Defining, realizing success is up to you, says executive
Recalling his grandfather whose "values did not include prohibition," a prison inmate and a boss who took credit for his subordinates' work, S. Mark Tyler advised students to set their own standards for success.
Tyler, president of OEM Fabricators and this year's Executive in Residence at UW-River Falls, addressed a packed ballroom of students, faculty and community members April 3.
His grandfather was a talented but illiterate tinsmith, who was successful enough to own his own home and a lake home and hold the mortgages on his kids' houses, said Tyler. But when Prohibition hit, the old man faced a disconnect between his integrity and the reality of commerce.
"Grandpa's values did not include Prohibition," said Tyler. So when federal agents questioned him about the copper tank he was making for the production of a corn liquor moonshine called "Minnesota 13," the man had a moral dilemma. He could lie or he could end up in jail.
His grandfather said he was making the tank for the church, said Tyler. When the church priest was questioned, he equivocated and grandpa stayed free.
"Networks are incredibly important," summarized Tyler.
A different take on success
Tyler told of visiting two friends in prison -- veterinarians who made the mistake of selling a drug they could legally make but not legally market.
While in the crowded visiting room at "Club Fed" near Duluth, Minn., Tyler overheard another inmate.
"I'm getting out in a few week, and I really have to figure out what I have to do to get back in," Tyler recalled the man saying as he considered ways to make his way back to the minimum-security prison.
"His definition of success was completely different than ours," said Tyler.
But Tyler admitted that his own definition of success is often different than that of others.
As a baby, a child and an adult, said Tyler, he was always "short and round." In fourth-grade gym class he endured the agony of being among the last chosen for teams and an easy target for the other team in dodge ball.
Then one day his teacher punished him for not doing his math homework by making him skip gym and sit in the hall.
"This was like a gift," said Tyler.
By high school, he came to enjoy drafting classes and later studied machine and tool design at a technical college.
Upon graduation, he landed a plum job at American Hoist and Derrick Company. At the time the firm was the pinnacle of high-end manufacturing companies, said Tyler, who bought into the definition of success as climbing the corporate ladder and making lots of money.
As a data analyst, he collected information from documents and packaged it for managers. But he soon realized they were ignoring some of his reports and didn't notice when he stopped producing them.
So he used the time to volunteer for other work, thinking that he'd be so successful that he'd be noticed and promoted.
"It never dawned on me I'd get a jerk for a boss," said Tyler. The other man's attitude was, "I'm responsible for what you do, so I get the credit."
The man further alienated his subordinates by refusing to take responsibility for their mistakes.
"Success was his. Failure was ours," said Tyler.
Still the boss's attitude fostered a spirit of camaraderie among the three guys who worked beneath him. By the time he retired, they were working as a team, getting more done, sharing the success, taking on more responsibility and building a network, said Tyler.
After six years on the corporate ladder, Tyler had gotten seven promotions and was making four times as much as when he started, but he didn't feel successful.
Figuring it out
He said it took him a few more years to figure out that what was important to the company wasn't important to him.
His values included more time with his family, teamwork, shared recognition and integrity.
At the company where he worked, there were times when managers shipped faulty parts to customers, knowing the product was poor but knowing also that they had to make their numbers.
In the end, said Tyler, American Hoist went bankrupt. The company closed in 1985.
"There's a good reason they went away," said Tyler. "They deserved to go away."
In 1986 Tyler established OEM Fabricators in Woodville. Today, with 500 employees and $100 million in annual revenue, it is one of the largest contract manufacturers in the United States.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, OEM -- like most other U.S. companies -- saw sales drop, but workers stuck with the company and it saw growth of about 80% last year, said Tyler.
"Even if you do everything right, you will have tough times," he warned.
Competing against manufacturers in countries such as China isn't the obstacle it was once thought to be, said Tyler, responding to a question from a young woman. "People have learned that unit price isn't the only thing that matters," said Tyler. He said the cost of transportation and the delay in getting a product built and delivered must also be considered.
Also, said Tyler, rising wages in China are leveling the playing field.
"Competition is more than price," he said, "and yet often times we win on price."
These days, Tyler, who earned his Master's in Business Administration from the University of St. Thomas last year, spends half his time focusing on workforce development. He serves on the University of Wisconsin's Board of Regents and is president of the Wisconsin Technical College System.