Williamston, Mich. — Martin Stark is a team builder who pushed a German-style apprenticeship at Bekum America Corp. nearly 25 years ago. He's from Germany, after all, as are many of the people at the Williamston maker of blow molding machines.
Given the headline-grabbing skilled worker shortage, Stark can't understand why the United States can't seem to get it together. About 40 percent of the Bekum America's 60-or-so manufacturing employees came through the company's four-year, 8,000-hour apprenticeship program.
"It's a big issue. It's getting bigger here in America. They will be in trouble if they don't start and do it right. And everybody's bitching about finding skilled workers," Stark said.
"What is so difficult, it's 200-300 years old from Europe? They know everything about it. Why can't we take $50 billion, instead of sending it to Iraq, you know, and develop this? Send 2,000 people to Germany to learn about it, how to do it right. And do it here. It's unbelievable."
Stark, 77, is chairman of Bekum America, the U.S. operation of the German extrusion blow molding machinery builder Bekum Maschinenfabriken GmbH. His plastics machinery career has spanned nearly half a century — 37 years at Bekum and before that, 10 years at Battenfeld of America.
Now, Stark is going into the Plastics Hall of Fame.
A lot of machinery people are already in the hall. Most of them are experts in technology such as engineers. Not Stark. He's not an inventor; his strength is management.
"My style is more a team builder. And the guiding comment always was 'people make the difference,'" he said.
He never went to a university but said his "college" came at his first job, at the big German company Robert Bosch GmbH.
Stark's belief in teamwork started earlier. He was five years old when World War II ended, living in a town of a few hundred people in southern Germany and going to grammar school in a one-room schoolhouse.
After the war, refugees and local people created a soccer club. Stark got into it, becoming captain of a youth team and then the secretary. Soccer laid the groundwork for his leadership style.
"You know, one good top-notch soccer player cannot win many games. You need a team behind you. I think I was good in building a team," he said. "And that's how I do it [in business]. It's not me who knows everything. I want to hire people who know more than I do, in their particular field. I want to form a team together. And that's what I did at Bekum."
In Germany, his parents sent him to a one-year business school run by Catholic nuns in nearby Dillingen, the county seat. After that, he signed up for an apprenticeship at a company that made agricultural equipment. Stark was training to be a commercial businessman.
"These programs were unbelievably good. You were going through all departments of the company," he said. "It was a three-year program and every four, five or six months you were moved to a different department. You were in shipping. You were in accounting. You were in sales. You were in customer service."
After the apprenticeship, he got a job at Bosch in a 4,000-employee business unit making appliances like refrigerators, dishwashers and washing machines. Stark was organized and worked hard. Management picked him to join a development program for young people.
"Every six months, I could choose what department I wanted to work in. It was incredible. I learned more at Bosch than at school," he said.
Stark worked at Bosch for 10 years, all of it in appliances.
"You went into the precalculation of the products, which you had to calculate: How much does this washing machine cost? Every nut and bolt had to be in the calculation. So, you learned how to calculate product costs. Then I went to purchasing. Then I went to materials, logistics. Then I was responsible for production line 1 and inventory to make sure all the parts are there on time."
He used those skills every day at Bekum. Stark's final job at Bosch was assistant to the appliances president. He sat in all the meetings with department heads, keeping minutes. He handled follow-up.
"It was awesome, really. That was my education," he said.