Not Slowing Down
- Major: Mechanical engineering
- Class Of: 1963
Even if you’ve never met Jack Kulp, you’re probably familiar with his work. You may not have given much thought to his creations, but you’ve certainly seen them — orange blurs going by at 60 mph.
Kulp’s firm, TrafFix Devices Inc., is one of the country’s leading producers of traffic control equipment, most notably the orange safety barrels used for shielding vehicles from construction zones.
“Probably 60 to 70 percent of those are mine,” Kulp says, admitting that such a healthy market share hasn’t at all dampened his competitive spirit or attention to detail.
“I can’t go through a construction zone without seeing if it’s my stuff or the other guy’s stuff. If it’s not my stuff, I tell my son [who works for Kulp’s company] to get on the phone and find out why not.”
It’s the same competitive spirit and attention to detail that’s carried Kulp through a roller coaster career that’s included an array of industrial manufacturing firms, and — one of Kulp’s proudest moments —winning a case heard at the U.S. Supreme Court.
It’s a career that began at Cal Poly Pomona. Kulp, who graduated in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, remembers it being a “much smaller school” with olive trees dotting the grounds. He lived at the Phillips Mansion, a home built in 1875 by Louis Phillips, who was described by the Los Angeles Times as “the richest man in Los Angeles County.” The stately mansion, once the hub of Phillips’ 12,000-acre ranch, had been converted to apartments in the mid-1950s and was a quick bike ride from school. One student even lived in the mansion’s former milk storage shed, which had walls 2 feet thick to keep the milk cold, Kulp recalls.
Kulp says he was drawn to Cal Poly Pomona because its hands-on approach to education appealed to him.
“That learn-by-doing attitude was extremely helpful,” he says. “They teach you to think not just ‘Can we do it?’ but also ‘How can we do it?’ I’ve used those skills throughout my business career.”
After graduating, Kulp progressed through a series of engineering positions at local companies that manufactured products ranging from bread bag twist ties to controls for the reactors inside nuclear submarines. By 1973, he was serving as a divisional president for an industrial conglomerate that made, among other things, traffic control devices. Under his leadership, the traffic control division’s sales grew from $3 million a year to $16 million.
He had found his niche.
Thirteen years later, everything started to fall apart. His employer had made some bad purchases and was forced to sell assets, including his division. At 49, Kulp found himself without a job and contemplating retirement.
“But I’m not a retiring kind of guy, so I decided I had to do something to keep busy,” he says. “I decided I was going to form my own company and do what I had been doing for the past 13 years. I was tired of working for someone else. This was going to be my last hurrah.”
Kulp scraped together sales leads, took on a recently laid-off friend as his first employee, and used stock options he owned to fund his new company.
“We started out in my son’s bedroom in my home in San Juan Capistrano,” Kulp says. Walter Kuczera[his friend and only employee] worked out of his home in Kalamazoo, Michigan.”
Over the course of almost three decades, Kulp’s business has flourished. The little company that once had two employees selling just two products now manufactures dozens and employs 250 people at four locations.
That’s a lot to be proud of, but Kulp considers his journey to the Supreme Court to be his crowning achievement.
The details of the case were technical, but it boiled down to one of Kulp’s competitors suing his company for selling a similar product. As far as Kulp was concerned, the competitor’s patent had expired and that was that.
“I knew they were nuts,” he says. “They were trying to change the basic tenets of the U.S. Constitution.”
Five years later, Kulp arrived at the Supreme Court with his lawyer, John Roberts — now the nation’s chief justice.
“He did a magnificent job of building the case. It’s now used in all of the colleges and universities as case law.”
Building a successful company from scratch and prevailing at the Supreme Court might be enough for some people, but at 77, Kulp isn’t slowing down. He and his wife, Sue, are deeply involved with missionary work in Nepal, where they have helped build a school for children in the lowest societal caste.
He’s also giving back to Cal Poly Pomona with a $230,000 bequest that will benefit future engineering students. Three of the engineers he employs are Cal Poly Pomona alumni.
“I want it to go for students who have a hard time paying for school,” he says. “Cal Poly Pomona provided a good educational base for me, and I’m looking to perpetuate hands-on-discipline with the people who will make and design the products of the future.”