Freezing temperatures are not among the first things that come to mind when thinking about the Umpqua Valley, but that hasn’t stopped a local company from becoming one of the first names in ice-drilling equipment.
Story by Jim Hays
The headquarters of one of the world’s top suppliers of equipment for scientific research is an unassuming, century-old homestead on a quiet stretch of Old Melrose Road, the thoroughfare that winds through the picturesque Umpqua Valley countryside.
The only giveaway to the location in this rural setting is a small, square, white sign next to the gravel driveway, which reads “Kovacs Ice Drilling & Coring Equipment.”
Up the drive is the global leader in its field. If there’s research being done in the planet’s coldest environments, Kovacs has probably supplied the scientists’ equipment — fabricated, built and shipped from Douglas County to the world.
Kovacs’ client list includes such names as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Japan’s National Institute of Polar Research, the Norwegian Polar Institute, the History Channel, Canadian Ice Service, Chilean Antarctic Institute, Danish National Space Center, Polar Research Institute of China and Australian Antarctic Division, to name but a few.
Plus a long list of research institutions that all start with “University of.”
Kovacs’ equipment is used to extract cores from glaciers and ice sheets to help scientists learn more about Earth’s climate cycles and track changes over several hundred millennia. Layers of ice form annually, and by studying individual layers, researchers can model weather patterns, estimate annual rainfall and calculate air temperatures going back thousands of years. Studies of ice core samples have revealed climate data dating back an estimated 800,000 years.
Presiding over the company is chief executive officer Donna Keib, a 40-something retired Air Force master sergeant, who with her then- husband purchased Kovacs from the company’s founder in 2013, then moved it cross country to the Melrose farmhouse she shares with four dogs and a cat.
Roseburg, where the weather rarely dips below freezing, may seem an unlikely spot for a company whose business is based on ancient glaciers and ice sheets, but Kovacs’ presence here is perfectly natural.
“I was born in Roseburg and grew up in Sutherlin,” says Keib.
Keib’s father, Fred Burson, worked 46 years at Nordic Veneer Inc. before becoming one of the company’s two employees and Keib’s top assistant.
Kovacs was founded in 1974 by engineer Austin Kovacs. He developed and refined efficient machinery for ice coring during his time as a civilian contractor with the U.S. Army Materiel Command’s Cold Regions Research and Environmental Laboratory in Hanover, N.H., and started the company in nearby Lebanon.
Nearly four decades later, and ready to retire, Kovacs sold the company to the Keibs, who were both stationed in Alaska, where Elijah Keib, a U.S. Marine, engineers ice roads and bridges on Alaska’s North Slope and Donna Keib was finishing a 20-year military career in Air Force command and control.
Out of the service and wanting to be closer to her father, who lived in Roseburg, Keib decided to move the company into the historic farmhouse she had purchased. Using her own vehicle and a series of rented trailers, she made four round trips to New Hampshire to retrieve equipment, records and all the trappings of the new acquisition.
Keib runs the business with a desktop computer and smartphone that keeps her in touch with clients worldwide.
The coring equipment and its shipping boxes and accessories are assembled in a converted garage behind the house. Many of the stainless-steel component parts are produced by Nix Manufacturing in Sutherlin and Kilkenny Machine in Roseburg.
“It would be so hard to do this without them,” she says.
She also gives a shout-out to the FedEx Ship Center in Roseburg, which helps coordinate her shipping, and the Sutherlin Area Chamber of Commerce, which provides Kovacs with Certificates of Origin, a legally required verification for sending manufactured goods out of the U.S. — where a majority of Kovacs’ equipment gets sent.
It’s not all business for Keib, however. For example, her company loaned equipment to an expedition seeking the wreckage of a World War II-era plane crash in Greenland; to 20th Century Fox Television for use in an episode of the series “Bones;” and to an entrepreneur who had purchased a glacier in Norway and wanted to test its viability as a source of bottled water.
It’s not all work, either. Last summer, Keib decided to learn to ride a motorcycle and ended up buying a BMW 650 Dual Sport and riding it — alone — to a rally in John Day, a seven-hour ride.
She concedes, however, that running Kovacs is typically a 24/7 operation that can be exhausting, both physically and mentally.
Still, she says, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”