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Reg Zeller ’02 says it was inevitable he’d end up owning his own business. “I kind of joke about this: I don’t take direction very well, and I really don’t like working for other people.”
But it would take working multiple roles in corporate America before Zeller acquired Ermak, a small aluminum foundry and machine shop in Chaska, Minnesota, in January of 2017.
Zeller knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur back in high school while working for owners of a photography shop in Barron, Wisconsin. But he was also a gadget guy, always interested in the latest technology. So, he looked into electrical engineering programs at a number of colleges.
“One of the things I really liked about MSOE was you got hands-on early,” says Zeller. MSOE’s job placement rate also impressed him, and when he was awarded a Presidential Scholarship, that sealed the deal. “I like to say MSOE taught me to speak geek and solve really hard problems, skills I’ve used throughout my career,” says Zeller. But he adds one of the most beneficial skills he acquired at MSOE was public speaking.
Zeller credits English professor Jim Friauf with helping him develop the communication skills for corporate America. He says the ability to take knowledge and make it discernable to customers and employees was something that made him much more valuable to his employers.
Even before earning his degree and graduating with honors, Zeller’s career began as an intern for Rockwell Automation his sophomore year. He went on to work at Honeywell, Schneider Electric and General Electric, climbing the proverbial ladder and gaining experience in business development, product management, supply chain, marketing—just about every corporate function there is. And along the way, he earned an MBA at Vanderbilt University.
For years, he says, he watched potential business opportunities pass him by before one unbearable boss finally pushed him to take the leap off the corporate ladder. Aspiring business owners, hoping to make that same leap, now look to Zeller for advice.
“Once you start down that path, it’s kind of the same thing that MSOE teaches about solving a problem,” he says. “You don’t have to solve all the problems at once; you just pick off the individual small parts one at a time.”
The network MSOE has provided throughout the years has been invaluable, he says. “The alumni department is the absolute best at helping connect me with others, especially now that I purchased a business. Having a resource like Eckhart Grohmann when you own a foundry is incredible.”
Zeller isn’t one to stay static. He expects he will make some sort of business expansion in the future. He also has equity stakes in real estate on the East Coast and a start-up hair salon franchise in Houston.
Home is split between Minneapolis and Montclair, New Jersey, where his wife, Melissa, is vice president of sales for Reckitt Benckiser, a consumer goods company. In his free time, Zeller stays in contact with close friends he’s made at MSOE. He served as alumni chapter representative while living in New York.
Zeller also likes to read, work out and play sports. “Pretty much anything that keeps me physically or mentally active as I don’t sit still very well.”
Don’t get bored might be a good way to sum up Zeller’s philosophy on life. “My wife jokes that when I get bored, I get squirrely. When I get squirrely, bad things happen. So, I keep myself entertained. It’s better that way.”