Steven G. Zylstra
President and CEO, Arizona Technology Council
Describe your very first job and what lessons you learned from it.
I picked blueberries at Pottegetter’s Blueberry Farm in Allendale, Mich., with my parents when I was about 10 years old. It was hard work for a 10-year-old, but I learned that with hard work you could earn good money and buy the things you wanted in life. I earned enough money to buy an eight-transistor radio. The first song I remember listening to on my transistor radio was “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” by Herman’s Hermits, which was popular at the time.
I had dozens of jobs as a kid: topping onions, cutting celery, weeding pickles, butchering chickens, cleaning exotic bird cages, shoveling snow, inspecting eggs, selling seeds, delivering Grit newspaper, bus boy. I was a truck driver in my late teens. All of these opportunities taught me the value of hard work and ultimately helped me realize I could do more with a good education.
Describe your first job in your industry and what you learned from it.
My first job out of college was as a design engineer at the Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich. I had the opportunity to participate in a two-year graduate training program at Ford that was originated by Henry Ford. I had eight, three-month stints across the company in areas such as development, engine engineering, the Dearborn stamping and assembly plants at the Rouge, and body engineering. I even did a stint in product planning and had an office next to William Clay Ford Jr., the future chairman and CEO of Ford.
I learned the value of going above and beyond and trying to always exceed expectations. As a consequence of positive performance reviews while in the program, our vice president of advanced vehicle development recommended me for positions at Ford Aerospace and Communications Corp. in California at the time things got rough in the auto industry in the early ‘80s. That led me to spend the next 20 years of my career in the aerospace and defense industry.
What were your salaries at both of these jobs?
Picking blueberries in 1964 paid 5 cents a pound. In my first job at Ford in 1978, I made $18,000 a year — more than my Dad, who grew up on a farm and attended school through eighth-grade had earned in any year prior to that.
Who is your biggest mentor and what role did they play?
I never really had a mentor per se, just role models. My father was a role model. He is still the hardest-working person I have known. I got my work ethic from my Dad. I had a high school girlfriend whose father was a role model. Beyond that, what pushes me is an internal drive to excel at whatever I do.
What advice would you give to a person just entering your industry?
After getting a great education, do what you love. People are always better at things they enjoy doing. I have always enjoyed going to work. I find it rewarding, invigorating. Always be honest and ethical. Don’t ever accept mediocre; pursue excellence. Always exceed everyone’s expectations — yourboss’, your colleagues’, your customers’, everyone. It will serve you well. Have fun!
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing instead?
I have always wanted to own a Harley-Davidson dealership (maybe a good retirement gig!). While often a lonely place, I like the challenges and rewards of having the top leadership position in an organization. I would enjoy serving as the CEO of many things, especially private companies, not-for-profits and trade associations. I would love to be a golf pro on the tour … if only I had the skill.