they were hiring five people, so I raised my hand," he said. "Then I asked the guy next to me, 'What's a boilermaker?'"
Burdge moved on to Victoria, where he took work first with the Vistron plant - now known as Ineos - and later constructing the DuPont facility before taking positions in Austin and Houston.
The family set down permanent Victoria roots in 1990, he said, while he commuted to and from his work with a Houston chemical company.
For a man who takes decisions seriously - he never makes an important move without first taking a shower to mull it over - the choice to start a business came quickly.
When Burdge disagreed with the direction the chemical company was headed after a new company took over, he opted out.
"I resigned," he said. "I can still remember just sitting at a rest stop outside Victoria, trying to figure out how I was going to tell my wife I'd quit my job."
It was a dashboard photo of his daughter, Casey, that gave him the inspiration, Burdge explained, and he had his initial business plan written up on the back of a receipt and a napkin before he reached home.
Thus, Klean Corp International - or KCI, named after Casey - was born Oct. 9, 1997.
With one sale to Formosa and a contract with Union Carbide, the company that "moved matter out of place," flushing systems to keep them running smoothly, was in business.
Building his business
Burdge said business ownership was never easy - 2008's economic downturn, which led a number of projects to fall by the wayside, was a particular rough patch - but it carried more high points than anything else.
One such incident was a KCI breakthrough that came when a client needed a strong acid to clean its system but wouldn't harm the pipes. When the crew reverse-engineered the products it already offered, it came across a surprise.
"We developed something but by complete accident. It's even safe to human tissue," he said with a smile about what the company dubbed its SafeKlean Series. "We were green before green was cool."
The company saw growth with time, he said, but 2013 - dubbed "The Year," - will be particularly important as KCI is undergoing a complete overhaul.
Burdge said the business plans to go paperless by incorporating new technology such as iPads and will introduce a new chemical blending process. Training recently moved to Victoria College's new KCI Academy, while new distribution methods and a larger facility on John Stockbauer Drive will also join the mix.
Factor in the fact that daughter Casey Burdge Staudt joined on this month as CEO-in-training, and the changes are a bit overwhelming, Burdge said.
"We're changing so much at one time that it's really outside our comfort zones," he said. "It's extremely scary, but we can do it."
Burdge has other projects on his plate as well, including his role as part-owner of The Club at Colony Creek and plans to bring New York-style lofts to downtown Victoria. With their November purchase of Shannon Bradley Pools, Burdge and his brother-in-law will soon rename the business Burdge-O'Donnell Pools.
The father of two serves as KCI's CEO, which stands for cultural excellence - not chief executive - officer. That differentiation, he said, comes because he doesn't want to work just in his company but on it.
It's the same philosophy he applies to his work in the community.
Burdge volunteers his time to organizations throughout the region, he said, serving as co-chairman of the St. Joseph High School Capital Campaign with wife Tami Burdge, as facilities chairman for Victoria College, as board chairman for the Port of Victoria and more.
"Balance has always been a challenge for me," he said with a laugh. "For some reason, I can never get the word 'N-O' out."
Omar Rachid, who served as co-chairman of the Victoria County United Way 2008 campaign with Burdge, has worked alongside him in numerous organizations. He described Burdge as a humble man and strong leader.
His "we're all in this together" philosophy, which Burdge employs both inside and outside KCI, helps motivate others to get involved as well, he said.
"When he gets involved, he's involved 100 percent," Rachid said. "He's an awesome human being. Once you get to work with him and get to know him, you love him."
That involvement shows Burdge cares about the community and wants to see good things happen, said Randy Vivian, president and CEO of the Victoria Chamber of Commerce.
Burdge was named the chamber's citizen of the year in 2011 and 2003.
"He's a great community leader and philanthropist and a good friend," Vivian said. "He's a phenomenal man."
As for Burdge, he said he appreciated the recognition but found it a bit embarrassing.
Nonprofit work is a passion, he said, and he had help every step of the way. He couldn't do any of it without his KCI team, he said, whose members work just as hard as he does.
Still, he said, he's grateful to have a part in it all.
"It's easy to be an instrument in God's band," he said. "Sometimes you're playing the guitar, sometimes the drum and sometimes you're sweeping the floor. But as long as you stay in the band, it's OK."