Remembering a Finisher’s Son

Metal finisher Fred Warmbier lost his son Otto to the brutal North Korean government after he was charged with a dubious crime and sentenced to hard labor.


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Fred Warmbier is a metal finisher in Cincinnati.

At least that is what he was known as before January 2016, when his son, Otto Warmbier, was taken by the North Korean government during a visit as a student tourist and charged with a dubious crime and sentenced to hard labor.

As you may have read, Otto—who worked in his father’s shop when he was a teen—died in June when he was returned to the U.S. in a coma from which he never recovered. Fred and his wife, Cindy, watched their son pass only days after returning home.

I first came across Fred when I read a series of columns he wrote for the New York Times in 2014 about running Finishing Technology, a metal finishing business that is about a 30-minute drive from my office in Cincinnati.

Fred was asked to write a series of articles in the Times’ “You’re the Boss: the Art of Running a Small Business” column, a fantastic read on what it takes to own and manage a small company in the U.S. these days.

Fred explained in his first post how Finishing Technology offered metal finishing services such as anodizing, blasting, stainless passivation for food processing equipment such as mixers and popcorn machines, as well as for electrical components such as lugs and connectors.

any of his customers were also in the automotive, aerospace and defense industries.
“It’s a good business, and therein lies our challenge,” Fred wrote in his opening column.

Because it’s a good business with a lot of opportunity, we have managed to leave a lot of money on the table.”

What finishing shop owner or manager couldn’t relate to that statement? Reading that, I’m sure a lot of shop owners could understand how difficult it is to run a shop and optimize profits at the same time.

It’s a lonely world at the top of a company, trying to satisfy customers, wondering if a bid on a job will still turn a profit, and trying to find a way to make sure you can make payroll that week. Shop ownership is not for the weak of heart, nor for those who have a hard time dealing with confrontation and worry.

“My parents drilled into me that if we are smart and pay attention, we can learn from others,” Fred wrote back in 2014. “And I have made it a point to pay attention to the success of others and to try to emulate what they do—only to be left, all too often, wondering why it worked for them but not for me. This can be frustrating and confusing.”

The series of columns were fascinating to read; go to short.PFonline.com/warmbier today and read the collection on the New York Times website. They are that good, with titles ranging from “Walking Away from a Customer Who Demands a Discount” to “Am I Going to Lay Off Workers or Not?” and “No More Stalling,” “Suddenly, I Have Three People Who Don’t Have Enough to Do” to “Meeting Face-to-Face with Our Unhappy Customer.”

Before the newspaper articles, Forbes magazine also wrote about Fred and how a small business owner handled successes and failures.

“We used to say, ‘Run parts. Get paid. How hard can it be?’ Notice I said we used to say that,” Fred was quoted in the magazine article. “We don’t say that anymore, because that was another trap that came with growth. To counteract that we are in the process of changing our thinking to ‘create great processes, continually improve, run parts, make clients happy, and then get paid.’ In some ways, that approach is easier and better, and in other ways that is harder and better.”

So, I was shocked when I read in January 2016 that young Otto Warmbier from Cincinnati was snatched up by the brutal regime of Kim Jong-un and imprisoned without fair trial for the paltry crime of stealing a North Korean propaganda banner from his hotel.

In the ensuing months after Otto’s imprisonment and when he finally came home, we watched Fred speak on television in the most elegant terms about his son, often wearing the jacket his son wore when he was charged in the North Korean courtroom.

“I’m able to wear the jacket he wore when he gave his confession,” Fred said after his son was flown home on a medical jet. “I’m not confessing, I’m speaking, but Otto, I love you and I’m so crazy about you, and I’m so glad you’re home.”

If you saw that footage, it would be hard not to have your heart ache. More than a year ago, Fred was a simple plating shop owner, trying to figure after 30 years how to continue giving customers exactly what they wanted at a fair price, meeting payroll and being a good boss.

Otto was like so many kids of shop owners, spending their summers in the shop, going off to college, and maybe coming back home and taking over the family business.

Fred, Cindy and Otto are one of us. They ache, we ache. They mourn, we do, too. God bless the Warmbiers.


Originally published in the August 2017 issue.