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.
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.”
Read more in Washington Magazine.