Inside Track: Upwardly mobile and light on his feet
The new CEO of Genzink Steel is a survivor of Michigan’s auto industry — and a ballroom dance instructor.
John Maxson, a ballroom dancing expert who owns a dance instruction studio, decided early on in his life that he was never going to work in a factory.
Today, he is the CEO of one of the best-known manufacturing companies in the Holland area: Genzink Steel.
Maxson is one of those Michigan manufacturing veterans who’ve been there and done that and who can obviously think on his feet — both of which are an aid to survival in the U.S. manufacturing arena.
Through the first two decades or so of his working life, Maxson worked his way up from the shop floor to the ownership level in the automotive supplier industry on the east side of the state. He went into the structural steel business in 1999, joining Genzink Steel in Holland 10 years ago. For the last five years, he was the family-owned company’s chief operating officer until being appointed CEO at the end of 2013.
Genzink Steel was founded as a structural steel company in 1961 by Donald Genzink. It no longer is focused on structural steel but has become a nationally recognized manufacturer supplying large components to companies that manufacture heavy equipment and steel assemblies. A primary customer is the booming oil and gas extraction industry, as well as coal mining, railroads, alternative energy and the defense industry.
Genzink employs more than 140 people and has a 138,000-square-foot fabricating plant at 40 E. 64th St. in Holland.
Maxson took over the CEO position from Ken Genzink, the founder’s son and principal owner of the company. Genzink had held the CEO position, while also serving as chairman of the company, for the last three years.
“I am very fortunate to have a dedicated group of people that are committed to the success of Genzink Steel, which makes the future look very bright for many years ahead.”
The company’s rallying cry in 2014 is “controlled profitable growth for all stakeholders,” he said.
“Controlled” is a crucial word in business, and Maxson knows the benefits of careful and controlled growth, but it didn’t start out looking like he would ever become familiar with business management.
He was born in Ohio but raised in Midland, where his father worked as an electrician at Continental Can. As a teenager, Maxson saw his father often work six days a week.
“Working in a factory was not what I wanted to do,” he said. “I wanted to be a history teacher.”
After high school, Maxson enrolled at Western Michigan University, studying social science and paying his own way. In 1972, at age 20, he decided to interrupt his college education to work a year and landed an entry level job in an auto parts stamping plant in eastern Michigan. He was a full-time member of the auto industry until 1999.
At that first factory job, Maxson was allowed to post for a better job every six months under terms of the union contract. Over the next two years, he went from stock boy to press operator to die setter, and then became a journeyman tool and die maker, a four-year program that involved on-the-job training as well as study at Delta College. Once he had completed that training, he was quickly offered a job by Midland Plastic Molds.
After a year, Maxson became a supervisor with eight workers reporting to him, but he kept moving up the corporate ladder as a manager working with customers and later as a tooling engineer and engineering manager.
In 1984, he joined injection molding company Tri-City Plastics in Midland as manufacturing manager. In 1985, Tri-City was being acquired by new owners; Maxson wasn’t sure about the direction they would take the company and felt it might be better to start looking elsewhere for work.
He was taken to dinner one evening by a prospective employer, a principal at Reed City Tool & Die, and during the conversation, Maxson was asked what he would really like to do. “I would like to own my own tool company,” he said.
The prospective employer remarked that many men talk about starting their own business but not many have the guts to do it. That jibe left Maxson thinking, “Why not start my own business?”
In 1985, with a business partner, Maxson started Zovamax Inc. in Sanford, not far from Midland. They built an injection molds company from the ground up, growing it from two to 10 skilled employees, supplying both automotive and non-automotive manufacturers with tooling for their plastic parts. As president and co-owner, Maxson did practically everything that goes into manufacturing management, until he sold his interest to his partner in 1993.
He then went to work at Pilot Tool & Die in Reed City as sales manager. Maxson helped grow the division from eight to 80 skilled employees and helped establish automotive customers for new applications of sheet molding compound composites.
In 1996, Maxson transferred to Pilot Industries in Clare, where he was the division manager, charged with establishing a new sheet molding compound facility that helped secure a major contract from Ford Motor Co. The project was to reduce the weight in the Ford Explorer by replacing sheet steel with composites.
In 1999, Pilot Industries underwent a management change with significant personnel changes that did not align with Maxson’s goals. He saw a management position at Johnson Steel in Sanford and took it, even though he had no experience in structural steel. He was senior project manager in charge of multimillion-dollar structural steel fabrication and erection projects.
In 2003, his boss at Johnson Steel joined Genzink, and Maxson soon followed him. One of his first major assignments was to help launch the company’s move into steel plate fabrication with an order for mine shuttle carts — large, heavy-duty electric-drive vehicles used underground.
Maxson said Genzink survived the economic downturn in 2009 by involving employees in its cost-cutting strategies. By that point, fierce competition in the structural steel industry had steered Genzink away from it.
Genzink has built heavy steel frames for commercial wind turbines, although the alternative energy market has proven less viable than the conventional energy industry. Genzink components also go into wells, both onshore and offshore, and the company still serves companies supplying the coal mining industry.
Despite his manufacturing career track, Maxson managed to develop a secondary career as a teacher, after all — but not history. He and his wife, Dawn, are avid ballroom dancers and have been teaching it for more than 20 years. Five years ago, they started their own studio in Holland, Reflections of Dance, which offers classes and frequently is involved with fundraising events benefitting nonprofit organizations.
Ballroom dancing is a “stress reliever,” he said, “a short reprieve from all our daily stresses.” He said it also provides long-term health benefits — physically, mentally and emotionally.
One of the most common reasons people give for taking ballroom dance lessons, Maxson said, is because they have a wedding to go to and want to look good on the dance floor. He also has done demonstrations at retirement communities where residents are happy to have a chance to try something they always wanted to do.
He said he’s had professional people come in for a lesson and discover they love it. Out on the floor, he said, it’s just you and your partner — and “we are all equal on the dance floor.”