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Alumni Profile: Mike Adams

By Sonya Jongsma Knauss

Mike Adams provides interneship experiences for several engineering majors.

Mike Adams provides interneship experiences for several engineering majors.

Age thirty-three may seem a little young for a president and CEO of a corporation that employs more than 200 people and expects sales of $50 million in 2004. And that's a conservative estimate.

"I'm pretty much doing the same thing I was doing before (as manager of engineering)," says Dordt alum Mike Adams ('94) with a grin. "It's just that now I have the authority to do it!"

Sitting in an office with several "Achievement of Excellence" awards hanging on the walls, Adams doesn't really look the part of a CEO. There's no high-powered business suit and tie, polished shoes, or air of superiority. But he clearly knows and cares about what he's doing, and he's confident in his vision.

Adams, who with his wife Kim and four young children lives in Sioux Falls, had been an intern with Behr Heat Transfer in Canton, South Dakota, as a student. He accepted a job there after graduating from Dordt College. Behr, with its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, has produced heat transfer products since 1905. The plant had been producing cooling systems and components for vehicles, including many agricultural, off-highway, truck, and automotive customers. The company was shifting its focus to the automotive industry and there was a possibility that its Canton, South Dakota, plant would close.

At the time, Adams was the manager of engineering at the Canton plant and a smaller Cedar Falls plant. He enjoyed the work. "Behr treats its employees well," he said. "At that point it was sink or swim for them because their business was growing so quickly in the automotive industry, and they were looking to divest themselves of some of their other responsibilities."

So Adams put together a proposal for buying the plant from Behr and taking over its operations. But there was a catch-it had to be kept completely confidential. He was asked not to talk with anyone about the potential sale, and he could not bring in outside investors.

Yet, "you'd be surprised at how many roadblocks there weren't," says Adams about convincing the state of South Dakota and a lending institution to support his proposal to keep the former Behr America plant running as Adams Thermal Systems.

"I was really humbled by the whole experience-it was really God working," he said. "I had such a strong sense that this was something God was going to make happen."

Adams made a presentation to the banks and the state. "They took a larger risk than they normally would have," he said. "Usually they want to see a big-shot investor on boardů there's no other way to describe it but providence."

After a low interest revolving economic development loan from the state, a conventional loan from a local bank, and support from the city of Canton, things were in place for the purchase. The transaction was completed on January 1, 2004. Since Adams became the owner, thirty new employees have been hired and the business keeps growing. He hopes to hire seven more engineers of varying experience levels in the next few months, mostly mechanical but some manufacturing and industrial engineers - the sooner the better. "We're looking for solid people first, and are willing to train," he says, trolling for new or former Dordt engineering grads who are looking to relocate to a new job.

"I was called into this role - not from a financial perspective, but because I wanted to glorify God," he muses, reflecting on how he got from intern to CEO at the company. "I grew up wanting to be an engineer - not just to make a difference evangelically but to change the structure, to be part of a company and help make its structure in a way that God would be glorified."

Adams is taking steps in this direction with the help of Dordt College seniors in Engineering 390, the major's capstone course that requires engineers to examine technology and society from a Christian philosophical perspective. He worked with a class that his father, Charles Adams, taught last semester, asking them to help design an engineering company that is "radically biblical." He hopes to implement some of the ideas the class came up with.

"How could it be different from the purely capitalistic model?" he asks. He is already starting to make his own changes. Economic justice is one of his concerns.

"We're a people-focused company," he explains. "We're committed to the people who work here. They're important and significant, and what they do on a daily basis is very importantů. That focus can get lost with the drive for profit in a capitalistic system."

Adams is trying to develop a payroll system that demonstrates his understanding of economic justice. For one thing, he wants to share benefits expenses more equitably among employees. Right now, lower earning employees play the same amount for benefits as higher wage earners. He hopes to develop a way to share benefits so that those on the lower end of the pay scale also pay less for benefits.

Adams also helped set some well-defined goals for productivity and quality on the product line and put a new tracking system into place. Departments were given goals for the year, which he says some met after just two months. "We've had tremendous response," he says of efforts to encourage employees to strive for quality and take pride in their work.

The company is in good shape, with an economic rebound in its segment of the market late last year. They develop cooling systems for the Off Highway, Truck, and automotive markets. Some of their key customers are John Deere, Case New Holland, Cummins, General Motors, and Freightliner.

Its current relationship with Behr is also good. "We are their customer; they are our customer," Adams says. "We supply product and engineering services back and forth." He says the transition has been smooth and Behr has been supportive of the operation.

Adams believes his Dordt engineering education prepared him in many ways for his roles at Behr and now Adams Thermal Systems. "Through an intense four-year program, Dordt is able to provide its engineering students with a well-rounded, top-notch technical education. This means not only the ability to develop solutions using various engineering disciplines, but also the ability to write and communicate those ideas to others." He adds, "the Dordt engineering student is challenged to place his work in the context of his walk with Christ. This topic is particularly relevant at Adams Thermal Systems as we attempt to integrate our understanding of work and faith into the overall business case and company structure."