Mekkes makes the most of opportunity

November 24, 2008
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Don Mekkes, president and owner of Tool Ventures International, said his biggest career break came when he followed the lead of his father-in-law, Tom O’Keefe, who offered him an apprenticeship at Northwest Tool and Die in 1977, the year after he got married.

“Being able to use what my father-in-law taught me my whole life, working with Hondas for 20 years, showing me some of the different ways of doing things,” Mekkes said of the opportunities presented to him.

His father-in-law opened up the door for him and Mekkes made the most of it.

“(I) worked my way up the ladder and became one of the lead toolmakers, one of the leaders of the shop,” he said.

“When the two owners retired in ’96, nine months (later) the company was struggling. We had some outsiders running it.

“They had a meeting and talked to some of the employees they started the company with, and somehow my name came up. They asked me if I would be interested in going up front and learning how to run a company.”

For the next seven years, Mekkes ran the company until the opportunity to buy another company — Trimline Tools, now Tool Ventures International — presented itself in 2005.

“I had an opportunity to buy this company,” he said. “It was just sitting there, staying stagnant — and here we are.”

And “here” is a pretty good place to be. Tool Ventures International moved into its new location at 3695 44th St. SE in June of this year after the acquisition of the former Synergis Technologies Group die cast plant.

The acquisition included the 35,000-square-foot Kentwood facility along with major equipment and several machines.

“The banks were very enthused about what we were doing. We actually had two banks. One bank wanted to do it and our bank said, ‘Nah, we’ll do it,’” he said. “In today’s economy, it feels like we’re at least on the right track.”

Mekkes attributes the company’s success to the people and philosophies that make up the company. While most of its business still comes from automotive, Mekkes said 90 percent of that is from Nissan, Honda and Toyota.

Don Mekkes
Company:
Tool Ventures International
Position: President
Age: 51
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Wyoming
Family/Personal: Wife, son, two daughters, one son-in-law and two grandchildren.
Biggest Career Break: Learning the trade from his father-in-law.

“We’re just on the lucky side of it this time,” he said. “We’ve all been on the other side of it a time or two.”

The company also has expanded into a temporary 12,000-square-foot service center in Huntsville, Ala. Both expansions came within a month of each other as the Alabama move was in July. The company plans to move to a bigger facility in Huntsville with full manufacturing capability by early 2009.

Mekkes said talent in tool and die is slim in the south, and many of the southern workers are brought up to the Kentwood facility to train.

“Talent is not the easiest to find,” he said. “We’ve found a couple good toolmakers to start with. We’ve found a good CNC (computer numerical control) guy, and I’ve got a great guy that’s a general all-around guy, but I am also filtering my toolmakers up here from down there at two weeks at a time. I’ve just hired two toolmakers from here that are moving down there.”

Tool Ventures International has been experiencing rapid success since Mekkes took over in 2004, when it was a $2 million-a-year company. Mekkes projects that number will be close to $10 million in 2009.

The company plans to further expand its role in India and utilize that market to bring more work to the United States.

“We are designing over in India currently, and we are building tools over in India. We’re going to machine them, assemble them and ship them back here for the tryouts,” he said. “My goal is to figure out how to trap that market over there and bring some work from over there here.”

Tool Ventures International partnered with V.A. Solutions to form Tool Ventures India.

Bryan Bovia, Mekkes’s son-in-law and vice president of Tool Ventures International, met with the India-based partner this past summer.

“I went over and checked out their operations,” Bovia said. “At the time, they just had engineering capabilities. They did do some machining of small details. They did that on the outside, and they would ship them over here to the United States. We formed a joint venture with them to start a manufacturing facility over there where we machine the dies, assemble them, ship them back here to the States, and then we finish the dies up.”

Bovia said the company currently has six dies being built in India.

Within the next five years, Mekkes hopes to have both the Kentwood and Huntsville plant operating at $10 million to $14 million a year, and to have expanded into industries other than automotive.

The recent expansions have forced Mekkes to travel more frequently than he is used to: He visits the Huntsville plant about every other week. Still, family is important to him.

Son-in-law Bovia joined the company roughly one year after Mekkes bought it, and said that even though the two may not agree on every point of business, once they leave the company, it’s all about family.

“Company stuff is company stuff, and when we leave, it’s completely family,” said Bovia. “Most of the time, everything is hunky-dory, but there are times that we disagree. But we’re both able to leave it here, and once we leave, it’s all family stuff.”

In his spare time, Mekkes enjoys playing with his two grandchildren and spending time with his wife.

“We’ll go up north, go to a casino once in a while, have fun,” he said. “Grandkids are probably the funnest thing in the world. It’s great — they’re a riot.”

“Don is a very giving person,” said Bovia. “He can be hardnosed at times, but he’s very compassionate. He gives employees the benefit of the doubt on a lot of things.”

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