MAKING GOOD IN AMERICA
An Escapee From Communist Poland Proves The American Dreams Alive And Well
Story and photos by C. H. Bush, editor
Anyone who believes the American dream is just a fairy tale created to keep the citizenry happy, should talk to George Marcinkowski, founder and president of Calmax Machining, Inc.-a Santa Clara, job shop specializing in production of machined parts and assemblies for a broad segment of the Silicon Valley’s high-tech industry.
Why talk to Marcinkowski about the American dream?
Because in retrospect George Marcinkowski’s early years seem to be more like something you would read about in a novel or see in a movie than something you would meet with in real life.
Case in point. In 1981 at the age of 26 and just ahead of a general decree of marshal law, Marcinkowski escaped from communist-dominated Poland in an effort to make his way to freedom. In doing so, he was forced to leave his wife Basia (pronounced Basha) and two children behind, but with the hope that someday he would be able to obtain their freedom as well.
"I didn’t know what was going to happen," he says, "At that time there were waves of immigrants leaving Poland to immigrate and I was just one of many. It was very hard to come to America and many of them ended up in organized camps for immigrants, but I was lucky. I applied at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, Austria and eventually got permission."
After arriving in the U.S. Marcinkowski made his way to the Silicon Valley where he found a friend who was working as a machinist.
"It was funny," he recalls. "My friend had been a machinist in Poland and now he had a job, but no car. I had bought an old car, but had no Job. So, my friend asked his supervisor if he could hire me so I could help him with transportation. The supervisor said ’yes’ and for me that was the beginning."
Pleased to have a job of any kind, Marcinkowski started at the bottom and learned to be a machinist from the ground up. "I started in the very beginning like ever body else," he says. "I started out doing very basic operations on Manual machines. The first machine I ever used was an old Bridgeport mill."
The company where Marcinkowski worked for the next 4 years was all manual with no capacity for large-volume production. But Marcinkowski considers that a good thing for him in the beginning.
"We were doing R&D prototypes, one of each, two of each, five of each," he says, "’but that helped me learn the machining business and I’m glad I did it. In those days I and a few other people who came to this country didn’t speak any English and that was a big barrier we had to overcome. There is a lot of information in books that we could have used to learn faster, but because of our language, that was taken away from us. But we learned anyway, because back then we worked eighty to ninety hours a week."
Reunited With Family
After 4 years in his first job Marcinkowski spent another couple of years working and learning his trade at other companies. At the same time he never let up on his efforts to get permission for his wife and children to join him.
"I applied for them to come right away," he explains, "but first I had to wait until I got a green card. When I got that I applied, but it was complicated. There’s an entire process in both countries that makes things difficult, but the American government was putting economic pressure on the Polish government to help broken families get reunited. I think America must be the only country in the world that uses financial pressure to help families like that, and for that I am grateful."
In spite of their combined efforts, Basha’s passport was refused a few times by the Polish government. In frustration the young Marcinkowski turned for help to Ed Zschau, the congressman for his district.
"Ed Zschau told me I would be able to have my family here in 4 weeks," he reports, "I almost couldn’t believe it was possible, but he did it. My wife and children finally came to America and joined me in December 1984."
Nowadays Marcinkowski smiles when he recalls his reunion with his family at the San Francisco airport.
"When I left Poland my son was a year and a half old and my daughter was only five weeks old," he says. "So when I met them at the airport and grabbed my daughter for a hug she hit me in the head because she didn’t know who I was. It took a few months for the kids to get to know me, but then things were fine.
In 1987, about three years after his family was reunited, Marcinkowski and Basha decided to really put the American dream to the test by forming their own business.
"We talked it over together," says Marcinkowski. "I was always careful with the money I earned, so we could afford a small investment. What we did was rent 1200 square feet of space just about a mile from where we are now. Then we put in some used machines, like two Bridgeport’s, a lathe, and some support equipment. In those days I did everything by myself and I kept working eighty to ninety hours a week. I was lucky I had a few customers who were just starting up their own businesses, and they gave me enough work to keep going. The truth is even one or two drawings a week was enough to keep me busy. Where I was really lucky was in the fact that a few of those start-up customers survived and helped me grow, too."
When Marcinkowski created his company and picked its name (Calmax) he had the foresight to build his business philosophy directly into the name.
"I was surprised when I picked the name," he says. "Some people asked me if that came from Carl Marx (who wrote the Communist Manifesto, Ed), but it didn’t. The name is from two ideas combined: California and maximum performance and service. Calmax says exactly what I set out to do for my California customers."
Dream Come True
In the 14 years that have intervened since he formed Calmax, Marcinkowski has succeeded beyond his dreams. From the original one-man, machine shop with 1200 sq. ft of rented space he has grown to own four buildings of about 60,000 sq. ft. In addition, he has purchased 2 acres of land about half a mile from his current location where he is building a new facility of more than 35,000 sq. ft. He currently employs more than 100 people and is in the process of purchasing 9 acres of land in Oregon for what he calls "the future." Marcinkowski’s lineup of machines and equipment is enviable."
"Right now we have more than 30 machines," he says.
"Most of them are from Japan, because I like the quality of those machines. We have Makinos, Matsuuras, Nakamuras, Star screw machines and for EDM we have Mitsubishi. We always try to buy the best equipment that will give you the performance you need and maintain the best resell trade value once you decide to trade for something newer."
At the heart of Marcinkowski’s production capability are 5 Makino machines
"At this moment we have four A55’s, one A88 and one more A88 with a loader that will be here before you print this story, I think. Our Makinos are all palletized for automation and our A88’s have automatic tool changers with 244-tool capabilities. Nowadays we have a lot of repeat work and most of it is somehow related to semiconductor equipment makers, so we need as much automation as possible to meet delivery requirements. We don’t just do part manufacture, though. We also do assemblies. We build parts and purchase components and sell entire units. With the automation on the Makinos we can do a lot of work with very few employees, which is necessary in times like these when there is a shortage of experienced machinists."
According to Marcinkowski, his business has survived without major negative impact through 5 different economic recessions, the last of which occurred in 1998. And, he says that stability is no accident.
"The business cycle always goes up and down," he explains. "Even if you have long-term contracts, which we have, in a recession those contracts may not give you much, so you have to have a way to respond, some kinds of safety factors. As we grow we are going to have more ups and downs because the life cycle is going to be shorter and shorter. I remember in the last recession when there were so many machine shop failures. I believe that many of those companies failed because some people took too big of risks. My view is business never dies to zero, but doesn’t always perform 100% either. So recession is something you have to be prepared for, to plan for. At Calmax we follow some very old economical rules, which always work. We always keep ourselves financially safe, because we never know what’s ahead. Nothing lasts forever. So far we have never lost any people because of recession and, to be honest, in the last recession we were able to grow twenty-five percent."
America, An Environment For Success
Marcinkowski has done just about everything by the entrepreneur’s book to achieve success: he has worked long, hard hours for years; he has dedicated himself to providing his customers with high quality and service; he has denied himself luxury in order to reinvest his earnings back into the business. But, if you ask him what has made it all possible, his answer might be a surprise.
"What makes this the greatest and freest place in the world to do business is the American banking system and the security of our legal system," he explains. "We have the best financial system in the world. Once you perform, anyone in America can have easy access to banker’s money. If you want to borrow $ 1,000 dollars or $ 10,000 or $ 100,000, you can, as long as you perform and pay your debts. If you’re serious about money America is the best place to be. As much as we complain about bureaucracy, there are still a lot of things in this country where a person’s word means a lot. As long as you are trustworthy, you will be trusted. That’s what I like in this country."
At 46 Marcinkowski has no plans to retire. He is still dreaming the American dream.
"I believe it is extremely important to be a good navigator for a business," he says, "so I spend hours daily reading every magazine which is important, and I read from Europe. I do this to be able to see where the future might be going and to be prepared for it. For Calmax, I have several goals. We want to build complete engineering capabilities to help our customers and we want to work on our own products. Manufacturing places like ours provide service, but we don’t own intellectual properties on some things we have capacity to do. So that’s the next step for us, I think. I believe everybody’s dream is to reach a level where you can have your own products. I think that’s part of our future."