Over the years, Kath Paul has received a lot of ribbing about being a stripper — but her occupation isn’t what you might be thinking. Paul owns Kalamazoo Stripping & Derusting Co., in Portage.
Sitting behind her desk, Paul holds up letterhead, stickers and other items emblazoned with the company logo, “I Love My Stripper.”
“This actually came from being teased all the time by men,” Paul says. “People always have something to say to me. I have it (the logo) on everything. It’s even on my sign. It works.”
Kalamazoo Stripping strips, derusts and degreases zinc die cast, aluminum, steel, cast iron and copper. A small woman with a big smile and a generous dose of forthrightness, Paul leads her company of approximately 25 workers in a male-dominated industry with a belief in being upfront and kind and doing a job right. Putting this belief into practice has caused her to do well as a woman in a man’s world, she says.
“I think they admire me because I do what I do very timely,” she says. “My word’s really all I got. And I say that to my customers.”
The automotive industry is one of the largest segments of Kalamazoo Stripping’s customer base. Paul is “busy to the heavens,” she says, with stripping automotive parts.
The company also works on stadium seating. For example, it stripped and restored the seats for the State Theatre in Kalamazoo during the theater’s restoration project.
The company has customers as far north as Grand Rapids, west to Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, just over the Ohio border and near Urbana, Illinois.
Paul started working for the company 27 years ago, as the controller. Three men owned the company, and Paul bought them out one by one, she says. The last owner got Paul’s hackles up when he said he could “make it work for her financially” and offered to help arrange financing.
“I think I can make it work for myself,” she told him.
And she did. In 2003, Paul became sole owner. After that, she purchased the company’s building and real estate. Paul admits she faced a big learning curve, especially about the industrial aspect of the business, but it didn’t scare her off.
“I wanted to do it my way,” she says. “I thought there was opportunity to do things here a little differently than the way they did it.”
Paul’s frankness extends into her philanthropic pursuits. She believes in “offering a helping hand” when she can. She works with Kalamazoo Mayor Bobby Hopewell in the Shared Prosperity Kalamazoo initiative to provide people with nonviolent criminal records a second chance and for the past 10 years has hired former nonviolent felons.
Paul expresses frustration that other companies won’t follow suit, noting that she’s a tiny woman who works with five, six or seven guys at a time. She tosses a challenge out to other businesses: Help at least one person.
“Then what happens is you have a chance to help them in recovery,” she says. “Help them with housing, with banking, with how to live, to buy groceries and (have) savings accounts.”
Paul offers more than second chances — she helps with first chances, too. A couple of years ago, she saw Sally Reames, the executive director of the local Community Healing Centers, on television discussing how local low-income families needed assistance with diapers for their babies. Paul picked up the phone and left a message for Reames: The Kalamazoo Stripper was bringing diapers. She and her guys rounded up donations for an entire truckload.
In 2015, they did even better; in a matter of a few weeks, they collected 30,790 diapers. What tugged on Paul’s heartstrings listening to Reames on television?
“It was all about the babies,” she says.
For Paul, the toughest part of her job is also the piece she enjoys the most: the people. She loves every one of her employees, describing them as vegetable soup — all different ages and ethnicities. The hard part comes for Paul if one of the men with whom she’s worked so tirelessly doesn’t “take the grace that they were given and starts repeating the same mistakes.”
“It’s hard to see when you put your hand out and they don’t take it anymore,” she says.
As Paul heads out onto the shop floor, she calls over to the workers and introduces each person. One by one, they surround her, most of them towering over their petite boss. The fondness between employees and employer is evident. In fact, her employees know her daily schedule. Text messages pop up on her phone if she’s late. Her guys worry. Paul feels the same about them. For instance, on the snowiest days in winter, she will pull her two truck drivers off the road.
“I don’t care if (customers) are mad or not,” Paul says adamantly. “I have two drivers I care about. And there’s no money in the world worth that.”
Paul is grooming her 26-year-old son, Jon Paul, to eventually take over Kalamazoo Stripping & Derusting. He has been a part of the business since the beginning — when Paul brought him to work as an infant.
“He has the logistics of the business down,” Paul says. “We are zeroing in on the heartfelt portion of our business. This is very important to me.”