Former ‘grease monkey’ succeeds as engineer
Watching the steel mills shut down as a Mid-Mon Valley youth in the 1980s gave Ronald L. Verkleeren the motivation to manufacture a career in industry and technology.
Verkleeren, 40, was born in North Charleroi and grew up in Belle Vernon.
Into his teenage years, he became a full-fledged grease monkey.
“At some level, you could probably say I was a gear head,” Verkleeren said. “I bought my first car when I was 14 with money I saved up from a paper route. It was a 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass. It was $275.
“I wanted that kind of car, but I didn’t want an automatic. So, the first thing I did was make it a standard. I went to a junkyard and found a transmission and parts. I bought some books and learned about engines and transmissions. I guess you could say I learned by myself.”
In less than a year, Verkleeren completed the project, a validation of his knack for engineering.
“I had a passion for cars as a kid. I would tell my friends that, fortunately, my first love was cars,” he said. “That was my dream, to be an engineer in the automobile industry, and it was a really tough time to get into the auto industry because it was going into a recession.”
The 1989 Belle Vernon Area High School graduate earned a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from Penn State University in 1993.
During his college career, Verkleeren spent two summers working internships with major motor corporations — General Motors and then Ford.
The experience was life changing for him.
“For GM, I was actually in the infamous city of Flint, Mich., which was sort of the bowels of General Motors Corp.,” Verkleeren said. “It was a real hub of activity in the ’50s, ’60s and even early ’70s.”
The once-thriving center had become a shell of its former self.
“In the ’80s, Flint was pretty much decimated … basically gutted,” Verkleeren said. “That year, I think (GM) laid off the largest ever at the time. It was like 94 employees. They canceled the (internship) program after I had completed it.”
Verkleeren’s career took off once he became involved with Ford, a company that attracted him because of its promising future.
After his internship at the company’s headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., Ford offered Verkleeren a full-time job, even though he still had one more year in college.
“Ford was very young and innovative and really focused on making great products,” Verkleeren said. “I went back to my senior year and did well and accepted the offer at Ford.
“What better place to live than the hometown of Henry Ford?”
The week after he graduated from college, Verkleeren began working in product development for Ford.
He instantly was involved in a major project.
“One of my success stories there was developing the air induction system for the Ford F150,” he said. “It was basically moving air from the outside of the vehicle into the combustion system. I think some of the components that I designed at that time are still in production.
“It was an industry first for that vehicle. It had on it this dual chamber resonator I developed.”
While his individual contributions were important, Verkleeren said it was a team effort that made the Ford F150 the company’s flagship.
“It’s a top-selling vehicle in the country going on 20 years now,” he said. “It was a big deal for the company. At the time, it was the first major change on that vehicle in 18 years and it was responsible for half of the company’s profits.”
Verkleeren owns six U.S. patents and has authored several technical publications.
Through a graduate program, he earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan in 1996.
He began working in a manufacturing division for Visteon Corp., a global automotive supplier that had partnered with Ford.
Ford offered to pay for Verkleeren to get a master’s degree in business administration, which he attained from Harvard Business School in 2001.
A critical turning point for Verkleeren occurred while he was at the school.
“When I was at Harvard, they divested the division I was in. It was no longer a part of the Ford Motor Co.,” he said. “I was actually prohibited from going back to Ford Motor Co. I would only return to Visteon.
“I took out a loan and I wrote Visteon a check for what they paid for me to go to Harvard, without them asking.”
Ford cut ties with Visteon in 2000, and Verkleeren switched gears in his career.
In 2001, he began working for Corning Inc.
The company’s multi-faceted approach to manufacturing and technology was most appealing to Verkleeren.
Living just outside of Corning, N.Y., for the last four years, Verkleeren recently received a promotion.
He was named on Wednesday as division vice president and director of advanced life sciences for Corning Inc.
“We have a number of really advanced technologies I now have the honor of leading — culturing human embryonic stem cells — and we have something that’s probably just as revolutionary. We use optical bio-sensors to measure what happens inside living human cells. You could probably consider it healthcare, but its technology that’s used in discovering new drugs,” he said. “All the major pharmaceutical companies are using the technology that I’m now responsible for to find new drugs for breast cancer, leukemia, heart disease and cholesterol reduction drugs. It goes into a $700 billion industry.”
Verkleeren said he decided while he was studying at Harvard that he wanted to become part of a company that could “change the world.”
“I was convinced that the Ford Motor Co. had changed the world one time, between 1913 and 1926, and they were unlikely to do that again,” he said. “It became really import to devote my career to something that would be great for society.”
Verkleeren said his career choices were a direct result of witnessing the collapse of the steel industry in the Mid-Mon Valley.
“One of the things I will always take with me from growing up in the Valley is that I saw what happened when the mills went down. That made an indelible impression on me,” he said. “I’ve always remembered as a kid seeing how if affected families; productive, hard working families reduced to collecting food stamps. It was really a scary time. Growing up as a kid in that scary time has left a mark on me. It’s driven me and I’ve learned a lot from it.”
Verkleeren saw the impact firsthand as he landed a job as a lifeguard at the Mon Valley YMCA at the age of 16.
“I was competing with laid-off steelworkers to get the job,” he said. “I’ll never forget that.”
Verkleeren said he benefited during his youth from a strong family system.
“My parents, my family, my grandparents, and my cousins were very influential to me,” he said. “If there’s one regret, it is that my career has taken me away from the Valley. It was a big tradeoff for me.”
Verkleeren said he travels back to the Valley occasionally.
He last visited his hometown this past Thanksgiving.
His parents, Edward and Cecil Verkleeren, live in Rostraver Township.
His brothers, Gary and Jeff, live in Belle Vernon.
Verkleeren met Erica, his wife of nine years, at Harvard.
They have two children: Sophia, 7, and Aaron, 6.
Verkleeren said his career may have been filled with uncertainties, but he wouldn’t trade where he is now for anything.
“It is going to transform human health,” he said of the technology he is currently involved with. “I didn’t set out for this job. I just sort of followed my passions and worked hard along the way.
“In 11th grade biology class, it was clear I didn’t want anything to do with biology. Here I am 22 years later, and I’m on the cutting edge,” he added. “I had a dream when I was 12 or 13 that I knew exactly what I wanted to do be, a research engineer working on next generation engines. I had the good fortune to achieve that dream when I was 24.
“That specific position wasn’t what was most important to me, though. I wanted a career focused on innovation and manufacturing. I looked around pretty thoroughly when I was at Harvard. I could have gone into any industry. I think I made a good choice.”