IT Guy Brings Bag of Tricks to CNC Machine Shop Where It All Started
Mike Strom is proud of the BS Degree in Computer Science he received nearly thirty years ago from highly regarded South Dakota School of Mines. But now he has come full circle, from family machine shop to family-oriented machine shop.
Mike started working for his dad, Richard, as a teenager to pay for college. Richard’s business was a classic garage-based machine shop. One day, Richard’s largest customer dangled a carrot – more business was readily available if the fledging company could grow. Otherwise, the customer would find a new manufacturing partner. So Richard doubled down. And in the process convinced Mike that he didn’t need a degree – at least not immediately. Mike accepted the challenge, staying on full-time with Strom Manufacturing for nearly five years before heading to South Dakota.
“Few teenagers get the opportunity I had back then,” said Mike. “I helped my dad get space in an industrial park near our client, create a business plan, secure bank financing, and buy our first Mori Seiki CNC mill. When I eventually enrolled at South Dakota School of Mines, I knew much more about manufacturing, business, and the value of an education than I did coming out of high school.”
Mike majored in computer science as an undergraduate, but always found ways to stay close to manufacturing. His studies focused on database design and management, machine learning, and robotics. He also served as an undergraduate research assistant at his school’s new manufacturing excellence center.
With this background, it is no surprise that Mike quickly found employment after graduation as an application engineer with Ellison Machinery Company, a national distributor of CNC machinery. In this role, he provided support for new machine installation and post-sales training. Over time, his bosses started utilizing him for pre-sales roles, as well. The combination of Mike’s hands-on machining experience and his strong computer skills made him a natural for advising customers on what machines to buy and how to use them most effectively once purchased.
But as the turn of the century approached, Mike’s strong computer skills took him in new directions: first to Microsoft, then to a series of IT consulting roles. Then one eventful day in 2015, his older brother, Bill, now president of Strom Manufacturing, called. The company’s IT consultant had just retired. Bill asked Mike to handle the company’s IT needs remotely, which Mike did for a couple of years while balancing the needs of other clients, as well. One thing led to another, and before long, the two brothers decided to have Mike come back to work for Strom Manufacturing full-time.
“I returned to Strom Manufacturing in late 2017,” explained Mike. “We called my position ‘automation specialist’. But the reality is that I have used my machining experience and computer skills in all kinds of creative ways to improve productivity and quality of process. I also worked hard in training our operators to do their own set-ups.”
“Before Mike showed up, things were different,” stated Brian Kedroske, Strom’s Quality Control Manager. “We only had one person who could set up jobs. It was a big bottleneck. Mike taught many others how to do set-ups. Thanks to him, we don’t have any permanent employees who are button pushers, only operators who also set up their own jobs.”
“Mike is our information wizard and CNC technology guru,” added Paul Sonderen, Sales & Estimating Manager at Strom. “He loves the art and science of CNC machining and is constantly pushing the envelope of technology so we can do more. There are very few shops our size that employ information technology and automation as effectively as we do.”
Strom Manufacturing changed hands in July 2022 when it was purchased by Compass Precision, a Charlotte-based manufacturer of precision metal components with CNC shops scattered across the country. But Compass was quick to understand and appreciate Mike’s magic.
“Strom Manufacturing has tremendous capabilities and utilizes them to the fullest in satisfying customer needs,” explained Compass CEO Gary Holcomb. “Bill Strom has developed a great team with Paul, Brian and others. Adding Mike back into the mix was a stroke of genius. I am pursuing ways to utilize Mike’s talents at other Compass companies. We all could use some of his pixie dust to make our processes better.”
“Like most brothers, Mike and I had disagreements as kids,” said Bill. “But I can’t say enough about how happy I am that he is back and contributing to Strom Manufacturing and Compass’s success.”
Away from work, Mike enjoys spending time with his wife, Cheng, and daughter, Dawn. Quite fittingly, the family lives in a house literally around the corner from Strom Manufacturing, easing Mike’s commute. Dawn is an undergraduate at Texas A&M in College Station, TX, where Cheng, and sometimes Mike, can be found during the school year.