A Conversation With ... Frank Altmayer, AESF Technical Education Director
Frank Altmayer is a Master Surface Finisher and an AESF Fellow who is technical education director of the AESF Foundation and NASF. He owned Scientific Control Laboratories from 1986 to 2007, and has 45 years of experience in metal finishing. He was voted into the Finishing Hall of Fame this year, and we caught up with him in his kitchen while he was making bouillabaisse.
PF: What do you enjoy most about teaching electroplating?
FA: I’ve been fortunate to have several teachers who inspired me, and they gave me the incentive to emulate them. When I can see that a student has had that light bulb come on. It’s a thrill for me that’s hard to describe.
PF: What makes a good electroplater?
FA: A good plater can juggle three balls at the same time—produce high quality parts, run a profitable business and take care of the environment. A great plater juggles more than three, including taking good care of your employees, and contributing to the industry through participation in AESF/NASF/MFSA.
PF: You’ve become quite the chef. Why do you enjoy it so much?
FA: I’m hardly a good chef. I took cooking lessons as a way to get away from my everyday stresses and to challenge myself in taking on an activity of which I was totally ignorant. I was at a place where I no longer sailed, so I had to find a substitute activity. I enjoy going from zero knowledge on a subject to a point at which I can get others to say, “Hey, that’s pretty good.” In my 20s, I took up skiing, in a similar vein—from no knowledge to adequate. In my 40s, it was the same with sailing—zero to adequate.
PF: If you had one meal left to make and eat, what would it be?
FA: That would have to be an excellent bouillabaisse or cioppino. These are seafood soups that are hard to make right and when they are, you think you’ve been served by St. Peter. Between the two, I’d choose the bouillabaisse.
PF: What’s the best piece of advice you were given?
FA: Three weeks into my first full-time job, I was ready to quit. I had been hired to be trained as a laboratory technician at Scientific Control Labs, and all they had me do was wash the glassware because that guy was on vacation. My mom said to stick with it, and did that ever pay off. The guy on vacation was an employee of mine when I sold Scientific Control Labs 40 years later.
PF: What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?
FA: Upon graduation from high school, my mother informed me that college was not in the cards. She was cleaning offices day and night to make ends meet. In 1966, I was hired by Simon Gary, who owned Scientific Control Labs on the south side of Chicago. Things did not go splendidly at first. However, Mr. Gary saw some hidden talent and convinced me to go to college at night. He paid for 75 percent of my tuition as long as I got good grades. After three years, I was discouraged that I was not progressing at the company and interviewed for a position at another laboratory. Fortunately, within the same week the lab manager at Scientific Control resigned and, despite only three years of experience, I was able to convince Mr. Gary to let me take over managing the lab. In 1974, I graduated from IIT and the same year I took on a research project for a client that ended up revolutionizing how ECG electrodes were made. My reward for this discovery allowed me to buy into the company and, eventually, I became owner of Scientific Control. I learned that patience is a difficult, but rewarding virtue.
PF: If you had $100,000 to give to a charity, which one would it be?
FA: I’d give it to Lane Technical High School, for providing students with a great combination of hands-on training along with an excellent education in fundamentals. I took the architect track. I had shop classes, such as house framing, along with drafting and design. I was going to be an architect and Lane made a great effort at producing one. Unfortunately, it did not work out.
PF: What was your first car, and what is your dream car?
FA: A 1966 Ford Mustang. It was and still is my dream car.
PF: What leadership traits have helped you along the way?
FA: I like to place myself in the shoes of those that I need to lead and see things from their perspective. I try to figure out what motivates each one and then see if I can help.
PF: What did you want to be when you grew up?
FA: At 10, I was going to be an architect. My dad was a bricklayer, and I saw those bloody hands come home at night. I figured that was not for me, but maybe I could design those things he put together with his hands.
PF: Night owl or early bird?
FA: Night owl in my 20s, very much an early bird now.
PF: Favorite place you’ve ever lived?
FA: Due to work and now due to four grandkids, I’ve never lived outside the Chicago area, but my wife and I did rent an apartment in Paris for a month, and I’d go back there in a heartbeat.
PF: What organization or company, aside from your own, do you most admire?
FA: There are several, but the first metal finisher that comes to mind is Lincoln Plating. I’ve known Marc LeBaron for more than 40 years, and his approach to running a metal finishing business is a model for the rest of us. I also admire Three J’s Industries. With no background in plating, Joanne Marozza and her two sisters took over after their dad passed away and made this one of the best-run metal finishers in the Chicago area. A nonmetal finishing company I have worked for and admire very much is Apple. Free all-you-want Starbucks in the hallways says it all.
PF: If you could trade jobs with anyone for a day, who would it be?
FA: Amazon’s Jess Bezos. One day’s pay would be about $107 million, which should hold me for a while.
PF: Where would we find you on a typical Saturday?
FA: If all goes well in the next 12 months, you will find me playing with the grandkids, if it is spring/summer/fall. In winter, you will find me walking or biking in the sunshine in South Carolina or southern California.
PF: Best way to keep competitive edge?
FA: Don’t focus on the competition. Focus on refining and improving what you do.
PF: Personal heroes?
FA: Simon Gary who mentored me and believed in me when things seemed like he should not; my mom, who was my moral compass; and my wife, who has put up with me for 50 years.
PF: How do you motivate people?
FA: I don’t think anyone can be motivated. I think it has to come from within a person. In hiring, I was focused on finding workers who were self-motivated. Maybe that was because I did not know how to do it.
PF: How do you motivate yourself?
FA: That dopamine which is released when you struggled but accomplished a goal is my greatest motivation.
PF: Three greatest passions?
FA: Teaching, leisure traveling, good food
PF: Most unique office décor?
FA: I have some 60-plus million-year-old fossils that I found near Coal City, Illinois.
PF: Best business decision?
FA: I hired my wife to take on human resources and watch over the books. She was fantastic at it.
PF: Worst business decision?
FA: I expanded the lab services at Scientific Control beyond the services that I clearly understood. After three years of losses in those departments, I had to shut those services down. It actually ended up increasing our profitability.
PF: Biggest management myth?
FA: People can be motivated.
PF: What advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago?
FA: Stop making poor real estate transactions. I bought and sold three houses, each at a substantial loss, in the last 10 years.
PF: Word that best describes you:
FA: An employee at AESF headquarters said that if I was in a beauty contest, I’d win Mr. Congeniality.
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