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Zsolt Rumy: Fleeing the Soviet government

Ambition drives chemical engineering alumnus to global business in carbon fibers

Zsolt Rumy (ChemE ’66) was 14 when his family fled Hungary. The destruction of World War II had plunged the country into poverty.

During the subsequent decade of Soviet rule, Rumy’s father, a university graduate with an agriculture degree, was imprisoned. When the revolution of 1956 failed to topple the pro-Soviet government, his parents fleed with 200,000 other refugees.

“Then you come here to the United States and everybody’s happy and everybody is enthusiastic and open, and it’s a whole different world,” said Rumy, whose family was settled by Catholic Charities in Minneapolis.

 

“It was a new life for me,” said Rumy, of moving to the U.S. “Freedom! Americans don’t understand how great it is.”

 

Rumy seized his new life with the enthusiasm of a teenager. He had been on a rigorous college-track in Hungary, so he breezed through math and science at his public Minneapolis high school and quickly mastered English.

“I did quite well and I didn’t study at all,” he said.

Heeding his father’s advice

That changed when he enrolled at University of Minnesota’s top ranked chemical engineering program. His grades plummeted. He looked at his fraternity brothers taking business classes.

“I talked to my dad and said ‘I’m thinking about quitting engineering and going to business school,’” he recalled. “That would have been 1963 or ’64.”

 

“My dad told me if the Russians take over the United States and it becomes communist like Hungary, then the business school guys won’t have a job,” Rumy said, “but engineers will still be needed.”

 

Rumy buckled down and stuck with chemical engineering. After graduating, he worked two-year stints at Monsanto, W.R. Grace, and General Electric.

“But my personality and corporate life just didn’t match,” he reflected. “I was a little more outspoken and ambitious.”

Success as a business owner

In 1975 he struck out on his own and founded Zoltek Companies Inc. in St. Louis, Mo., where he and his wife still live.

He sold Monsanto pollution control equipment and other product lines until 1988, when Zoltek bought a specialty carbon fiber manufacturing plant in Massachusetts.

“And the rest is history,” he said.

 

“Going into it, there wasn’t a grand plan,” said Rumy, of starting his own company.

 

“But once I got into it I saw the possibilities and really changed the whole carbon fiber industry,” he added.

Carbon fiber is five times as strong as steel and 10 percent of the weight, Rumy said. In the late 1980s, it was expensive and only used in the aerospace industry.

By getting the price down, Zoltek was able to create new markets in a wide range of commercial uses, including automobile parts, golf clubs, and lighter, longer, and stronger wind turbine blades.

Like many immigrants, Rumy facilitated the exchange of business and technology with his home country, purchasing a fiber plant in post-communist Hungary, which he helped turn into what he calls “a world-class facility and probably one the best examples of privatization in Hungary.”

The benefit of global perspective

When Zoltek was sold in 2014 for $584 million, the publicly traded company was the third-ranked carbon fiber maker in the world.

Rumy used some money from the sale of his stock to establish an undergraduate exchange program between the University of Minnesota and Budapest University of Technology and Economics.

He also funds research and scholarships at the College of Science and Engineering in Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. Rumy wants students to learn some of what was so valuable to him in his career, the cross-cultural perspective that is the birthright of every immigrant.

“It gives them an understanding of another society and country and another way of life," he said. “Being able to understand people really helps in conducting business. It’s very good for everybody.”

Story by Maja Beckstrom

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