TMCO: A Workplace Culture of Freedom in Nebraska

A Workplace Culture of Freedom in Nebraska
A Workplace Culture of Freedom in Nebraska

TMCO Inc. has come a long way from the original metal shed where Roland Temme launched his machining job shop in 1974 with $6,000 in new and used equipment.

Back then, he worked 18-hour days as the sole employee making cassette-tape duplication machines. Many years and miles of machinery later, TMCO covers three blocks of buildings a brisk 10-minute walk from the Nebraska state capitol in Lincoln.

Temme proudly shows off the galvanized steel shed, so tiny compared to the company's latest addition, the size of one and a half football fields.

Temme easily ticks off his company's numbers: 20 percent growth every five years with $40 million in sales for 2014. He's not boasting. The 74-year-old businessman is as unpretentious as that shed where it all began. He's a self-described farm boy from Wayne, 120 miles northwest of Lincoln -- and one of nine siblings in a family with German roots.

The shed visibly marks TMCO's humble beginnings when Temme gave his company an acronym for what was then just a dream. It stands for Total Manufacturing Company, and that's what his small machine shop has grown into, with products ranging from parts as small as a brass hose barb the size of a ballpoint pen tip to semi-truck-sized natural-gas containers.

Big contracts include the final machining, partial assembly and powder-coating of 2,000 gas meter cases each week for the Nebraska City-based American Meter Co. TMCO welds the metal bases of agricultural storage tanks, some of which hold nearly 12,000 gallons, for Lincoln, Nebraska-based Snyder Industries Inc. TMCO also manufactures exhaust manifolds for Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

It's a polyglot of products for sure. Temme estimates that about 300,000 parts for TMCO's 5,000 contract jobs are made each month in the labyrinthine workspaces inside the hodgepodge of linked concrete and steel buildings.

Those unassuming buildings house millions of dollars of high-tech laser-cutting, laser-punching, grinding and milling machines and robotic welders that are essential to the work and success of this company. With these tools and 250 employees -- many who embody Temme's drive for success -- this once-tiny job shop is a global manufacturing player.

<b class="credit">Daniel Iske</b>Metal + Art represents 6 percent of TMCO's business.
Daniel IskeMetal + Art represents 6 percent of TMCO's business.

Chapter One: Recipe for Success

Several times over the course of two days, Temme lists his simple recipe for success: Hire good people, buy good machines and serve good customers.

He speaks of his company's success in an analogy: "If you go to a good restaurant that makes the best pie in Lincoln, I guarantee you everyone is going to know that place. And you know what happens? There's a line of people waiting to get in. That's the way we do business too, or that's the way we want it to be."

An example of the "good people": Anwar Rida, 43, who manages the metal fabrication department. Rida was born in Iraq, lived for 18 years in Syria, and immigrated to the United States with his parents, five sisters and two brothers at the turn of the century. He lost four other brothers during Saddam Hussein's regime, he says.

Rida says he felt like a cog in the system at the manufacturing job he held before coming to TMCO nearly 14 years ago. "I never felt they treat us like a human; they treat us like a machine," says the man who, without a sense of irony, tends to automated machines for 60 hours or more a week. Temme notes that Rida is often already on the job when he arrives on Saturday mornings to walk through the buildings.

Temme "trusts me with a million dollars [for individual equipment]," Rida says. "How could I not stay in this company? There's a lot of opportunity here. My dream is going to come true. I can work hard, and people see me."

"It's hard to find a company like this," he continues, speaking of TMCO as an extended family. "I trust the owner of this company. ... I work with all my power to keep this company strong."

According to Temme, he employs immigrants from 18 countries throughout Asia, Europe and South America. The most recently hired are from Myanmar, also known as Burma.

"I really have a soft spot for refugee and immigrant employees," he says, frequently veering off during a tour of his buildings to speak with several newer employees. "We were all immigrants at one time, and they bring an unusual characteristic. We used to have it back in the early days when I was growing up. It's called 'working hard.' And it's called 'the American Dream coming true.' "

Temme speaks reverently of these immigrant employees. At other times during conversations, he bursts into joyous laughter. The reason, when he's asked about the readiness of his laughter, is simple: "Why be any other way?"

"If you surround yourself with people who have the right attitude about work then work takes on a different dimension," he explains. "The people here drive me to higher levels. Sometimes they have bigger appetites for machines than I can afford." And then he laughs.

Chapter Two: Metal and Art

<b class="credit">Daniel Iske</b>Anwar Rida, Roland Temme and Dan Moore, dreamers all.
Daniel IskeAnwar Rida, Roland Temme and Dan Moore, dreamers all.

One of TMCO's dreamer employees is Dan Moore. He was the company's first laser machine operator, and in 1998 he noticed the fabrication machines created attractive, repeat designs in the large sheets of aluminum or stainless steel from which his lasers cut and punched out forms for washers, handles and the like.

Instead of piling them in the recycling heap, Moore wanted to reuse these "skeletons" and other pieces of "drop," or waste metals, to create something altogether different.

Moore's experimental creations -- key chains and corporate gifts, at first -- led in 1999 to a TMCO offshoot, Metal + Art.

The subsidiary helps artists, architects and others turn their visions and blueprints into finished sculptural art, furniture, signage and more. Although it only accounts for about 6 percent of the company's sales, Metal + Art has given a visible face to a company that could easily be just another big manufacturing entity.

Metal + Art's custom work includes the dome atop Lincoln's landmark Rotary Pavilion that was designed by architect Jeffrey Chadwick. It depicts the four seasons of the Lincoln skyline in 128 laser-cut, metal panels.

"I don't think you can find a block in downtown Lincoln without our work on it," says Moore, who is now director of operations of TMCO's National Manufacturing Division, which includes Metal + Art.

Other art works include Linda Fleming's large, powder-coated steel structures that appear throughout the United States, including the 11½-foot-tall by 26-foot-long "Reverie" -- a work commissioned for the International Quilt Study Center building at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. It includes five chairs inviting onlookers to enter into and experience the sculpture of undulating ribbons of steel intended to evoke the art of quilting.

Almost every person at TMCO gets to touch the big art projects that come through the department, he says, including a 12-foot-tall by 23-foot-long sculpture of five bronze sandhill cranes that's being stored in the open at TMCO's new warehouse.

The piece, designed by Lincoln wildlife artist Cliff Hollestelle, is named "Platte River Reflection" and doesn't have a permanent home yet. Hollestelle is known for his lifelike wood carvings and bronze castings of birds, including mallard ducks, turkeys and Canada geese.

Hollestelle first approached Metal + Art in 2004 to fabricate a stainless steel base for a wood-carved peregrine falcon. "The bird doesn't weigh much," Moore recalls. "It was designed and built in such a way to give the bird a look of motion or to represent a wind stream."

The artist has since become close friends with Temme, who has purchased many of his pieces at Lincoln benefit dinners throughout the years. On a recent cold December afternoon, Hollestelle stopped by to deliver a gift of appreciation to his friend: a bird feather intricately carved into a beautifully finished slab of wood ready for hanging.

Temme, surprised and pleased by the unexpected gift, has been storing Hollestelle's "Reflection" piece for more than a year as it awaits permanent installation somewhere. They both hope it will find a home in Lincoln. In fact, Temme has driven around town with Hollestelle, seeking the perfect location for the outdoor structure.

<b class="credit">Daniel Iske</b>TMCO's main business is fabricating metal items for other companies.
Daniel IskeTMCO's main business is fabricating metal items for other companies.

Chapter Three: No Job is Too Small or Too Odd

Temme, trusted, helpful and unassuming, often takes on jobs that defy reason. And yet, that's likely what has made him so successful.

A few years ago Temme enlisted the Metal + Art team to redesign a walker for a man with cerebral palsy. "Roland wanted to give this guy a great Christmas present," recalls Henry Kloepper, the machine operator who designed and built a second, folding walker so the man could travel. "Roland has a tendency to do things like that."

"There are probably hundreds of those stories that I can't think of right now," Moore says of Temme's good works.

Temme also is more than willing to take on some of the oddest machine making jobs. In 1999, a man asked if TMCO could fabricate powder-coated steel canisters for his cow dryers. Yes, cow dryers. "When you're a job shop, you never know what's going to come through the door and what people are going to ask you to do," Temme says.

TMCO helped design the hand-held canisters intended for blowing dry small farm animals and pets. They were such a success that TMCO will make nearly 10,000 canisters this year alone. The cow dryers are popular among 4-H clubs; members use them to groom their livestock at fairs and other competitions.

"I said, 'Whoa, this is a one-time deal that we'll never see again,' " Temme says. "But the next year we made twice as many more. Then we started making them in different colors -- each 4-H club wants their dryers in their club color."

For Temme, the cow dryers were good learning. They also speak to how he runs his company: No job is too small -- or too odd -- to tackle.

"No one should ever laugh at somebody's idea. Just sort of let it play out and see where it goes," he advises. He pauses before adding, "And pray we always have cows."

For more Made in the U.S.A. stories, go to This Built America.