Michigan man earns spot in Plastics Hall of Fame
Williamston — Martin Stark keeps plastic bottles next to family photos in his office.
His company, Bekum America, builds plastic blow molding machines. Some of them can churn out thousands of shampoo bottles in a single day.
In a large trophy case at Bekum’s headquarters in Williamston, there are yogurt cups and jelly squeeze bottles next to shampoo bottles and gas containers and other sorts of plastic containers, too.
Bekum touches nearly everyone’s life, Stark likes to say, though few people know it.
Stark’s 50-plus year career and his dedication to increasing public knowledge about his industry has earned him a spot in the Plastics Hall of Fame. He’ll be officially inducted in May.
“I’m not an inventor. I don’t have any patents,” Stark said. “It’s very humbling.”
Stark moved to the United States in 1969 from a small town in southern Germany. Two of his brothers were living in the Chicago area, and Stark wanted to improve his English and learn more about American business.
At first, Stark worked overnight shifts at a bakery and went to English classes during the afternoons. Soon after, Stark started working for a company that imported injection molding machines in Skokie, Illinois.
He joined Bekum America Corp. in 1981. The company was established by its parent company in Germany to build its blow molding machines in the United States. Stark helped take the company from a struggling startup to a successful business.
He was named president and CEO in 1992 and chairman in 2010.
One of Stark’s biggest strengths is his ability to work with people, said Owen Johnston, vice president and chief financial officer at Bekum. Stark is known among his employees for his straightforwardness and his caring personality, he said.
“Some athletes have the ability to make everyone else around them better. I think that’s the kind of person Martin is,” Johnston said.
One of Stark’s largest contributions to Bekum is a German-style apprenticeship program that he developed.
The program has trained more than 40 percent of Bekum’s manufacturing workforce, and it has had a huge impact on the company’s ability to hire skilled workers, especially when unemployment is low, said Steve London, president and chief operating officer.
“It was really a little bit of a vision into the future of what was coming,” London said.
Stark has high expectations for his employees and holds himself to the same standard, London said. He’s never been afraid to pitch in, driving parts to customers and making early treks to the office to call colleagues in Europe.
Stark also has worked to build public awareness about the plastics industry.
He introduced a scholarship for local graduating high school students interested in pursuing a college education in any of the fields of engineering, plastics or manufacturing.
During his time at Bekum, the company has hosted open houses of the factory and often invites schools to bring children in for tours.
The company has also established a blow molding machine consignment program within the Plastics Engineering Center at Ferris State University and has also provided technical support for Bekum-built machines installed at technical teaching labs at Penn State University Erie and Michigan State University.
Wolfgang Meyer, a longtime friend and co-worker and the person who nominated Stark for his spot in the Hall of Fame, said his willingness to take chances on those types of programs has been a big part of his success.
And, even when the two were competitors in the industry, Stark always remained fair, he said.
“He’s tough,” Meyer said. “He’s also a person that quickly recognizes the people that put in an effort and do a good job.”
Stark said what he’s enjoyed most about his career has been the loyal and dedicated people he works with.
“I don’t remember a day in 35 years where I hated coming to the office,” he said. “I just love what I do.”