Plastics Hall of Famer Martin Stark has retired as chairman of Bekum America Corp. after 50 years in the industry, mostly with the U.S. operations of the German extrusion blow molding machinery builder Bekum Maschinenfabriken GmbH.
When Stark came to the U.S. from Germany in 1968, he was a trained businessman but spoke little English. He was managing a bakery in Chicago and taking night classes when he learned about a job opening at Battenfeld Corp. in Skokie, Ill.
Stark was hired for handling spare parts and materials procurement. His well-rounded management skills led to a promotion to vice president of the injection molding business.
After 12 years with Battenfeld, Stark joined the newly established Bekum America in Williamston, Mich. He started as Bekum's materials and operations manager and after three years was named vice president of operations.
In 1992, Stark became president and CEO and added the post of chairman of Bekum America in 2010. During his tenure, Bekum started a German-style apprenticeship program; funded scholarships for high school graduates studying engineering, plastics and manufacturing in college; and established partnerships and technology exchanges with several universities.
The apprenticeship program covers college tuition for a work-study program in conjunction with Lansing Community College. More than 50 percent of Bekum's manufacturing workforce has been trained in the award-winning apprenticeship program.
During an interview in 2018 when he was named to the Plastics Hall of Fame, Stark noted that as a company in a small town competing against the auto industry for workers, Bekum approached the German-style apprenticeship program as a way to "grow our own" workforce.
Under Stark's leadership, Bekum America gained a reputation for innovative, high-quality products and world-class service, according to President and Chief Operating Officer Steven D. London.
"Martin, whose persistence and vision turned Bekum into North America's top blow molding machine manufacturer, personifies great leadership in every sense of the word," London said in a news release. "He is a man whose passion to 'be all you can be' surely made everyone who came in contact with him better."
Stark has received many awards during his career, including the 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award from the blow molding division of the Society of Plastics Engineers as well as 2007 and 2013 Merlin Awards — one for producing 8-ounce milk bottles and the other for workforce development — from the German American Chamber of Commerce.
Stark was nominated for the Plastics Hall of Fame by Wolfgang Meyer. The pair met at Battenfeld of America, where Meyer later would be president.
Meyer said Stark quickly recognized how to build a U.S. machinery manufacturing operation and make it profitable while other companies have failed. He also said the loyalty of Bekum employees is impressive.
Stark said it has been an honor to work for Bekum America.
"I have enjoyed every moment promoting the growth of extrusion blow molding, development of an outstanding workforce and the promotion of our award-winning Apprenticeship Program," he said. "Thank you to each Bekum team member for contributing to our collective success."