Paul Koster grew up in Idaho. His first job kept him busy from sunup to sundown. He was a motivated employee, but knew he didn't want to spend the rest of his life in that line of work.
What he did want was to ride a dirt bike.
He was 12 or 13 years old, and his mother was dead-set against the idea. He'd have to buy the bike himself, with his own money, she told him. So he got a job building beehives.
It was hard work, “but I got enough money for a down payment,” he said, “and my dad helped with the rest.”
Such was Koster's first lesson in business: Hard work pays off.
In due course, the road from Idaho took Koster to Utah, where he met his wife, Nikki, while earning a degree in electrical and computer engineering at Brigham Young University. From there, he traveled to the University of Denver's Daniels College of Business for his MBA.
His journey eventually led to plastics and Selmax Corp. — but only recently. First, he spent 21 years in project management with aerospace and defense giant Raytheon Co. in Aurora, Colo. His last project there was as deputy program manager for the Joint Polar Satellite System project for NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He received the Exceptional Public Service Medal from NASA.
“[The job] was very technically complex and every day was challenging. The mission was about protecting lives and property, which gave us a great sense of purpose,” he said.
That massive, $1.8 billion project involved a team of 650-700 people.
“Needless to say, with this new business venture [at Selmax], the second half of my professional career looks to be very different than the first half,” Koster said.
Family-owned Selmax employs about 20 people. The custom injection molder serves markets including construction, consumer products, outdoor sports, industrial/tool and toys.
The Selinsgrove, Pa.-based firm operates nine presses, with clamping forces of 45-450 tons. Its 17,000-square-foot plant includes a machine shop for mold manufacturing, maintenance and repair. It also does design and rapid prototyping/3-D printing.
Nikki Koster's grandparents founded the firm 44 years ago. “My wife's family owned the business and they were looking for next-generation leaders/owners, someone to take over,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I've always wanted to own my own business, to try to be the entrepreneur I hoped I could be.”
Koster, 46, only took the helm at Selmax in August — but many of the company's employees and customers have been with Selmax for decades. “Because we are not a large company, the culture is very much like a large family. The team takes great pride in their workmanship and in making ‘Made in America' mean something,” he said.
Though this job is in a different field and on a different scale than his Raytheon work, Koster said his leadership, management and people skills are “completely portable” to Selmax. He's learned a lot since that first beehive business lesson.
“I have received a lot of good advice from a lot of smart people over the years. I think there are two [tips] that stand out. First, ‘Be genuine,' especially as a leader. Don't pretend to be something you are not. People can always tell,” he said.
“Second, ‘Spend time listening.' We often focus on what they are going to say next rather than listening to what customers, employees, peers, suppliers, etc., are saying. Great solutions can come when people actually listen to each other.”
Koster also learned to focus on solving the issue at hand.
“As a young engineer, I was mentored by a seasoned senior engineer who would always ask the question, ‘What problem are we trying to solve?' His point was that people, teams and organizations often get bogged down in the details/challenges and lose site of the objective they are trying to achieve,” he said.
As a new CEO, Koster's currently in the stage of evaluating and making plans — big plans, he said. His immediate priorities are keeping existing customers happy and “making sure we have the right processes and right people in place to be competitive.”
And he does plan to be competitive. The company's 2014 sales figure of $2.5 million is just the beginning — a good place to build from, he said.
“I have my work cut out for me,” he said. “I'm looking forward to it. I see a lot of upside potential and I plan to work hard to capitalize on it.”
When asked what he'd like his legacy at the company to be, Koster said, “I would like to be remembered as the CEO that took our small company with a rich, 40-plus-year history and provided the right leadership to be successful for the next 40-plus years.”