by Susan Wooleyhan Caine
Don Jubel’s story begins with his father, Henry, an immigrant who grew up to found the family company, Spartan Light Metal Products.
Ten-year-old Henry Jubel and his family arrived in St. Louis from eastern Germany at the start of the Great Depression. They spoke no English at first, and times were hard. When Henry graduated second in his class at Bayless High School in 1936, a school superintendent encouraged him to apply for an academic scholarship to Washington University.
Henry had never considered college, but his parents took on extra jobs to help meet his expenses. He lived at home while earning his degree in mechanical engineering and worked part time, cutting grass at the university and translating German books into English. He had little time for social activities. In 1940 he became the first in his family to graduate from college.
Henry went to work in St. Louis for Union Electric, followed by a job with the Civil Service Ordnance Department. When the United States entered World War II, he tried repeatedly to enlist in the military but was turned down because of his German heritage. He went on to invent a new type of rifle-mounted grenade launcher, for which he was honored with the Army’s highest civilian award.
Spartan … became known as a company that treated its employees and customers with honesty and integrity, applying the philosophy of servant leadership.
After the war, Henry joined Sterling Aluminum Products in St. Louis. He and his wife, Elvira, had three children, including Don, and Henry worked his way up from production engineer to vice president of sales and manufacturing.
In 1961 Henry took the big step of starting his own business. He mortgaged his home, borrowed from family members, and set up a foundry in a corrugated steel building in Sparta, Ill. He named the company Spartan Aluminum Products. He and his partner, Ken Gronemeyer, slept in the plant on cots six nights a week, and the business made a profit in its first year.
Spartan quickly developed a reputation as a manufacturer that could produce complex aluminum castings of the highest quality. It also became known as a company that treated its employees and customers with honesty and integrity, applying the philosophy of servant leadership.
The next generation
Growing up in St. Louis, Don Jubel excelled in math and science at Lindbergh High School. When he graduated in 1969, “Dad told me that if I studied engineering at Washington University and lived at home, he’d buy me a new car. Needless to say, I chose Washington U.!”
Freshman year was a challenge academically. “I was failing physics, and Professor Klarman worked with me twice a week to help me bring up my grade. I also struggled with fluid mechanics, which was taught by Sal Sutera, head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at that time. I’m sure he was very busy, but he told me to come to his office every day. He said ‘We’re going to go until it clicks.’ I’ll never forget the generosity of my professors, whose doors were always open. Thanks to faculty who helped me, I caught up by sophomore year.”
Don worked in the Spartan plant every summer. “Standing next to those furnaces ladling liquid metal was hot. Years later, my engineering background was a big help when we automated that part of our operations.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1973, Don earned an MBA from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1974. He joined the family business in 1975. He recalls: “My dad and I commuted to Sparta together every day, an hour each way. I got all my mentoring behind a windshield.”
In 1978 Spartan became the first company in North America to offer commercial magnesium die-cast products, making parts for chain saws. Don was in charge of the magnesium operation, and it grew rapidly. “I was catapulted into learning new technology, becoming a manager and dealing with customers,” he recalls. In the years that followed, Spartan became an industry leader in the design and manufacture of both aluminum and magnesium custom die-casting products and assemblies. Today the company produces a wide range of products, including automobile parts, power tools and lawn tractor components, for customers in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Germany and Asia.
After working in operations, engineering and sales, Don became president in 1991 and then chief executive officer after Henry died in 1999. Today Spartan employs about 700 people, with operations in Sparta, Ill.; three Missouri plants in Mexico, Hannibal and St. Louis; and locations in Detroit and Tokyo.
Education key to opportunity
The year before Henry died, Don asked his father if he could have achieved so much without a college education. Henry immediately answered “no.” Don says, “Dad had received a scholarship to Washington University, and we wanted to do something to carry on that opportunity for other students.” Since 1998, the Jubels and their company have endowed four scholarships in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, and Don and his wife, Karen, sponsor an annual scholarship in engineering. In 2011 the Henry A. Jubel Foundation endowed a scholarship in the engineering school in honor of the 50th anniversary of Spartan Light Metal Products.
“The most important thing I do is give of my time to help young kids.” —Don Jubel, BSME ’73
Don says, “The most important thing I do is give of my time to help young kids.” He serves on the Eagle Scout Board of Review and teaches Sunday school at his church. At Washington University, he is a member of the National Council of the School of Engineering & Applied Science and the engineering school’s Eliot Society Committee. He is a past president and current member of the engineering Alumni Advisory Council, and was co-chair for the Class of 1973 35th Reunion. He also serves as executive vice president of the Alumni Board of Governors.
Don and his father each received an Alumni Achievement Award from the School of Engineering & Applied Science: Don in 2008 and his father in 1997. Don was honored with a Distinguished Alumni Award at Founders Day in 2010. The Jubels’ daughter Melissa has joined the family business and is earning an Executive MBA from Olin Business School. Their daughter Lindsey earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from Washington University in 2009.
Henry Jubel believed in creating value for his customers and sharing success with his associates. He established a tradition of treating employees fairly and rewarding hard work and innovation. Don has followed his example. “Dad wrote: ‘Try to help people blossom. Always make an effort to help.’ Those are words to live by.”
Susan Wooleyhan Caine is director of development communications.