Roger Koch: A Man of Principles, Ideas, and Schedules

Friday, September 21, 2012

A funny thing happened to University of Iowa College of Engineering alumnus Roger Koch (BSChE 1977) in the 1980s when an employer reneged on a potentially lucrative offer.

Instead of quitting in anger, as some people might have done, he called upon the principles he had grown up with. So, he stayed on with the company, worked even longer hours, and improved his already outstanding performance — secure in the belief that his efforts would eventually pay off. And he was right.

Several years later — with the firm in bankruptcy and his division the most profitable unit — he made his employer an offer, and he bought the whole company.

The strength of character that enabled Koch (pronounced “COOK”) to stand his ground throughout the entire episode was based upon the same guideposts he had followed during his childhood on an Iowa dairy farm. He knew then, as now, that: “Trust is currency.”

“A leader must be willing to work harder and sacrifice more than any of the people who work for or with him.”

“An idea without a schedule is just a dream.”

What kind of childhood would encourage such values?

Koch, along with two sisters and one brother, grew up on his parents’ dairy farm in western Iowa near the town of Westside, not far from where his grandparents lived. Nearly every day of the year, he could be found milking the cows before he caught the bus to school and again in the afternoon, after school had let out. Weekends he cleaned the hog houses. During the summer, he worked on neighboring farms.

“It was a very busy lifestyle,” he says, “probably the busiest of my life. And we had a very close family and spent time on the land. I spent my free time hunting and fishing.”

Not surprisingly, after years of milking cows and cleaning hog pens he came to a conclusion.

“I decided early on that I didn’t want to be a farmer,” he says. Instead, he applied himself to his studies and earned three scholarships, including a University of Iowa scholarship that paid full tuition, a State of Iowa Scholarship, and a Lavern Noyes Scholarship, the latter given to descendants of World War I veterans.

After earning undergraduate degrees in pre-med and general science, he returned to the UI. A longtime interest in engineering had attracted him to the College of Engineering, but it was emeritus professor Arthur Vetter who convinced him that he could complete all the coursework necessary for an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering in two years by taking 20 credit hours per semester. “Professor Vetter talked me into it,” he says.

Following graduation, Koch spent one year at Grain Processing Corporation, Muscatine, Iowa, before moving to Chicago to accept a position at the Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute. About his IIT days, Koch says, “I worked harder and longer so that I would be at the top. I was really committed to doing well.”

Koch enjoyed the work, but not the winters, so after two years he resigned. The possessions he didn’t sell or give away he loaded into his AMC Gremlin and headed for Florida.

“I was driving to Florida with no job prospects, but I knew that if I worked hard, I could survive,” he says.

As it turned out, there were no chemical engineering jobs available in Miami, so he began looking at aviation companies. It wasn’t long before prospective employers noticed that his IIT resume included such items as considerable skill in grant proposal writing and experience in developing a new process for manufacturing a specialized rocket fuel for NASA’s Space Shuttle.

Once again, the principle of hard work paid off. Although he had no previous aviation experience, Koch was welcomed at DECA Aviation, Miami, by his future boss with the words: “If you were good enough to work on the Space Shuttle, then you’re good enough to work here.”

At that point in his career, Koch was set for a ride to success — a ride propelled by the work ethic that had taken him from the farm to the university and on to the workplace.

A short time later, his firm branched out from performing aircraft maintenance to designing and assembling executive aircraft interiors — and he was put in charge of the new business.

He recalls learning that the company providing the seats for the plane was going to be late in delivering their part of the order, and that meant Koch’s firm would incur a heavy financial penalty for being late with its order. But Koch had an idea.

“You can learn anything just by reading a book,” he says. “So I read up on it and designed and built an aircraft seat. FAA certification of a seat usually took from 30 to 60 days, but we didn’t have that much time. So I drove the seat to Atlanta and asked to meet with the certification official, but I was told he would be in conference for the next week.”

Koch was persistent.

“I told him that failing to honor the terms of the contract would mean the end of the company, and he agreed to meet with me evenings for one week until he signed off on the design. We quickly built and installed the seats, and I had a very happy
customer,” he says.

Koch realized that if his firm had experienced problems in having aircraft seats delivered, other aviation firms might be having similar problems. So he took one of his seats to a large firm and set it in the lobby where everyone could see it.

“I turned their lobby into my showroom so that when customers of the firm left that day, I had orders for 50 seats, a total of more than a quarter of a million dollars,” he says.

Promotions, a move to a new firm called Aircraft Modular Products, and –- as noted earlier –- the purchase of an entire company followed. It was the early 1990s, and even if major carriers like Pan Am, Eastern and Continental were filing for bankruptcy, Koch’s new firm was doing very well producing seats, galleys, furniture and other items for smaller carriers and private aircraft manufacturers.

By 1997, his firm held a 90-percent share of the executive aircraft seat market and was doing very well financially when he unexpectedly received a phone call from a group of businessmen asking if the company was for sale and, if so, for him to state his price.

“I paused, then said ‘$100 million’ just to get rid of the caller,” he says. But the caller wasn’t put off in the least and promised to call back. Koch knew the offer was serious when the group called back, setting conditions for periodic escrow payments of portions of the $100 million. Koch called a meeting of his shareholders, many of whose lives could be forever changed by the deal, but before he could act on it, he received a phone call from a different group and a new proposal. This time it was a
$106 million cash offer with no conditions.

“I accepted the offer at dinner on a handshake. A handshake is your word,” he says.

Today, Koch is retired from the aviation business and serves as president of Conscious Lighting, Miami, a designer and manufacturer of energy saving light emitting diode (LED) lighting fixtures. He enjoys working part-time, golfing and fishing, and spending the rest of his time with his three sons and the rest of his extended family.

A past member of the University of Iowa Chemical and Biochemical Engineering Advisory Board, he has given seminars at the College of Engineering on entrepreneurship. He enjoys mentoring UI students, some of whom have gone on to become successful business leaders.

Also, Koch’s philanthropy efforts have made a difference at the University of Iowa. In 2011, he provided two generous gifts to the UI: one for pioneering interdisciplinary research into bipolar disorders; another gift providing major support for the college’s Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering.

Koch recently returned to the UI to be inducted into the college’s Distinguished Alumni Academy and to deliver the spring 2012 charge to the graduates at commencement. He offered them advice about the value of maintaining a good work ethic, including, he says, this item: “Be willing to take a job that doesn’t necessarily meet all of your expectations. You’ve got to get a foot in the door.”

Oh, and remember: “An idea without a schedule is just a dream.”