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Engineer Bob Kowalski turns creativity into business success
From Spring 2007 Fanfare
Mention the old TV comedy series Green Acres and baby boomer alums can hum the theme song without skipping a beat.
One band alum can go a step further. “If you saw Green Acres , I lived that life says Bob Kowalski. When he was just 10 his father, a downtown lawyer, moved the whole family way outside of Lowell to live on a farm.
Without a car to drive to town, Kowalski's world was the farm so when he came to Purdue he was eager to explore new places. And he did. The Peach Bowl, the Blue Bonnet Bowl, Canada and Venezuela opened his eyes to new worlds. When Kowalski graduated in 1979, he set out to create yet another world and his success in business – he's founder, C.E.O. and president of Creative Electronics and Software Inc. in Elgin , IL – have earned him Bands' 2006 Alumni Achievement Award.
The award will be officially presented at the Penn State game on Oct. 28.
In the past year, Kowalski's success using skills he feels he sharpened at Purdue Bands led him to give $20,000 back to Purdue Bands so other students could reap the rewards of travel. It allowed Bill Kisinger to take American Music Review on a Caribbean cruise and perform for passengers.
Kowalski's interest in music was passed down to him by a grandfather who had his own band during the speakeasy days and his dad who played piano. The younger Kowalski played his grandfather's wooden clarinet until duct tape could no longer hold the split together and came to Purdue with a new one.
Initially, Kowalski was a no-show at Purdue's band camp, opting to watch the proceedings from his seventh floor window in Shreve. Finally he could stand it no longer and successfully approached Al Wright about joining the marching band. He also joined Symphonic Band and became head of the clothing office.
By the time he graduated he knew his decision to join was a smart one. “All the class structure at Purdue was a great preparation for the technical side of life, but that was the extent of what they did. As far as people, leadership and teamwork, those are things I learned in band,” says Kowalski. In electrical engineering classes “I just met engineers. In band I met a wide variety of different personalities and it was very important to learn to deal with them, especially for someone who grew up in a small farm town.”
Little did he know at that time that his ability to work with different personalities would pay off big time in life after band. When the first company he worked for went bankrupt and the second disbanded, Kowalski decided to start his own at age 32. “When two companies in a row basically disappeared, I decided I couldn't do any worse,” he says.
In 1989, Kowalski launched Creative Electronics and Software whose initial goal was making circuit boards. Video games were hot and the arcade industry became their bread and butter customer. When the arcade industry hit a brick wall in 1994, his company started to diversify and got into vending and slot machines. He equates making it through that time to obtaining “one of the most expensive MBAs I could get because I earned it the hard way.”
Besides circuit boards, his company started to provide cable harnesses, mechanical assembly and more. Pretty soon they were working with an ever-widening variety of products from water softeners to wind farms, automotive controls to photography equipment. “There's still some stuff, I don't know what it does,” he says with a smile. “Primarily what we do is put things together. We've built entire video games for customers. Depending on what they want, we can take it from the circuit board to the whole product. We're unique in providing end support services,” Kowalski says.
“The neat thing about my job is that when we bring on a new company, it's a different product and that keeps it interesting. I also love going into other companies and seeing how they operate because no two operate the same.”
Several times a month Kowalski visits his firm's Las Vegas branch which has a current contract to take lead out of gambling machine circuit boards. When he's in Vegas, Kowalski never puts money in the slots. ‘I know you can't beat those. I prefer black jack,” he says.
Kowalski really prefers spending his down time on his boat in Lake Michigan or attending music performances. He and his wife Kathy, another Purdue clarinetist, are supporters of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra. Daughter Janet, who played viola in the Purdue Orchestra, graduated in May 2006 and is headed to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Son Richard is attending the University of Tennessee with an eye on sports management.
Both his children are creating their own unique worlds, just like their dad did, which is fine with Kowalski. “You should do whatever it is you like doing because you're going to be doing it for 30 years or more,” he says. “And don't close the doors on opportunities that come your way because you never know where they will take you.”
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