DeBoer Leads Burke Porter

November 6, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — At roughly the same time Burke E. Porter Machinery Co. was expanding into the international market, David DeBoer was entering the work force.

Surrounded by hundreds of pieces of local artwork accumulated by late company namesake Burke E. Porter, DeBoer is now adjusting to his new role as the company’s fourth president. He’s come a long way in the past 20 years, and so has Burke Porter’s 53-year-old machine shop.

The world leader in automotive testing systems exports over half its products outside of the country. The company plants its flag in eight different countries, including its newest facility in China. It has installations in virtually every industrialized nation, and is aggressively seeking growth both at home and abroad.

“It’s an exciting time, an opportunity to perfect this great brand I’ve inherited. We’re looking to diversify and grow. But not crazy growth; steady growth.”

Although DeBoer has been with the company for only 37 days, he has a better understanding of the market opportunities than most. It’s no secret that Asia is the new frontier of the global automotive industry, and DeBoer is intimately familiar with the market. A year ago, he was living with his family in Seoul, South Korea, serving as vice president of global technology for Tower Automotive.

“I’ve seen the nature of our competition, the nature of how very fast the world is changing,” said DeBoer. “I’ve been blessed to see firsthand the experience and culture of our competition in a very short time, and while I still have enough youthful energy to apply it.”

Coming from the fast-paced world of a Tier 1 automotive supplier — some of Burke Porter’s core customers — DeBoer has a unique understanding of competition. The company, and to a large degree the community, is competing for everything. There is competition for jobs, for business, for innovation and for premium position in customers’ minds.

“This is all opportunity,” he said. “It’s not something to be afraid of.”

DeBoer was raised in the automotive world. His dad was an electrician at the General Motors AC Rochester plant in Wyoming, today the lone surviving local Delphi Corp. facility. This spurred his initial attraction to the engineering field, and his first sponsor at the GMI Engineering & Management Institute was a local automotive supplier. Shortly into the program, GMI expanded its sponsorship outside the industry, and DeBoer signed on with a rapidly expanding Steelcase Inc.

After his graduation in 1986, DeBoer took a position in product development with the furniture-maker, but left a short while later for graduate school at PurdueUniversity. Over the next decade, DeBoer held engineering positions with Otis Elevator, the world’s largest manufacturer of elevators and escalators; Medi-Ject, a manufacturer of needle-free drug delivery systems later acquired by Antares Pharma; and NordicTrack, the Minneapolis maker of fitness equipment.

It wasn’t until 1999 that DeBoer got back into the automotive space, then a healthy and robust industry. On leadership tracks at each of his previous employers, Tower was the first to move DeBoer into the operational side of the business, and later chose him as the point person for its Asian operations.

“That was a very big growing experience for me,” DeBoer said. “Tower gave me a lot of opportunities. They stretched every ounce of my capability.”

Ironically, he had originally taken the Tower position with the intention of moving closer to his hometown. Now at Burke Porter, DeBoer is settling his wife, Mara, and two daughters — born on the same day two years apart, he said, so he doesn’t forget the date — into the neighborhood he grew up in.

Coincidentally, the third-generation CrestonHigh School graduate shares the same alma mater as the company founder, who began working in the machine making business while a student there in the 1920s.

DeBoer hasn’t been able to get too comfortable in his return to West Michigan. He was in Belgium last month visiting the company’s facility in Bruges. There is a strong chance he will find himself abroad on a regular basis.

“Our largest growth opportunity is the global market,” DeBoer said. “But I think there is also opportunity within our existing customer base here.”

DeBoer hopes to see growth in the product segments and regions in which the company does not lead the market, particularly in non-automotive segments such as health care and medical device manufacturing. In the global market, the company hopes to retain the business of existing OEM and supplier clients as they expand to other regions.    

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