Mike Brzoska remembers the day he decided to carry on the family business. It was about a week after his father’s unexpected death from a heart attack in 2001. At the time, Chardam Gear, which manufactures gear components for the aerospace industry, had gone from its best year ever to struggling and in debt.
Brzoska, along with his sister Kay Becker, knew the business well having worked there on and off since they were kids. But at that moment, each was on a slightly different path.
At the time, Becker, who holds an MBA from Wayne State University and had worked as an automotive analyst, was raising a family while helping out part-time at the company. Brzoska, who’d always worked in aerospace, was working at the shop while running a home-based business he’d started. “It took me a few days,” he says. “I had to make a decision.”
What clinched it was a pair of shoes.
Brzoska explains: The only thing he physically had in common with this father was the size of their feet. He recalls sitting in his father’s office debating what to do when he noticed his dad’s shop shoes under his desk. “It was like: Put on the shoes and go or don’t,” he told himself.
He did and of course, they fit. Brzoska has been filling his father’s shoes ever since with Becker joining soon after.
These days, you could say it’s not their father’s business anymore. Brzoska, 62, who is president and co-owner of the global supplier with Becker, 58, the company’s vice president who juggles myriad duties, have taken the Sterling Heights company to new heights over the past two decades.
In that time, Chardam Gear went from renting a 15,000 square foot building to owning more than 80,000 square feet across a three-building campus, from 40 employees and $4 million in sales to more than 150 employees and over $34 million in sales in 2019. Those numbers took a hit during the pandemic but Becker expects to be at pre-pandemic numbers by next year.
They’ve also expanded their products from gears and splines to making bevel gears and gearboxes with technology they try to keep on the cutting edge.
While the average person may find it hard to get excited about what they make, Becker explains how big of a role their parts play in our daily lives.
“You don’t see us but when you take a flight to Florida our parts are in that plane” from landing gear to engines, she says. “It’s amazing how many things we’ve made parts for. Almost everything that flies, pretty much any plane or helicopter, anything that goes into space.”
Their parts are in commercial as well as military aircraft, from Airbus and Boeing jets to Tomcats and Black Hawk helicopters, even Patriot missiles. They cater to customers from Singapore to Puerto Rico, and clients from Honeywell to General Electric to Raytheon.
As for the claim on their website that they’re “the fastest precision gear manufacturer in the U.S.,” Becker says they’re fast enough that people call them to get them out of trouble. Like in 2013 when they “saved” the Hubble Space Telescope.
As Brzoska tells it, he got an urgent call from a robotics company that needed their help when their supplier kept falling short. “We heard you can do the impossible,” he recalls them saying. Chardam Gear manufactured the gears required for the “knuckles” that were part of the robotic arm that eventually fixed the telescope. They did it in six weeks, half the time it would normally take and at no extra cost, he says. “We did the impossible.”
That Chardam Gear makes its home in Sterling Heights was their father’s decision back in 1988. According to Becker, the company began in 1946 as an automotive supplier in Detroit. Their father bought the business in 1984, changed its focus to aerospace and four years later moved it to Sterling Heights mostly to be closer to their suppliers.
“We really are in a fantastic area and it will continue to grow,” says Becker. “Aerospace is huge. It’s growing and it’s a hub. Many competitors are here and so are our suppliers.”
Becker, who handles company finances and marketing as well as IT and purchasing, has hopes for a thriving future as the global industry expands. According to Grand View Research
, Inc., the global aerospace parts manufacturing market in 2021 was about $850 billion. That number is expected to exceed $1.2 trillion by 2030.
Adds Tony Vernaci, president of the Aerospace Industry Association of Michigan, the state has just under a thousand businesses in the industry with at least 20 based Sterling Heights as of 2018.
For the moment, Chardam Gear sees Sterling Heights as a long-term commitment. “We like it here. [The city has] been so good to work with,” says Brzoska, who runs the shop and business operations.
The siblings say they are also working to make the city better, by taking part in projects like the Mound Road expansion project in 2017. Brzoska traveled to meet representatives and others in Washington, D.C. to lobby for federal funds to modernize a stretch of the decaying road to better move their products and improve safety. (The Innovate Mound
project broke ground last summer.)
Becker says such improvements are vital to their success. “Our trucks need to be able to go down the road without bouncing our products all around and our customers need to be able to come here without blowing tires out.”
The only reason they’d consider moving from their location on Mound Road is if they were inhibited from expanding, says Brzoska. “You can stay stagnant for a while but you have to continue to grow or become a dying company. We have large contracts coming up that we could be a major player in and we need to be able to bring that work and those jobs here.”
Jobs and employees are important to Chardam Gear. “Our employees are like family. We’re one big team,” says Becker. They offer flexible work schedules as needed and provide extensive health care coverage to their staff of mostly process engineers and skilled machinists. “If we want quality products on time we have to treat others the way you want to be treated.”
Becker says that attitude came from their father. He used to say: “You don't want someone coming to work worried about whether or not they can afford a prescription for their kids.” She says they’ve only raised the contribution twice in 20 years on their grandfathered-in health care plan, which has no deductible.
While they liken employees to family, family is literally a way of life at work. Becker says they plan to keep the company private and in the family for generations to come. Each of their six kids have been exposed to the business as Brzoska and Becker were when they were growing up.
“We have a lot of new tech here but we live by old school values,” says Brzoska. “All the kids work here at some point […] We brought them in young. I started going into the shop at age five: ‘You want to eat dinner, you’re going to clean these machines,’” he recalls of how his parents taught them to be responsible for themselves. "You’ve got to earn your place on this planet […] It was good for us and we did that with our kids, too.”
At present, two of Becker’s kids are on staff. One of her three daughters, who has a degree in finance, is the company’s human resources manager while her son, who has a degree in operations management and has worked in several departments, is currently a machinist in their mill.
One of Brzoska’s two daughters, a captain in the Marines in Afghanistan, joined the company after earning her MBA and working as a buyer for a large aerospace firm. Today she’s Chardam Gear’s purchasing manager.
“I’ve been mentoring them for a while now,” says Becker, who loves seeing her brother and the kids at work. “It’s fun seeing the growth in our family and employees’ families,” she adds, noting that a number of employees’ kids also have worked there.
They are asked how they make it work as siblings.
“It’s a good partnership,” says Becker. “While they both agree on consistently reinvesting in the business, they can butt heads. She jokes, “He likes to buy machines and I like to save the money.”
Their biggest challenge? They are both passionate. “Sometimes we have differing opinions so it’s the battle of the wills,” she says. “He’s the tech expert so I almost always yield to his opinion. But he knows if I’m speaking up I’m passionate about it.”
Brzoska admits it can get "testy". "[But] we care about and respect each other.”
In the end, he says: “You have to be selfless if you want to succeed […] It’s not all about money. The whole approach is that we're all in this together. And we want the best for everybody here.”