“Dr.” Kevin Lhota: 50 Years in the Making

Posted on 5/6/2021 9:14:15 AM

By Prashanth Bharadwaj

Kevin Lhota after his MBA graduation at Seton Hill. He is joined by his son, daughter-in-law, two granddaughters, sister, and his wife, Pat, who died a month later.

After an industrial career spanning several decades, 71-year-old Kevin Lhota is nearing his completion of IUP’s PhD in Business program. Prashanth Bharadwaj, dean’s associate in the Eberly College of Business and professor of management, shares Lhota’s story of perseverance and of passion for his work, his family, and learning.

The median age of PhD recipients in the United States is around 33 years, and less than 5 percent of PhD recipients are over 50 when they receive their degree. But for Kevin Lhota, a doctoral candidate in IUP’s Eberly College of Business, these statistics do not matter. At 71, he has demonstrated it is never too late to acquire and share knowledge. His passion for learning has resulted in a career spanning over half a century, with positive contributions to his family, his profession, and society. His story is also the story of western Pennsylvania in many ways.

Kevin Lhota working in the mill, when the main hydraulic waste oil pump failed and flooded the oil cellar

Kevin’s early life in and around Pittsburgh was dominated by steel mills. He was married in 1970 at the young age of 20 to Patricia (Pat). After graduating with a business administration degree from Waynesburg College, which he attended on a football scholarship, he started his career in 1971 as an industrial engineer, performing time studies that resulted in incentive structures for workers. He then got into preventive maintenance at Combustion Engineering, a huge foundry.

After a devastating strike at the company, he moved on as a manufacturing engineer at the Greensburg plant of ASEA Brown Boveri. He recalls that this ABB plant, which made transformers, was one of the region’s many vertically integrated plants, meaning it owned its supply chain. Being an industrial engineer and a manufacturing engineer, he was able to manage every facet of the plant.

A Changing Industry

In the 1980s, ABB, like many other companies in industrialized countries, decided it would minimize manufacturing and focus mainly on its core competencies of engineering and sales. It decided to close the plant, and Kevin was one of the guys charged with disposing of ABB’s valuable equipment to select vendors. One aspect of the factory which had no takers was the foundry. That was the genesis of Kevin, the entrepreneur.

He and two friends made an offer to buy the foundry, along with a small part of the machine shop. Kevin and Pat put up their house to obtain a loan, and Kevin became CEO of the new company. He worked in the foundry four days a week for 10 hours each day, and on the fifth day, he did the company’s books. In addition, he went around the country selling his products.

While things started picking up for his company, the structure of the overall economy began to change, and the industrial base in the region was getting decimated. It soon affected Kevin’s company. The sweetheart deals Kevin had struck with ABB started to disappear, and the company was looking at other opportunities.

Subsequently, with the help of ALCOA, which was also one of his customers, Kevin partnered with a British company on a new technology for making castings.

“This was our savior but ultimately led to our downfall also,” Kevin said.

Adhering to the prevailing philosophy of the late 1980s that debt was good, Kevin borrowed money and invested in a new foundry and equipment. While this worked well for a few years, the recession of 1991 resulted in severe cash-flow woes for the company. Kevin decided to sell the assets of his company to the British partner. He remained involved in the operations, until he was offered severance pay.

That’s when he decided to get into consulting in the Toyota Production System, which was gaining popularity in the United States. Kevin consulted in several industries, from auto manufacturing to food processing, helping companies become leaner and more efficient. He said he learned a lot working in different parts of the country each week.

“After consulting with the slaughterhouses and meat packaging companies, I realized that we would not have food on our table in this country but for illegal immigrants,” he quipped.

Even though this was an exciting phase in his career, Pat was not pleased that he traveled all the time.

A Focus on Family

Steel was in Kevin’s destiny once again. He joined Allegheny Ludlum as a maintenance supervisor, taking a step down in his career to put an end to traveling as a consultant. He worked in Allegheny Ludlum’s plants in Washington, Leechburg, and Bagdad, all in western Pennsylvania. Spending his time at both the Washington and Bagdad plants during 9/11 and the Iraq War (2001 to 2003), he joked that many people thought he was working for the CIA or the State Department. Kevin worked in maintenance and operations and then became a supervisor in the reimagined Allegheny Technologies Incorporated, with significant authority and responsibility. After Kevin spent more than a decade at ATI, life took a different turn for his family.

In 2013, Pat developed dementia, and her condition deteriorated quickly. After enrolling in clinical studies and going through several medical checkups and sophisticated scans, they found out in 2015 that her condition was untreatable. Kevin became the primary caregiver while continuing to work full-time.

At the same time, ATI had a lockout, and Kevin’s plant was shutting down. He could have transferred to a different plant but chose to take severance pay, as he knew he would be taking care of his ailing wife for the foreseeable future.

“Whether it was kismet or karma,” Kevin said, he found out that anyone who worked at the closing plant was eligible for 100 percent tuition support for higher education as part of the federal government’s Trade Adjustment Act. Out of 300 employees, Kevin said, he was one of only a half dozen who took advantage of the program. His passion for learning on the job transitioned into learning in the classroom.

Kevin enrolled in the MBA program at Seton Hill after arranging with his family to take care of Pat two evenings a week. He said the government paid for everything, including his pen, pencil, and paper. All he needed to buy was the gas to drive to school twice a week.

“You become a better caregiver when you have something purposeful to do,” Kevin said.

He completed his MBA in two years while taking care of Pat. He had decided to keep her at home with hospice care rather than shift her to a long-term facility. 

In 2017, while Kevin was completing his MBA, IUP launched its new PhD in Business program at its Pittsburgh East site. By that time, Kevin had been bitten by the learning bug.

“I live in Plum, right next to where IUP Pittsburgh East is, the classes are offered one day per week on Saturdays, and the cost was not bad at all. I could afford it,” he said.

But, he was on the fence, unable to judge if he would be able to handle the academic pressure while taking care of Pat. After attending the biweekly informational open houses conducted by Eberly’s Prashanth Bharadwaj and Mike Kosicek multiple times to clarify different points, Kevin decided to apply to the program.

The last hurdle was to take the GMAT, an aptitude test, the likes of which he had not taken since the SAT in his teenage years. Kevin was up to the challenge and prepared well. But, the day before his GMAT, Pat breathed her last. Kevin’s PhD dreams went on the back burner.

Nearly a month after Pat’s death, Kevin was invited to attend a Presbyterian Senior Care focus group of long-term caregivers. After answering several questions about caregiving, participants were asked, “What do you want to do for the rest of your life?”

While other participants’ responses involved traveling the world, buying various things, or spending time with the kids, Kevin answered, “I want to obtain a PhD more than anything in my life.”

‘Pure Joy of Learning’

At 69 years old, Kevin went back home, signed up for the GMAT again, performed well, and got admitted into the PhD program. As they say, the rest is history. 

“My decision to pursue a PhD is not entirely as serendipitous as it seems,” he said. “It was a steady progression of learning to secure a terminal degree.” At his age, he could have done anything with his wealth and free time, but he chose to dive deep into learning and reach the heights of formal education.

Kevin started the PhD program in a cohort of 25, the majority of whom were less than half his age. But Kevin was unique as a student, because he had neither the pressure of getting a minimum grade to be reimbursed by his employer nor the stress of completing the degree to enhance his career prospects. He said he approached every class and each assignment from the perspective of “pure joy of learning.”

Kevin excelled in his coursework and passed the dreaded comprehensive examination in the top quartile of his class. He is now working on his dissertation, the last phase of his academic dream, and hopes to be Dr. Kevin Lhota before he turns 73.

Kevin is highly complimentary of Eberly’s PhD in Business program.

“It exceeded my expectations,” he said. “I learned a lot from a group of dedicated professionals—both faculty and my fellow doctoral students. There was tremendous interaction, which helped me change my perspective on many things. When the coursework culminated last summer, I was actually sad.”

‘Legacy-Building Work’

New doors opened for Kevin after he started the PhD program. In 2019, he got his first opportunity to teach at IUP and led two courses. Almost everything in the business curriculum Kevin has experienced firsthand in his professional career, spanning four decades. His depth and breadth of experience combined with his academic and research background from the doctoral program provided students in his Strategic Management classes a perfect teacher from whom to learn.

Kevin is currently teaching full-time at La Roche as a temporary faculty member in the areas of management, organizational behavior, and economics. That opportunity came through Sheila Mueller, one of his peers in the IUP doctoral program and chair of La Roche’s Accounting and Finance Department. Kevin has also published multiple peer-reviewed journal articles, coauthoring with his faculty and fellow students. 

“IUP’s PhD in Business program was designed for the working professional, and Kevin fit the profile perfectly,” said the program’s director, Mike Kosicek, who himself completed a PhD at 50 after a three-decade career with companies such as GE and Westinghouse.

“Kevin’s impressive business and industrial experience provided a solid foundation for him both to gain from the coursework and to make a significant contribution in class,” he said. “He was a top performer in this cohort-based program. His current and future research efforts will certainly prove to be an asset to his field. I knew early in my discussions with Kevin that he would be a great doctoral student.”

Prashanth Bharadwaj, dean’s associate in the Eberly College of Business and one of the people who helped develop the PhD program, taught Kevin in supply chain management classes.

“Kevin was a pleasure to have in class,” Bharadwaj said. “He was always thoughtful with his comments, sincere in his approach to learning, and humble in his demeanor. His peers learned a lot from him, and Kevin was always eager to listen to them. Since my training and consulting experience is in industrial engineering and supply chain management, it was always interesting and beneficial to discuss his wealth of experiences. I am so proud of his commitment, and I cannot wait to call him Dr. Kevin Lhota!”

Kevin lamented the absence of an industrial policy in the country and the lack of focus on manufacturing and supply chain management by most CEOs of leading corporations. In almost all the western Pennsylvania factories in which he worked, the people are scattered or gone, and the buildings and equipment are torn down or rusted, he said. There is nothing for him to show from his 45 years of work in industry.

“With my PhD dissertation, I will be able to create something that will be my original work and will last forever,” Kevin said. “That is my legacy-building work, and that appeals to me tremendously.”