A funny thing happened to University of Iowa College of Engineering alumnus Roger Koch (BSChE 1977) in the 1980s when an employer reneged on a potentially lucrative offer. Instead of quitting in anger, as some people might have done, he called upon the principles he had grown up with. So, Koch (pronounced "Cook" in English speaking countries) stayed on with the company, worked even longer hours, and improved his already outstanding performance — secure in the belief that his efforts would eventually pay off. And he was right. Several years later — with the firm in bankruptcy and his division the most profitable unit — he made his employer an offer, and he bought the whole company.
The strength of character that enabled him to stand his ground throughout the entire episode was based upon the same guideposts he had followed during his childhood on an Iowa dairy farm. He knew then, as now, that:
"Trust is currency."
"A leader must be willing to work harder and sacrifice more than any of the people who work for or with him."
"An idea without a schedule is just a dream."
Koch applied himself to his studies and earned three scholarships, including a University of Iowa scholarship that paid full tuition, a State of Iowa Scholarship, and a Lavern Noyes Scholarship, the latter given to descendants of World War I veterans. He earned undergraduate degrees in pre-med and general science, but in February 73 he "received Knowledge" from Mahatma Parlokanand of the Divine Light Mission who requested Roger join him on tour in the mid-West and while proselytising for Rawatism he missed his mid-term exams which prevented him from entering medical school. He and his family moved to Kansas City on the advice of "someone from Denver" (ie DLM honchos) and in 1976 returned to Iowa City to go to the College of Engineering, where emeritus professor Arthur Vetter convinced him that he could complete all the coursework necessary for an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering in two years by taking 20 credit hours per semester. "Professor Vetter talked me into it," he says.
Following graduation, Koch spent one year at Grain Processing Corporation, Muscatine, Iowa, before moving to Chicago to accept a position at the Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute. About his IIT days, Koch says, "I worked harder and longer so that I would be at the top. I was really committed to doing well." Koch enjoyed the work, but not the winters and in 1978 he was called to Miami as Guru Maharaji Ji wanted to possess the world's largest and most powerful water pistol. He packed up his AMC Gremlin and headed for Florida.
"I was driving to Florida with no job prospects, but I knew that if I worked hard, I could survive."
Once again, the principle of hard work paid off. Although he had no previous aviation experience, Koch was welcomed at DECA Aviation, Miami, by the then Lord of the Universe with the words: "If you were good enough to work on the Space Shuttle, then you’re good enough to work here." These are some of the few true words the guru has ever spoken.
At that point in his career, despite all appearances to the contrary, Koch was set for a ride to success — a ride propelled by the work ethic that had taken him from the farm to the university and on to the workplace. A short time later, his firm branched out from performing aircraft maintenance to designing and assembling executive aircraft interiors — and he was put in charge of the new business. He recalls learning that the company providing the seats for the plane was going to be late in delivering their part of the order, and that meant Koch’s firm would incur a heavy financial penalty for being late with its order. But Koch had an idea. "You can learn anything just by reading a book," he says. "So I read up on it and designed and built an aircraft seat. FAA certification of a seat usually took from 30 to 60 days, but we didn’t have that much time. So I took the seat to Atlanta and asked to meet with the certification official, but I was told he would be in conference for the next week."
Koch was persistent. "I told him that failing to honor the terms of the contract would mean the end of the company, and he agreed to meet with me evenings for one week until he signed off on the design. We quickly built and installed the seats, and I had a very happy customer," he says. Koch realized that if his firm had experienced problems in having aircraft seats delivered, other aviation firms might be having similar problems. So despite opposition fropm time-serving followers of Rawat's he took one of his seats to a large firm (Gulfstream) and set it in the lobby where everyone could see it. "I turned their lobby into my showroom so that when customers of the firm left that day, I had orders for 50 seats, a total of more than a quarter of a million dollars," he says.
One DECA's supposedly secret project to refurbish an old Boeing 707 for Maharaji was completed DECA was sold to an Israeli company called Jetborne for $250,000 and renamed Aircraft Modular Products with Roger, who after all had created their successful products, in charge of the aircraft interior component manufacturing operation. Changing AMP from a chaotic cult group to a well run organisation required discipline and the exit of the cult hangers-on, crazies and lazies which made Roger persona non grata in the Miami premie community of loving brothers and sisters and so he moved on to a compartmentalised premie life, meditating, attending national events and maintaining some personal contact with the former Lord of the Universe, now Mr Prem Rawat or Maharaji the Ultimate Ruler.
He eventually became company president and led a management buyout of AMP in December 1990 for $10.7 Million. About a dozen premies stayed on at AMP, and the balance of the over 70 employees at the time of the 1990 buyout were not premies, and probably did not even know what a premie was. Through the 1990s, while major carriers like Pan Am, Eastern and Continental were filing for bankruptcy, Koch’s new firm was doing very well producing seats, galleys, furniture and other items for smaller carriers and private aircraft manufacturers. By 1997, his firm held a 90-percent share of the executive aircraft seat market and was doing very well financially when buyers came calling. Koch called a meeting of his shareholders, many of whose lives could be forever changed by the deal, but before he could act on it, he received a $106 million cash offer. "I accepted the offer at dinner on a handshake. A handshake is your word," he says. At that time AMP had over 300 employees with Roger owning 51 percent of the company. Several other people owned the rest, some were premies and some were not, and many became millionaires. Mr Rawat owned some shares though he had purchased them.
Today, Koch is retired from the aviation business and serves as president of Conscious Lighting, Miami, a designer and manufacturer of energy saving light emitting diode (LED) lighting fixtures. He enjoys working part-time, golfing and fishing, and spending the rest of his time with his three sons and the rest of his extended family.
Koch had always been puzzled by why so few African-Americans were engineers.
"When I got involved in the aviation industry after college and began attending different conferences and shows, I would see only one or two black engineers, sometimes out of a group of attendees numbering in the thousands," he recalled. Always a strong believer in diversity, Koch knew that somehow "we needed to get more African-American college students to major in engineering" and then excel in the profession.
Now, a $1 million gift from the Miami entrepreneur to the University of Miami’s College of Engineering will help fulfill that goal. Half of Koch’s generous endowment will fund scholarships for African-American engineering students from Miami-Dade, Broward, Monroe, and Collier counties. The other half, given to support current needs as decided by James M. Tien, dean of the College of Engineering, will be used to help students gain experience in solving real-world engineering problems, support their senior capstone projects through input from professional engineers, and recruit design engineers who will interact with students, faculty members, and the college’s industry partners.
A past member of the University of Iowa Chemical and Biochemical Engineering Advisory Board, Koch has given seminars at the College of Engineering on entrepreneurship. He enjoys mentoring UI students, some of whom have gone on to become successful business leaders and his philanthropy has made a difference at the University of Iowa. In 2011, he provided two generous gifts to the UI: one for pioneering interdisciplinary research into bipolar disorders; another gift providing major support for the college’s Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering. Koch recently returned to the UI to be inducted into the college’s Distinguished Alumni Academy and to deliver the spring 2012 charge to the graduates at commencement. He offered them advice about the value of maintaining a good work ethic, including, he says, this item: "Be willing to take a job that doesn’t necessarily meet all of your expectations. You’ve got to get a foot in the door."
Oh, and remember: "An idea without a schedule is just a dream."