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June 8, 2018 Lifetime Achievement Awards 2018

Guts, diligence, hands-on leadership define Orr's career, volunteer work

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever

On a Sunday 40 years ago, electron beam welder trainee Bob Balboni walked onto the floor at KTI Inc. in East Windsor and found the owner, Howard Orr, working the line.

“This guy's out on the floor actually running a machine,” recalled Balboni, who now works on a process-improvement team at KTI. “He did whatever needed to be done.”

They were inspecting reels of saw-blade material, looking for defects. The process to make a superior saw at KTI involves putting a harder edge on flexible backing. The electron beam or laser welding of dissimilar metals is done in an airless chamber. If any air gets in, the welding is defective.

“With the advent of OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration],” Orr recalled, “this product became very popular.”

Orr, now 71, was comptroller of KTI in 1971. He became debtor in possession and ultimately president at age 24 as the company emerged from bankruptcy and long-term litigation over proprietary technology.

“I didn't know what I was doing but I had guts,” Orr said. “Because of my ambition and wanting to succeed, I dedicated my time and efforts even though I had very little business experience. I'm proud that we refinanced and grew the company.”

KTI emerged from bankruptcy in six months. It became the first business in the East Windsor Industrial Park, where it thrives today. KTI grew from eight employees to nearly 50, diversifying into overhaul and repair of jet-engine components and automotive, biomedical and defense work.

The company also processes water purification systems for submarines, cameras for drones and parts for hypersonic rockets. The laser or electron beam welding process, Orr explained, is necessary to make pure and distortion-free welds.

Orr received his bachelor's degree in economics and business administration from Drury College in Springfield, Mo., and his MBA from Western New England College in Massachusetts. He began his career at Hamilton Standard during the heyday of the space program, negotiating with NASA on air-conditioning systems and rockets.

“I was a financial guy, it was a lot of fun,” Orr said. “[President] Kennedy said we were going to land on the moon and then it happened. The space program was riding high.”

Balboni cites Orr's role as a mentor among his leadership qualities. Orr sent him to Brazil in the 1980s to train workers who produced saw blades.

“His ability to work with people from another country made my job easier,” Balboni said. “That was quite a growing experience for me.”

Community connections

Orr, a native of Suffield, has served on more than 30 nonprofit boards and commissions including Suffield's Economic Development Commission. In 2012, he earned the “Volunteer of the Year” award from the Northeastern Economic Developers Association. During his tenure on the commission, Suffield's Mach One Industrial Park was developed as a joint venture between the town and the state, opening 33 acres for development.

Among his favorite charities are Hilltop Farm in Suffield and St. Francis Hospital's Curtis D. Robinson Men's Health Institute in Hartford.

Hilltop Farm is a 79-acre working farm and nature preserve. Programs include “Little Bugs,” for young children ages four to six, billed as an introduction to ecology. Orr helped form the nonprofit corporation for the farm and get its designation on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Men's Health Institute addresses the prevalence and disparities of prostate cancer among men who are uninsured or underinsured, particularly African-Americans. The program is named in recognition of a $1-million gift from Curtis Robinson, a member of St. Francis' board of directors who is, himself, a prostate cancer survivor. The institute encourages prostate cancer screenings for African-American men who are 2.5 times more likely to die of the disease than Caucasian men.

Winston Samuel, 68, came to the United States from Guyana in 2010 and began working at Walmart in Hartford. He had no health insurance.

Samuel found a doctor and was referred to the St. Francis program. He learned he was a diabetic and was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

“I broke down and started crying,” Samuel said in a phone interview. “I was lost. I didn't know what to do.

“They took care of me.”

Samuel began treatment at St. Francis, where he now works full time. He became a U.S. citizen in 2016. He's not out of the woods for the disease, but is being monitored and treated.

With a legacy of building a successful international company from the ashes and voluminous community service, Orr's biggest challenge now is the successful transfer of ownership of KTI.

On the job

Guiding business principle: Work hard. Treat all employees, customers and vendors fairly and with respect.

Best way to keep your competitive edge: Listen to the needs of your customers. Continue to improve and meet customer needs.

Proudest accomplishment: Putting together a group of high-tech companies that complement each other and continuing to serve on several nonprofit boards at the same time.

Goal yet to be achieved: Successful transfer of ownership of the KTI Group of companies.

Favorite part of the job: Watching employees grow their skills and advance in the company.

Least favorite part of the job: Complying with state and federal mandates and finding suitable and affordable medical coverage for my employees.

Personal touch in your office: Pictures of my favorite vacation spot, St. Kitts, BWI.

Judgment calls

Best business decision: Guiding KTI through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1971 at 24 years of age.

Worst business decision: Investing in KTI before it entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Biggest missed opportunity: Not being born into a wealthy family.

Best way to spot trends: Read industry journals and articles to stay abreast of change.

Next big move: Retirement

Your pet peeve: Staying organized and being on time.

Personal side

City of residence: Suffield (lifelong resident)

Favorite way to relax: Working at Hilltop Farm, a nonprofit educational farm in Suffield.

Hobbies: Golf and gardening

Last vacation: Ireland, May 2018

Favorite movie: “I can only Imagine”

The car you drive: 2017 Cadillac, 1957 Cadillac and 1948 Willys Jeepster

Currently reading: “Darkest Hour,” by Anthony McCarten

Favorite cause: Caring for the sick and underprivileged in our society.

Second choice career: Farmer

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