Dave Maurer: Persistence is key to success

Dave Maurer outside of Humphrey Products, next to the Michigan Centennial Business Plaque

This past Friday, Dave Maurer gave a presentation to his fellow Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS) board members entitled, “The Business Community’s Role in Providing Hope.”

A few days earlier, we had a chance to meet up and interview Dave at Humphrey Products, a Kalamazoo, Michigan-based manufacturer. Founded more than 100 years ago, Humphrey’s innovations date back to the commercialization of gaslight products in 1901.

Humphrey then

Today, with over 250 employees, Humphrey is recognized as a leading producer of pneumatic products, serving organizations worldwide.

Humphrey today

Dave grew up here, moving to the area when he was in elementary school. He graduated from Portage Northern High School and then obtained a degree in economics from the University of Michigan.

Dave first started working for Humphrey in the assembly department. It was his summer job in 1984. “By the end of that summer, they needed help in sales and in the marketing department. They knew I went to U of M and asked if I knew about spreadsheet programs. These were relatively new back then. I had learned about them so I started doing life cycle data entry and analysis for Humphrey. I did this over both summer and Christmas breaks, and they offered me a job upon graduation in the marketing department.” Today, Dave is President of the company.

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned? 

Not so much learned, but has been dramatically reinforced. History repeats itself. The book I’m currently reading really brought this home to me. I guess the older I get, the more I understand the ebb and flow of things.

What are you currently reading?

Right now, I’m reading Arthur Herman’s Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II. This book really reinforces the cycles we go through in terms of both industrial and military strength, and especially emphasizes how atrophied we became as a country after World War I. It’s amazing when you realize the effort that was required to assist Great Britain prior to entry into World War II.

We generally had excellent leadership at the time, but many of the industrial leaders who had participated in the buildup for World War I were persecuted in post-war society. With tensions in Europe building leading up to World War II, most of the country felt we should remain neutral. “Don’t get involved; don’t pick a horse, don’t engage in helping either side of the battle.” Yet, with all the atrocities that came to light, we really couldn’t ignore it. Pearl Harbor ultimately sealed our involvement. Regardless, we had some phenomenally gifted leaders that took this country from being unable to produce a single aircraft engine to producing thousands a year. It’s just amazing to consider the supply chain that had to be created and sustained. This book is a good reminder that those cycles go back forever and how critical the role of a strong manufacturing base is in maintaining pre-eminence in the world. It’s very easy to get complacent…or even feel that manufacturing is some type of vestigial appendage of the U.S. economy.

What is your favorite word right now?

Persistence.

What is something you love about Kalamazoo?

There is a lot of variety in terms of things to do here!  Almost certainly driving that is the fact that we also have a lot of people that are willing to get involved. I work in some organizations at the state level and see just how blessed we are in this community with thoughtful individuals who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved. There are many communities that don’t have a very deep bench for this type of work. It sets us apart.

Hobbies?

I like to fish. I like to hunt. I like to read. I like to cook. I’m a little bit of a current events junkie.

What dish are you known for?

We love the U.P. and have a cottage there. We have an outdoor, brick smoker that my late father custom built. I love to load it up with beef brisket, pork butts, and chickens and let it go all day. We’ve also done cedar-planked white fish in it. It tastes great!

Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

I had wonderful parents. My dad was very active, served on a number of boards, served in the church and was a good mentor and model. So was my mom, in addition to being an outstanding cook. She was involved in the Institute of Arts, the church, and a number of other groups. They were both excellent role models. I learned good balance from them: community service, family care, self-care, and faith.

What advice do you have for our 12,000+ students—the up and coming generation of workers—to prepare themselves for obtaining a job in the manufacturing industry?

Do not give up on math and science.

They can be difficult concepts, sometimes, but they are cumulative. You have to go through one discipline to get to the next. And once you give up, it’s very difficult to get back on the escalator of math and science understanding. It breaks my heart when this happens. It often feels like this is a problem in the United States more than any other country and I sometimes wonder if that is because our kids are given the flexibility to check out of the most rigorous disciplines in these areas…I’m afraid we’ve lowered some of our expectations and provided weak alternate paths.

Particularly in some of the Asian countries I travel to it seems like there is a much higher level of expectation with regard to persistence through advanced STEM curriculum. As a student, you are expected to persist through these disciplines. At the same time, I also witness their interactions with their parents and see first-hand that the kids are often more stressed about achievement—so it’s not 100 percent healthy either. There has to be some “happy medium” out there we can aspire to. Lowering our expectations cannot be the answer. Our kids are going to have to compete against these folks and we aren’t doing them any favors if we’re lowering our expectations.

What one thing can parents do to help prepare their child for today’s labor force?

I think we have a generation of parents who didn’t necessarily persist through these disciplines either, so they feel a little at a loss as to how best to help their children do so. It’s especially hard for parents who aren’t very comfortable asking for help. They want to help and yet, they can’t provide the help themselves. Finding resources to do that is not so easy. I did persist and, still, it can be challenging to help my kids. I once had a half hour argument with my son about the proper way to do long division. A half hour…and I have a degree from U-M. 

But it’s important to send that message: persist. Help your child persist.

You joined the CIS board over six months ago. As you know, there are many great organizations throughout the Kalamazoo area that support kids. Why CIS?

One of my previous favorite reads is The Coming Jobs War by Jim Clifton. [Dave pulls a dog-eared book off the shelf in his office and opens it to Chapter 10: “K-12 Schools—Where Entrepreneurs are Created.”] This is one of my favorite chapters.

One of the fundamental principles of the book is that we, as business leaders, must take an active role in the day to day nurturing of schools—be a face that these kids see—and be an active part of the community that is supporting them. CIS helps with this. As business leaders, we are in a unique position to give them hope, let them see what is available for them when they are done with their K-12 education. We can be a role model, help them make that connection from where they are today to where we are today. We can also sometimes offer some degree of job and financial security where none exists today.  But if we don’t create opportunities to connect with the kids, that connection never happens.

At Communities In Schools, we believe that every child needs a marketable skill to use upon graduation. It’s one of our five CIS basics. As an employer, what marketable skills are you looking for right now?

We tend to really like life-long learners. But, it’s difficult to assess this in an interview, in that short window of time. So we try to proxy that, find ways to ask questions that indicates how they might be a life-long learner and see if that is a fundamental part of who they are. Do they have that willingness to learn and advance?

Eighteen years is the average tenure for folks at our company. Well over half of our management team here at Humphrey have come up through the ranks. If we’re not hiring people eager to learn new things, we can get stale. We need to constantly bring in new ideas from the outside world even if we’re not bringing in new people.

It seems like you’re doing a pretty good job with this. Your company has been around since 1901.

The Humphrey family deserves credit for that. I have to give them phenomenal kudos. As a fifth generation family business, they have persisted through the years. There are ups and downs in business and there are always companies who desire to purchase us. The Humphrey family has the patience to persist. They understand all this and are happy being in this community and feeding a couple hundred families. They see this as part of their role.

Thank you for your time, Dave Maurer!