By DAVE PAXTON
Kathy Wauson was headed for a career in banking when she got the call from her dad, Lester, wanting her to take over the reins of Albia’s oldest manufacturing plant, Kness Mfg. (now Kness Pest Defense). That was in 1986. Wauson retired as president and CEO of the company a day before she turned 70 last Friday.
It has been a long and successful career for Wauson leading her family’s renowned company. They say it isn’t bragging if you can back it up, and the company slogan for years has been “Best Mousetrap in the World.” Most of their customers would agree.
It was Wauson’s grandfather, Brick, who invented the Ketch-All live mousetrap, trying to come up with a solution to a mouse problem in the Audubon school he was serving as janitor in.
The Ketch-All was one of dozens of inventions Brick Kness came up with. And it is a sort of generational genius that has developed the Kness line from two products when Wauson arrived to 15 today.
When the three Kness sons (Lester, Mike and Arnie) returned home from WWII, they helped Brick establish the first factory building in Albia, a block and a half off the southeast corner of the square. A second generation of Kness family members, Lee (Kathy’s brother) and cousins Kevin, Kerry, Russ and Paul entered into the business. Kathy then entered the business with Russ remaining an active part of the board of directors.
Kathy was born in Albia but moved with her family to Des Moines during her kindergarten year in Albia. “There was a really tough time in the business where the company couldn’t support all three brothers and my dad opened a plumbing business in Des Moines with a former Army Ranger buddy, while still being a part of Kness,” she said. “I was in Albia just about every weekend growing up.”
She graduated from North High School and attended the University of Northern Iowa a year before getting into the banking business. She worked in California for three years and was back in Des Moines working with stocks and bonds when she got the call from her dad to return to Albia and take over the management of Kness Mfg. She and her son, Nick, moved home and she began a 34-year career as president and CEO of the family-owned enterprise.
During that time, the company had two major expansions and developed a worldwide market for their pest control products. “The live catch traps were extremely popular with big food warehouses where you couldn’t use poisen or traps that killed mice and rats because of health regulations,” she said. The company actually purchased a trap line for larger animals and brought the manufacturing in-house. It remains one of the best products in the live catch markets.
The Snap-E mousetrap basically revolutionized the small household trap market, replacing the old wooden board traps and has been copied by many other companies. Who knew mice loved peanut butter?
“One of my favorite stories of my grandfather was him building a sort of holding pen for mice, putting his new Ketch-All invention in the pen and watching them for hours to see how they reacted to being caught,” she said. “He had incredible powers of observation and engineering what he saw.” She also remembers him inventing a calculator on the end of a ball point pen, a mail box and a robo saw. “His first Ketch-All was built from a tobacco can and stuff he had laying around his shop,” she said.
The one frustrating part of Brick’s personality, said Wauson, was that he wouldn’t patent his inventions. “Had it not been for my dad, Arnie and Mike working on patents, we probably wouldn’t have had the Ketch-All,” she said.
Employment has remained steady at between 35 and 42 people. “We made the decision to remain a small business with 50 and under employees,” she said. “We had the expertise and inventiveness to become more productive with equipment we developed and long-time employees working those machines.”
In her 34 years, Wauson helped create a corporate culture that attracted good people and kept them. It is not unusual for Kness workers to retire after 30, 35 and even 40 years of service to the company. “We treat people like family” she said. “We were all raised by the Golden Rule and we’ve tried to maintain that.”
As a single mom and the president and CEO of Albia’s oldest manufacturer, Wauson didn’t find a lot of spare time for community activities…until she started listing the things she has been part of.
She has been active in Albia Rotary Club and their extensive work in Albia and Monroe County Parks. She began a long-term relationship with the community’s special needs adults, having them assemble the company’s Snap-E traps. Ragtime Industries, Tenco, Mosaic, Christian Opportunity Center and other groups who employee special needs adults have had successful relationships with Kness during Wauson’s time as company president.
She has also worked closely with Monroe County Helping Hands and has been a ready supporter of Albia high school sports and music.
She is also an avid fan of Drake women’s basketball.
Wauson’s entrepreneurial spirit has extended out over the years. She recently sold a five-acre cocow chocolate bean tree farm in Hawaii that she developed with a sister-in-law and another partner.
With son, Nick, in Des Moines working in the restaurant industry, and her beloved Bulldog women in Des Moines, Wauson will make her retirement home in Pleasant Hill. She will remain chairman of the board and will lead quarterly board meetings for the company.
She feels good about leaving the company in the hands of Dan Crew, a 30+ year veteran of manufacturing plants. The company also has a stable sales force and people on the line who are devoted to continuing the Kness Pest Defense motto of “The Best Mousetrap in the World.”