INA, Illinois (Nov. 15, 2019) — Chad W. Kern, a 1991 graduate of Rend Lake College, is recipient of the RLC Foundation's 2019 Alumnus of the Year award.
CEO of Schirm USA, Kern earned his degree in Agricultural Mechanics from RLC and a Bachelor's Degree in Agriculture from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale in 1993.
After graduating from SIU, he took a job offer at a Texas construction company where he learned much about the industry in eight years. Kern then joined a company that made chemicals for the oil and gas industry. Four years later, he went on a duck hunt with a friend. One member of their party just happened to be Gus Jones — then CEO of Schirm USA.
"I got to Schirm through duck hunting," Kern laughed. He started in the purchasing department and over the next decade was promoted to leadership assignments in EH&S, engineering, and facility construction; and most recently was the Director of Manufacturing. "As positions came open I would offer to help out," he said. "Through the years, I ended up having a [role] in every part of the company."
When it came time to find a successor for Jones, Schirm launched a nationwide search. Six months later, they found their new CEO right down the hallway. He was named the chief executive in August. In the company's announcement, Schirm Germany CEO Dirk Unterstenhoefer said, "With Chad Kern, we have an experienced CEO who is very familiar with the company due to his many years of activity at Schirm."
"It's been a busy year for me. A very good year," Kern said of 2019.
In his role as CEO, Kern oversees finances and builds relationships with new and existing businesses. Founded in 1978, Schirm USA is a leading contract formulation and storage company for the chemical industry, specializing in agricultural as well as household and garden products. U.S. operations are headquartered in Ennis, Texas where Kern commands 200 employees and annual revenues of $25-28 million.
Home is still Whittington, Illinois, he said. His parents, Dennis and Mary Kern, live there on the family farm. The Benton High grad (Class of '89) would have become an architect if it weren't for a timely open house and an outgoing Dave Scott — then an agriculture instructor and department chair at RLC. Scott, who passed away last November, was 20 years into his RLC career when he met Kern.
"My main interest was architecture," Kern said. "I loved building things. I grew up on a farm and I liked agriculture but building things was really my passion. I was going to attend Rend Lake for architecture."
Then Kern ran into Scott.
"He asked me, 'Hey, why don't you come to the ag presentation tonight?' So my best friend and I went. Due to that presentation from Mr. Scott and a tour of the ag department, I changed my major and decided I would go into agriculture."
In addition to his calling, Kern found his community at RLC.
"Our class was a tight group. We hung out together — to the point that we would have dinner at the house and it was not unusual for all the guys to come over to my house."
That included his teachers, he said.
"My experience at Rend Lake was amazing. "Dave Scott. Doug Leeck. Terry Clark. I use acronyms and sayings from those three guys still today. We shared a bond — teachers and students."
This communal climate in the ag program grew into a new organization called the "RLC Agri-Achievers." Students deemed worthy of membership had to have high academic performance and demonstrate leadership skills. The group represented RLC at ag functions throughout the districts.
"We went to high schools. We went to other community colleges. We went everywhere promoting the ag program," he said.
Kern was a sophomore when the group was created. He remembers a standout from the freshman class who was also a charter member of the Agri-Achievers. Twenty years later, that Hamilton County freshman would become president of the college.
"Chad showed leadership early on - at RLC and SIU," said RLC President Terry Wilkerson. "He has continued that leadership beyond graduation into his career and has achieved a lot. But he hasn't forgotten where he came from. He's president of the company now, but he still talks about where he got his start. That's a quality you don't find much anymore, I think. Chad's a big advocate for — not only Rend Lake College — but the community college system. RLC is proud of him. We are very happy he represents us and I, personally, congratulate him on being chosen Alumnus of the Year."
Kern's experiences with the Agri-Achievers made a strong impression. When he arrived at SIUC, he joined its "Agbassadors" and was named Outstanding Agbassador in 1993.
"The community college offers so much to the youth," Kern said. "It gets them acclimated to college life. It provides an economical way to find out what you want to do before you venture off to a university."
Kern and his wife, Judy, have a 5-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 10 and 19. His son is now at a university where, according to Kern, enrolling was more difficult than he remembered it being. With a guidance counselor who had a hundred or more students to advise, Kern said his son was getting lost in the shuffle.
"It seemed difficult for him to get enrolled," Kern said. "My guidance counselor at Rend Lake was Dave Scott. He was so personable. That is huge to a young student coming in — having someone who cares and is passionate about what you do and your well being. It changed my life. It made me want to be better. I would have to say that — along with my folks — Dave Scott and Doug Leeck molded me into who I am today. I often think back on my time at RLC."
Kern will be presented the award at the RLC Foundation's Annual Dinner on Thursday, December 5th at the DoubleTree Hotel in Mt. Vernon. Also at this event, retired RLC Warriors Golf Head Coach Dave Smith will be honored. Tickets are $40 per person and must be purchased in advance. For more information or to purchase tickets, please contact the RLC Foundation office at 437-5321, Ext. 1324.