Kimball Physics: A centrifugal force
WILTON – While many companies during the pandemic have seen business slow down, Kimball Physics, 311 Kimball Hill Rd., has seen remarkable growth.
An MIT spinoff, Kimball Physics is tucked away in Wilton, located in half a dozen buildings on the top of a hill which originally was an apple orchard.
KP COO Jim Tallarico explained that the founder of the company, Dr. Charles Crawford, an MIT physics professor, helped his doctoral students earn their degrees by developing tools that would assist them with their studies and research.
“One of those became the very first product line of Kimball Physics, which is what we call EV parts,” he said. “Which is essentially erector sets or I guess nowadays, Legos, for people to do physics research. They’re the right material to go in vacuums, they can withstand high temperatures and magnetic fields. But it’s essentially a collaboration of parts that people can put them together and do experiments, and take them apart and put them together a different way and use again and again and again.”
Crawford felt he could do more good, and help more people by getting products such as these to more people. He was connected to the location that now houses KP because the homes were owned by his two aunts and his mother grew up in one of the buildings that once was her home.
“It was run as an apple farm,” Tallarico said. “After Charles left MIT, he devoted all of his time to that and the company grew from there.”
As for COVID-19, KP president and CEO Abagail LePage said pivoting during the onset of the pandemic made for some challenging, and ultimately effective changes.
“We are a small company and we were really packed in tight spaces in multiple buildings,” she said. “We had never really offered the idea of remote work. That was a huge change when this all came about. All of a sudden, people are too tightly packed. People were too close before there was a pandemic.”
Working with their I.T. department, KP quickly worked to make the necessary changes in how the company of 70 employees restructured its configuration.
“We couldn’t fit six feet between people,” LePage said. “We had to get everybody that we could going remote. We had to get computers set up and we had to set up access. It was pretty tricky.”
In terms of projects and manufacturing, the products themselves didn’t really change a lot, according to Tallarico.
“Procuring certain things was a bit difficult,” he said, “because maybe we couldn’t visit a supplier either and look at what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. And how we collaborated with everyone is now through computers, drawings and emails.”
Many of KP’s customers are involved in COVID testing and marketing. LePage said that early on, the company wasn’t even certain if they would be deemed an essential business.
“One thing we did was to reach out to some of our larger customers,” she said. “We asked if they could confirm that we were essential to something that is considered essential manufacturing. In turn, we received letters back from our biggest customers saying, ‘We’re using microscopes to study the virus. We need your product.’ We got three or four of those letters.”
Tallarico echoed that sentiment, saying one firm that they supply to, said, “They make critical components that are used to make the tests for COVID.”
“They found out right away that they were critical,” he said. “And they determined that we were critical to them.”
LePage said that during that timeframe of how to keep their employees at KP safe, they offered their staff members split shifts or working alternating days, no KP employee wanted that to happen.
“Everybody really just wanted to come in and do their work,” she said. “They wanted to be here. They’re happy with what they’re doing.”
Communication, Tallarico, is key. The company works hard to ensure its employees feel like they are part of something that is important.
“A lot of our employees saw the bigger picture,” he said. “They see that Kimball Physics, which not a lot of people have heard of, is important to these other companies because they’re helping to do all these things and they may be multinational companies. But we tell our employees, ‘This is where you fit in this puzzle.’ And they’re very proud of that.”
As part of the community in Wilton, KP is well-regarded as a philanthropic force. Crawford has some properties in the area under Kimball Management, that are associated with KP.
“We have spaces that we donate,” LePage said. “The Food Pantry in Wilton gets their space for free. There was thrift shop in there and Wilton Main Street Association are in there, and don’t pay any rent. Ultimately, the goal of having that building wasn’t to put a bunch of businesses in and collect rent but to provide places for the town to have things that it needed and couldn’t afford otherwise.”
KP also has a summer intern program, bringing in students from the area. Another program, and even more faraway parts of New England.
“They can be coming from high school, perhaps in their junior summers,” LePage said. “We even have a few employees that started in high school.”
Tallarico is one of those students who got his start at KP while in high school.
“That was 41 years ago,” he said.
“There is an educational atmosphere here,” LePage said. “We call our grounds ‘a campus.’ We love having students come in because it adds some newness. And they come back summer after summer and we watch them go through college. And sometimes, they come back after interning and work here fulltime – and do fantastic.”
For more information, or to find out about other internship programs, visit www.kimballphysics.com.