An adventurous German who emigrated to Canada in his twenties and created one of the premier brands in the rowing industry, Jakob participative leadership style has kept his employees loyal to the firm, some celebrating over 30 years of service. click here for more.
Where else would I interview Jakob Kaschper but at Lake Huron, Canada? Kaschper, founder and owner of Kaschper Racing Shells, is still undeniably attracted to water, the element that has been his inspiration since he was a young apprentice, learning the craftsmanship of boatbuilding in his hometown Ebersbach, Germany. Today Kaschper is a premiere supplier of high-end rowing shells, catering to Olympic athletes and demanding amateurs alike; the only supplier on the North American continent still under original ownership.
The youngest of four, Jakob Kaschper grew up in a supportive family environment. At 15 he entered an apprenticeship with the reputable boat builder Empacher: “It was an excellent training, I learned a lot from a technical point of view. But I also remember that apprentices and employees were not treated well at the time. We were paid poorly, had to labor long hours, and our input was generally not valued very much.” Kaschper partly attributes the attitude of his then employer to the culture of post-war Germany. Personally, he had established a close relationship with the owner, Willy Empacher, who inspired him: “I had begun rowing myself and loved the sport. My dream was to build my own rowing shells.”
In 1958, Jakob Kaschper emigrated to Canada with $92 borrowed from friends and family, ever so determined to make his dream come true. Not long after leaving the old continent and while holding jobs in the construction industry, he joined the London, Canada, rowing club and in his spare time began building boats in an old barn. Having noticed that the lengths of eights unnecessarily heightened friction and slowed down the boat, he developed a ‘short eight’, a more compact and faster shell. He continued to explore ways to make rowing shells more efficient, and by 1968 he had developed a new line of rowing shells and launched his own company, Kaschper Racing Shells.
Over the span of the next 41 years, Jakob Kaschper would become known for his innovative designs, incorporating new materials and production techniques, resulting in lighter, faster and less maintenance intensive rowing shells. His boats have been used by the Canadian National Team at the World Championships, were in hi-tech exhibitions, and sought after by amateurs who value quality products.
Moments of pause
“I am doing what I love doing, so often I live to work. The boundaries are blurred.” Kaschper reflects. “I regret that my son decided not to take over Kaschper Racing Shells when I offered it to him a few years back. My son has his own boat building shop, but prefers to keep things small, as he ‘works to live’. He is one of very few boat builders worldwide who can still build wooden shells. His innovations are well-known and copied by others.”
Kaschper is considered by many one of the forefathers of the North American rowing industry. Until he launched Kaschper Racing Shells, most North American rowers looking for high end products would source their shells from European suppliers. In fact, some of the companies that subsequently launched in Canada were founded by former Kaschper employees. “I very much enjoyed mentoring their efforts, despite them becoming my competitors,” Kaschper shares.
Jakob Kaschper succeeds in doing both what he does best and what he enjoys doing most on a regular basis – something that to date only a minority of the working population manages to realize. In fact, even in his spare time Kaschper makes sure he finds the time to row himself and to coach others who aspire to become better rowers.
He experiences personal joy if one of his customers succeeds, despite a significant customer base worldwide: “I had a client from Peru who came to see me; weighing well over 200 pounds, he set out to loose 55 pounds and to compete in a U.S. Masters competition. We custom build a single for him and, after training hard for a long time, he won – it felt really great!”
Turnover tends to be high in the industry. However, Kaschper employees average a tenure of 20 years. “To me, this is a collective effort. I have a hands-off leadership style, and encourage my team to assume risks, to take charge and to voice ideas. I praise often, criticize rarely.” Not surprisingly, when I ask him what has helped his brand to succeed, he responds:”Our brand is a combination of all the people that are on the job.”
Kaschper also shares the pain; during the recessionary period in 2008/2009 he obstained from letting his core team go but decided to go without a paycheck.
Other people matter along the change journey
“Other people matter,” I remember Chris Peterson, one of the foremost authorities on Positive Psychology and professor at the University of Michigan, saying during one of his lectures. “People who have strong social connections have more support when they need it, experience more positive emotions, are more likely to follow through with medical regimens...”
In a job context, strong (mutual) social support and peer relations are known to help us cope with stress and muster energy for challenges ahead. There were several turning points in Jakob Kaschper’s career when he favored supporting others over money or prestige. There are also numerous examples when he received support and encouragement from his social network that were invaluable contributions to his well-being and ability to thrive. As Robert Putman, professor of public policy at Harvard University writes: “Social networks have value. Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a college education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so do social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups”.
As he looks over the sunset on Lake Huron, Kaschper spontaneously says:”This is a great place to bring my team for our next annual golf tournament.”
 House, J.S., 1981, Work stress and social support, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley; Berkman, L.F., Glass, T., Brisette, I. & Seeman, T.E., 2000, From Social Integration to health: Durkheim in the new millennium, Social Science and Medicine
 Putnam, R., 2000, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community”, Simon and Schuster.