Stephan Waltman is nothing if not organized, setting his retirement from Stiles Machinery for the twenty-second of this month – 35 years to the date on which he began working there.
Waltman carries a high profile among wood manufacturers, as an active board member of industry associations like AWI, BIFMA, WDMA, ACSP, and KCMA. He has also been a catalyst for a wood industry initiative to establish the National Manufacturing Training Center. Waltman triggered the effort as the nominator of wood industry educator Dean Mattson for a WMIA Wooden Globe Award in 2013. Mattson’s vision for a national academy was embraced by the industry, and Waltman has tirelessly fostered the program. (It opens August 2017 in Colorado Springs).
Before his final role as Stiles’ VP Communications, Waltman worked through many roles at the Grand Rapids technology supplier, starting as a sales engineer in 1982. Slogging from a slow start in a large territory, within a year Waltman was the company’s top seller, a title he retained for years until he became Vice President, Sales & Marketing, and joined the executive team that guided Stiles Machinery through dramatic growth.
Waltman began his career much earlier, learning at the elbow of a grandfather who cut precise hardwood patterns for the metal casting process in his shop in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“Woodworking is in my blood; it is in my DNA,” Waltman says. “My German immigrant grandfather brought that skill with him, and shared it with me.” By age 12 he was running machinery.
“I was changing band saw and planer blades. Today they would arrest you!” A big influence was his high school shop teacher, “who I absolutely adored.” Following a tour of duty in Viet Nam, Waltman finished his education in the Industrial Engineering & Technology Department at Western Michigan University, whose faculty authored many classic textbooks for wood educators. He taught industrial woodworking at a local skill center, the graduates funneled to the many Grand Rapids furniture firms that earned the town its name, The Furniture City.
In short order, Waltman was hired by Alan Hunting (the Hunting family founded Steelcase) and set to work building fine veneered office furnishings at Stow-Davis. Mandated to update manufacturing processes, he was soon plant superintendent, and became a customer of the newly founded Stiles Machinery, Inc.
”Those five years, were exceptional,” Waltman says. “Not only was I engaged at the leading edge of manufacturing; I also had these wonderful artisan craftsmen out in the factory: German, Italian, Swedish, Polish – every nationality.” A brief stint at a clock case manufacturer that went under in the downturn brought Waltman to Stiles Machinery, as a sales engineer, in 1982.
“I drove 50,000 miles that first year,” Waltman recalls, but his sales were sparse. “My first sale was a $30,000 panel saw in Bay City, Michigan.” The next year he reached $600,000 and was named top salesman, and again every year through 1984. In 1985 Waltman was made Great Lakes Regional Sales Manager; then in 1988 became VP Sales & Marketing, and the company reached $20 million in sales. (By the time Homag acquired Stiles in 2014, it reported sales of $250 million).
In 2006, Waltman was elevated to VP Marketing (Gene Newberg became VP Sales) as Stiles moved into solid wood machinery. In his various roles, Waltman has always seen himself as a coach.
“I was never that tough boss telling people what to do. . .I was the guy that brought teams together. . .more of a planner, plotter, and encourager. I wanted to make sure we are all going forward together.”
As a manager, “I preached work-life balance; being that whole person. It was a little unusual at the time.” In 2008, Waltman and the Stiles leadership team charted a new strategy, Waltman says.
“We talked about other opportunities, and decided that unless all industries we served were well managed and healthy, we weren’t going to sell any equipment. So I started to reach out to stakeholders of the industry so we could help their members in these various segments of the marketplace.”
Waltman joined the leadership of the Architectural Woodwork Institute; the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association; the Business & Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association, National Association of Store Fixture Manufacturers, Window and Door Manufacturing Association and other groups.
“At first they were dubious that suppliers belonged in leadership,” he said. “But once they could see that I was sincere about putting the resources of Stiles behind their programs, the rest is history.” Education was the next frontier. “I am the only person left at Stiles that was on the original Stiles Advisory Board,” Waltman says. The group included Peter Kleinschmidt, Dave Rothwell, and Bill Cariano, and Waltman recalls a critical 1989 meeting at the Americas Club in Wisconsin.
“We agreed that the one thing that will prevent us from getting to $200 million is finding the workers trained to run and repair the equipment. And so we approached Duane Griffiths from Pittsburg State University, and established the Stiles Education Center.”
Waltman, an ex-teacher himself, helped Griffiths in promoting the program. “I look back on that day and that experience as a real high point,” Waltman says. “As a company we did something really special.” (Griffiths retires in 2017, turning the reigns over to Thomas Allott.)
Though his daily life in the Stiles Machinery office will draw to a close, Waltman is already busy volunteering at the Grand Rapids Veterans Home woodworking program (they have a CNC now) and is active with the Wounded Warriors Project. He is blogging at WoodIQ, and is readily reachable at swaltman0026@ gmail.com.
“Companies need to turn over,” Waltman says. “I had my time; when I move aside it freshens the team.” He expects to continue supporting education programs at woodworking schools, and welcomes “new challenges and opportunities, that I might use my experience to help any organization in their pursuit of a competitive advantage” as he says at www.linkedin. com/in/stevewaltman