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'Sonny' Kovatch, 85, founder of KME, dies

  • John J. "Sonny" Kovatch Jr.
    John J. "Sonny" Kovatch Jr.
Published January 31. 2011 05:00PM

John "Sonny" Kovatch, 85, who began his career by owning a small car repair shop and evolving it into Carbon County's largest employer, died Saturday at his home.

A lifelong resident of Nesquehoning, Kovatch was the founder of several companies bearing his name that are global leaders in specialty vehicle manufacturing.

Besides building an industrial empire which provides fire apparatus for clients as far away as Israel, Japan, and Germany, Kovatch also was instrumental in attracting other firms to locate in Nesquehoning and provide even more employment. He and his brother had diversified into real estate and land development, which resulted in the creation of Hauto Estates and the 300-acre Green Acres Industrial Park.

He was largely responsible for attracting such firms as Redner's Supermarket, Tonolli Corp., and Heritage Signs.

He was also instrumental, and provided the land for, the Carbon campus of the Lehigh-Carbon Community College.

He provided the land for the Hauto Fire Company and donated land to the Nesquehoning Borough Authority.

Kovatch served in the Pacific during World War II.

In March 1946, Kovatch decided to test his ability at entrepreneurship and went into the auto repair business, using his father's one-car garage. By 1948, the one-car repair garage grew into a four-stall garage with a body and fender department.

In 1950, he and his brother Joseph formed a partnership and built a new modern garage and showroom at the intersection of Routes 54 and 209.

The firm continued to grow and today employs more than 800 people.

In addition, Kovatch remained a visualist until his death, working with another firm on the creation of what could be one of the largest solar energy parks in the country.

The oldest of seven children, he graduated from Nesquehoning High School in 1943. He enlisted in the army within months after his graduation.

In 1974, both Sonny and Joseph were honored by the Panther Valley Chamber of Commerce.

The late Agnes T. McCartney, who introduced the award recipients at that dinner, remarked, "Sonny, as those of us who know him affectionately, is a human machine that somehow never slows down, whose day starts at about 6 a.m. in the morning, except for the time for his family and church, is continually on the go. Yet, he always finds time to discuss a personal or community endeavor.

"He is highly motivated."

She noted that the Kovatches donated nearly 100 acres "for a two dollar bill" to the Carbon-Schuylkill Industrial Development Corp. Not only did they donate the land, she pointed out, "Thousands of tons of fill were likewise furnished by the Kovatch family to improve the industrial park and not one cent of remuneration."

Kovatch befriended many political leaders to achieve local job creation, and became especially close to the late Congressman Daniel J. Flood, who was then chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee in Congress.

It was Flood who helped secure, in 1970, the first of numerous military contracts that provided hundreds of local jobs, especially building fueling trucks.

Of course, Kovatch provided much incentive to obtain such a contract.

In 1981, Kovatch was awarded a $66 million contract by the U.S. Air Force to produce aircraft refueling trucks. The firm then designed and constructed a prototype of another refueling truck which resulted in another large contract for the firm.

The prototype Kovatch and his firm designed and ultimately constructed were capable of pumping up to 1,500 gallons of fuel per minute into an aircraft.

The previous fuel trucks, which Kovatch built on Air Force specifications, had only a 700 gpm pumping capability.

In 1981, during an address to the Panther Valley Chamber of Commerce, Kovatch (then president of the chamber), stated that his firm obtained the contract to build 1,020 Air Force refueling trucks. He explained the work involved in obtaining such a contract, stating, "We spent six months bidding this contract, many days working 18 hours a day."

In 1985, Mack Trucks discontinued production of fire truck bodies as a result of a poor economic climate.

Kovatch purchased the business from Mack and emerged into a full-fledged fire truck manufacturing. KME (Kovatch Mobile Equipment) is the largest family-owned fire truck manufacturing plant in the world. It has sales offices in several states from coast-to-coast.

The firm, under John, had purchased the Philadelphia Valve Company in 1982. The firm, which had been in business for 60 years, manufactured valves, hose reels, and fuel related equipment.

In land development, Kovatch purchased Hauto Valley Estates in 1963, then five years later added another 800 acres of land in the Hauto area. In 1979, the firm purchased the Packerton Rail Yard in Lehighton for future development.

He also acquired about 4,000 acres of land on the Broad Mountain.

One of the things Kovatch implemented at his firms was an open-door policy for his customers. As an example, when a fire department purchases apparatus, members of that department can visit the site and not only see - but photograph - the construction process from start to finish.

Kovatch also implemented a policy in which his employees, who are volunteers in fire departments, can leave their jobs whenever a fire call in their respective community occurs.

He had expanded this policy to include members of the Nesquehoning Ambulance Corps, which was facing problems of manning apparatus during daytime hours.

In the 1981 address, Kovatch told the chamber, "As we look at industry in our valley in the past year, we at Kovatch have expanded, Ametek expanded, Tonolli expanded, CT Coal Co. has expanded, Bethlehem Steel has expanded, Majestic Lamp and Hill Machine Shop expanded, all in a year of uncertainty and a recession."

He stressed, "We have to keep up with the pace."

It was only a few years ago that Sonny turned the reins of running the company over to his son. But he still kept an oversight role and visited the business every day, retaining an untiring drive which had led to the current success of the firm.

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