Kirk E. Spitzer
Class of 1967, BS
Academically Kirk Spitzer shone with a standing of eighth in his Marion High School class. The son of parents who grew up in the Great Depression, his father was raised in the far southwest Virginia town of Big Stone Gap, Virginia, and his mother was Canadian. Spitzer romanticized in his mind how he could enhance his own future.
“I wanted to be an Army officer” so he set hi sights on West Point, a place he felt “would be challenging intellectually and morally,” he said. Kirk’s Congressman nominated him, but his eye correction factor exceeded the level acceptable to West Point, so he was denied admission.
However, his father who worked for the Brunswick Company, suggested VPI might be more suitable for the young man. As often happens, the teenager dismissed his parent’s advice, but when a friend visited from New York, and he spoke about how good VPI was, Kirk listened. Then he applied to become a Hokie.
It was 1963 and T. Marshall Hahn was president. The Corps of Cadets was still mandatory, and Spitzer dove right into the military mode. He served on the Corps Senate twice, and ran his company’s intramural program. The athlete made the Virginia Tech freshman track team.
During Spitzer’s second year as a cadet, Hahn authorized the Corps as optional for all incoming students. But Spitzer stayed in his unit, citing its “esprit de corps,” and his preference for the structure it provided.
But he was never partial to Sundays. The reason was he spent a lot of hours in his classes each quarter, taking 20 or 21 credits, considered to be an academic overload. He would spend Sundays preparing for the week, studying for upcoming tests and getting assignments completed.
A bit of a Renaissance man, he made time for membership in the VPI Cotillion Club, playing a leading role in attracting the Beach Boys to campus for a concert. He also chaired the senior weekend for the Class of 1967, earning him an invitation to The Grove, hosted by Dr. Hahn for his leadership skills, a memory he holds dear.
When he graduated, he was able to defer his service briefly to enroll in a Firestone training program in Akron, Ohio. He became part of an innovative interdisciplinary training class that brought some 100 people from all over the country together to work at Firestone. Chemists, businessmajors, and engineers were among the professionals comprising the team. Spitzer spent the final month at Firestone supporting the radial tire development program, which was gaining traction in the USA tire market.
In Akron, he met his wife Leila, who was on the faculty at Akron University. Their courtship was quick; they married in August, and essentially honeymooned at Fort Benning, Georgia, when the Army called Spitzer to active duty. Soon, he was off to Vietnam serving in the fourth infantry division. One base camp was located 18 kilometers from the Cambodian border. He returned as a first lieutenant with a Bronze Star for Meritorious Achievement. But the precarious active duty in a combat zone altered his preferences to a quieter civilian life.
Within a week of his return, Firestone called him, offering him a new position in its international division. The attractive assignment would be to build a new plant, but the location was unknown. “Leila said no,” Spitzer said, ending that part of his resume.
Instead, he spent the next 13 years in the growing air pollution industry, beginning with American Air Filter, a Kentucky company that was a pioneer in industrial filtration. He tested well for sales aptitude and was selected to be in field sales as a sales engineer during a time when the Environmental Protection Agency was gaining clout.
His last company was The Signal Company’s Air Correction Division. A large merger resulted in Spitzer’s division being eliminated. Fortuitously, a headhunter had called Spitzer just weeks before the merger, informing him about a position with Alfa Laval. This international company, headquartered in Sweden, is a world leader within the key technology areas of heat transfer, liquids/solids separation, and fluid handling. The timing was superb for Spitzer as he became Alfa Laval’s general manager of its thermal division, based in Fort Lee, New Jersey, just as his former air pollution control division was merged and closed.
In 2000, Spitzer moved up to president and chief executive officer for all of Alfa Laval’s USA operations. “They noticed that I had a manufacturing background, but I was hired as a sales and marketing expert. So I understood the world of manufacturing. I believe this is why they made me president,” Spitzer explained.
He had a novel conundrum to tackle. “We had a growth problem. We were too complacent,” Spitzer reflected. When he started in 1983 the company had sales of about $100 million globally. Some 15 years later, the sales had approached $1.4 billion globally.
As president, Spitzer thought his group could do even better. “We were in a tough union environment,” with a plant in the old IBM town of Poughkeepsie, New York. Most of his administrative employees lived 50 or 60 miles from work, as younger professionals normally could not afford the cost of living in posh Fort Lee, facing the Manhattan borough of New York City. “They were all exhausted by the time they completed their commute to work,” Spitzer acknowledged.
“So the biggest challenge I had was to convince all of these employees to move from New York/New Jersey to the Richmond, Virginia, area,” Spitzer recalled. “We took a year to look at options, visiting the Research Triangle Park and Charlotte, North Carolina. Then I took what they call a windshield tour of Richmond in a day trip.”
When the comparisons were made, the Richmond area had a cost of living index of 98 versus 114 for Raleigh. Richmond easily won the competition. “We made it a flexible work place where the goal was to get the job done. I ran my business ethically and honestly. I told my employees to bring me an honest mistake and I will help you fix it. I will have your back.
The Eagle Scout said he learned his value systems from his parents, the Corps of Cadets, and the honor system at Virginia Tech. He once witnessed a member of the corps being drummed out in the middle of the night for a serious infraction, and it was an experience that left a strong life long impression.
The move to the Commonwealth “also allowed me to reconnect with Virginia Tech,” Spitzer added. He did so by actively recruiting Virginia Tech mechanical engineering graduates, starting in 1993. He became a founding member of the task force that was credited with helping to create Virginia Tech’s Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS).
In 2002, the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering inducted him into its Academy of Distinguished Alumni, and, in 2014, awarded him its Marvin H. Agee Distinguished Service Award. In 2007, he received the College of Engineering’s Distinguished Service Award. He and Leila are members of the College of Engineering’s Committee of 100 and the university’s Ut Prosim Society.
Spitzer retired from Alfa Laval in 2005, and remains active in his community. He has served on the board of directors of the YMCA of Greater Richmond, and was Chairman of the Cultural Arts Center of Glen Allen in 2006. He was on the executive advisory board of Hilliard House, a program that assists homeless women and their children to build their capacity to live productively in the community. On two occasions, Spitzer has traveled to Honduras to help with medical missions, mostly for needs related to pediatric open heart surgery and medical mountain support for rural areas.
He is a founding trustee of the engineering school at Virginia Commonwealth University. He serves on the board of directors of McKinney and Associates of Ashland, Virginia, and the Dupps Company of Germantown, Ohio.
He and Leila, now his wife of 47 years, have two children and four grandchildren. One of his goals is to spend more time with the 8, 6, 4, and 3 year olds, one of whom he said is brilliant – definitely a proud grandfather.
Class of: 1967
Year Inducted into Academy: 2016