Karl Wadensten ’82 to discuss defining moments and the road to leadership

VIBCO president to deliver Vangermeersch Endowed Lecture Nov. 20

KINGSTON, R.I. – Nov. 14, 2019 – Clinging from a climbing rope hundreds of feet up a rock face, a 16-year-old Karl Wadensten had a defining moment that has stayed with him over 40 years.

Wadensten ‘82, president and chief executive officer of VIBCO Vibrators, had been the first to repel the thousand-foot descent on that long ago Outward Bound trip to Minnesota. But going back wasn’t so easy. Halfway up the rock face, he balked and watched as climbers on other ropes passed him like so many ants. Hours passed and his fingers and knees were bloody and bruised.

“I was cursing and swearing for them to let me go down,” he remembers. “And they said, ‘There’s only one way – it’s up. You have to figure it out.’ At some point I got really angry, but instead of outwardly projecting my anger, it came inward and gave me the determination, the willpower, the grit to climb up that face.

“At the top, one of the instructors grabbed me by the back of my harness and this euphoria came over me like I could fly. I felt like I could conquer anything if I really set my mind to it.”

That’s one of the stories Wadensten will draw on when he delivers the 12th Annual Vangermeersch Endowed Lecture hosted by the University of Rhode Island’s College of Business. His lecture, “Defining Moments: Born to Build? Or Developed to Build?,” will be part motivational talk, and part reflection on the values, principles and lessons he’s collected over the years, mostly during his time as a business student at URI. Free and open to the public, the lecture is Wednesday, Nov. 20, at 3 p.m. in the Robert J. Higgins Welcome Center, 45 Upper College Road, Kingston Campus.

“My talk is a spin on nurture and nature,” says Wadensten. “Nurture and nature is what you make of it. Everybody thinks there are born leaders and that everybody else sits on the sideline. Everybody can lead. There are defining moments that help form us as leaders. During school, careers and life, there are defining moments that set the future for us and give us the skill sets to step up and lead when we’re required to or when the opportunity arises. There are times to lead and times to follow. Following is a leadership role, as well as supporting others.”

Wadensten, of South Kingstown, has headed Wyoming, R.I.-based VIBCO for the last 25 years, having taken over from his father, Theodore, the company’s founder. VIBCO, an industrial and construction vibrator manufacturing company, serves more than 360,000 customers worldwide. Wadensten has developed a lean business culture at the company, resulting in dramatic improvements in inventory, lead times, SMED, and quality over the years. VIBCO has won numerous awards, including being named among the “Best Places to Work in Rhode Island” by Providence Business News. “We don’t sell vibrators, we sell 24-48 hour personalized service,” says Wadensten.

Wadensten is also treasurer of the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation Board of Directors. He is a member of Governor Gina Raimondo’s Lean Steering Committee and has been instrumental in bringing lean business principles to the State of Rhode Island. Since 1994, he has been a member of the Young President’s Association. He’s also a member of the Education Committee for the National Precast Concrete Association, and the fundraising committee for South County Hospital.

A member of the National Speakers Bureau, Wadensten is a frequent lecturer and often sought after by Rhode Island media outlets to comment on business issues in the state. For two years, he also hosted a drive-time talk show on ABC Radio, “The Lean Nation,” which had about 45,000 listeners.

Outspoken and gregarious, Wadensten recalls a time when he was less so. In a public speaking class with legendary Professor Agnes Doody, Wadensten remembers getting up on stage in Edwards Hall with 20 classmates staring at him from the front row and Doody standing in the balcony, yelling down: “I can’t hear you! Give me some emotion!”

“The defining moment was Agnes basically saying, ‘It’s your chance. What are you going to make of it? Are you going to define yourself or are you going to just be another wallflower?’”

That’s a lesson Wadensten imparts to his students in his business class at URI — Do you want an ordinary life or an extraordinary life? “Most people want something extraordinary, maybe in their career, or their personal life, or their hobby. Live it with passion, live it to the end.”

At URI, Wadensten, who earned an MBA from the Florida Institute of Technology, teaches a popular Lean, Six Sigma and Green Belt certification program, a hands-on course that focuses on process improvement for supply chain management. The class, which matches students with a company each semester to solve real problems, has grown from 12 to 40 students a semester in the three years he’s been teaching it, and attracts students from several disciplines, including engineering and pharmacy. VIBCO also hosts two engineering capstone students each year, with innovations developed by the students and then implemented by the company.

Wadensten says he’s excited with his chance to present the Vangermeersch Lecture. “URI was a place that shaped a lot of the things that make me who I am today. There were a handful of professors and classes that really defined the principles that I’m going to talk about. They’ve given me a framework for shaping my organization, for helping teach students, and for helping to raise a family.”

The Vangermeersch Lecture was established in 2008 with a gift from URI alumna Deborah Ciolfi ’80, endowing a series that honors former accounting Professor Emeritus Richard Vangermeersch, who retired in 2004 after 34 years at URI.

While Wadensten didn’t have Vangermeersch as a professor during his years at URI, he feels his lecture will honor Vangermeersch’s guiding teaching principles. Wadensten says he wants the lecture to challenge students, but also engage them and make them laugh.

“That’s what Vangermeersch did – inspire fun, curiosity and engagement.”