A passion and a focus on West Michigan
About 24 years ago, Bruce Los loved his job at Prince Corp. — until the moment he learned he was being transferred to the human resources department.
Los was a production manager and a dedicated employee. He started working for Prince the day after he graduated from high school in 1973. As a matter of fact, unlike most of his peers, he didn't go out partying the night of graduation because he was scheduled to start his summer job at Prince at 6 a.m. the next morning.
"I needed a job," he said, and he started at the bottom, sweeping the factory floor, doing gofer jobs — "all the grunt work."
Los worked each summer for Prince while he earned an economics degree from Calvin College, then joined the company full-time.
Fast forward to about 1985, when Los was a production manager at Prince and enjoying it. His group produced lighted sun visors that got Prince firmly into the business as an automotive supplier.
"I thought I was going to do that the rest of my life," he recalls today. Then he got a call from the company president.
"He said, 'We're going to move you into HR' — and I almost quit," said Los. "I thought it was the dumbest thing in the world. I liked making parts and I liked being out on the floor — that was where the action was. I thought, 'Oh shoot, I have to start looking (for another job). They're putting me out to pasture.'"
Obviously, they weren't putting him out to pasture; the leadership at Prince just saw some potential in Bruce Los of which he was unaware.
Today, he is vice president of human resources at Gentex Corp. in Zeeland. He is well known as a community leader and as an athlete, frequently competing in triathlons and road races with his daughter, Jenny.
When Los was reassigned to HR, Prince was in the midst of a growth spurt and hiring more employees. Management had become concerned that the company might not be able to maintain its unique corporate culture with so many new people in the hourly ranks and among managers and supervisors. It was decided to put someone in charge of training to make sure the corporate culture survived.
"They kind of said, 'Hey, you figure out what we need to do.' Once I got into it, I loved it," he said.
Los worked his way up the Prince Corp. ladder in his new career, becoming vice president of HR.
In 1996, Johnson Controls Inc. acquired Prince Corp. in a $1.3 billion deal. A year or so later, Los was promoted to vice president of HR for all of JCI's automotive operations in North America. With about 5,000 employees scattered around the country, that put Los perpetually on the road.
"I spent the next three years, really, outside of Holland," he said. "I would leave, very often, on Monday morning and come back Friday." After a couple of years, Los said, "I found out that wasn't what I wanted to do."
By that time, Bruce and his wife, Deb, had two children who were approaching adulthood. Los realized he had "a passion and a focus on West Michigan," and traveling around North America each week broke his direct connection "with what was happening in the world here."
Los and a friend, Nate Young, who was an executive in new product development and design at JCI, decided to start a company of their own. They quit JCI and started Twisthink, a small firm specializing in electronics development and product design.
It was also around this time that Bruce and Deb Los learned that their son, Ryan, had a serious problem with substance abuse. After struggling with it for about seven years, and going through several programs in West Michigan, Ryan seemed to have turned a corner in his life. But tragically, one year ago in February, he died from an accidental drug overdose.
"It certainly was the toughest thing Deb and I have ever had to deal with," said Los. "What made it especially hard was, in my job I have to deal with a lot of people that have those kinds of issues. So when you have it in your family and you work hard to try and help somebody, and you're not as successful as you like — it's a tough deal. But God has a plan and we have comfort in that," said Los.
Twisthink clients included Herman Miller, Gentex, Tiara Yachts, Whirlpool, Alticor and others. After a few years, Young had an opportunity to become provost at a major design school, and at the same time, Los saw an opportunity to join Gentex. So they sold their successful small company to their employees.
Los said he was "the sales/relationship guy" at Twisthink, and "combining product and people … was our sweet spot."
A move to Gentex was logical for Los. For years, Gentex has had one of the most successful combinations of product and people in West Michigan. Its self-dimming rearview mirror technology is legendary, and the new Gentex rear camera display mirror is increasingly an option on cars and light trucks made around the world.
Gentex also is gearing up to begin production later this year of auto-dimming passenger windows for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, expected to go into service next year.
But there is no escaping the pain in the worldwide auto industry, even for top suppliers like Gentex. Although the company also makes fire alarms and sensors, Los noted that "95 percent of our business is automotive."
In December, Gentex joined other West Michigan automotive companies in laying off employees. Almost 400 jobs were permanently eliminated. It was "the first time we permanently laid off people in the history of the company — 36 years," said Los.
At the end of February, Los said there were some signs of optimism at Gentex that things might be picking up a little bit. Nearly 65-70 percent of Gentex business is with non-Detroit automakers, some of which, Los said, "continue to do quite well," compared to Detroit's Big Three.
The economy aside, one of the biggest challenges now facing the U.S. business world and its HR professionals in particular is the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, a union-backed bill supported by President Barack Obama and many Democratic lawmakers. Los said the proposed legislation would "entirely change the way that companies and their people are going to operate."
Although Gentex is "union free," according to Los, "we talk very openly with our people about it. If they feel like our leadership is not doing a good job of listening and interacting with them, that's their choice. This is America. But to take away a secret ballot election, to me, is unbelievable."
"It's not a news flash that this state is dead last of the 50 in job creation," said Los. West Michigan has a strong legacy of manufacturing, with a high concentration of engineers and technical expertise. Los said if that economic strength is going to be maintained here, we must not give any more companies reasons to move away.
As a company, Gentex is "committed to West Michigan," said Los, with very good relationships with the municipal and state governments.
"I don't know that a week goes by that we're not solicited by either another state or another part of the world to put our manufacturing" there, he said. As a community-minded person, he said that he insists "we have to be more aggressive in looking at how we can make it easier and better for companies to stay here."
"I think we can be competitive if given an equal playing field," added Los.