Immigrant business owner thrives as machine wizard
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — It’s 3 a.m., and Ilia Petkov is bathed in the glow of a computer monitor, pricing a job for a railroad company.
The 70-year-old president of IP Automation, a Springs-based engineering and manufacturing firm with clients that include such big names as Nike and Schlage, has been awake for an hour already, adhering to a work schedule he has kept for years. When a project proves particularly taxing, he sleeps in the bedroom adjacent to his office, poised to work immediately upon waking.
Such dedication at an age when many people have retired or are at least thinking about it may explain why IP Automation has lasted 20 years, despite some downsizing, and why Petkov has loyal employees who have stuck with him through good times and bad.
To understand Petkov’s drive, you have to look past the company’s nondescript building near the El Pomar Youth Sports Park and head into his office, where the wall hangings - a black-and-white image of a young boy in Bulgaria, a color photo of St. John Paul II blessing two children and at least a dozen quotes by Albert Einstein - hint at an unorthodox narrative.
Born in 1943, Petkov grew up on his grandparents’ farm in Bulgaria in the shadow of the Communist government he would eventually escape. His grandfather rose at 1 a.m. every Wednesday to travel between markets, a work habit Petkov later adopted.
“I still see the silhouette of him going in the night,” he said. “He was a guy who inspired me so much.”
From his father, Petkov learned to drive and operate the trucks on the farm, an experience that led him to earn a degree in mechanical engineering after graduating from high school. He then started a career and a family, but their aspirations were limited in Soviet-controlled Bulgaria.
“When my children started to grow up, I saw there was no future for them in (Bulgaria),” Petkov said. “I had to find a way to bring them to the United States.”
Inspired by a friend who swam across the Black Sea from Bulgaria to Turkey under the cover of darkness and then fled to the United States, Petkov left the country in 1981. He moved his family to Mozambique, where he worked for two years before interviewing with the American Embassy in Rome. While the family waited to receive visas, Petkov worked alongside prominent Catholic officials as a handyman at the Vatican.
“They treated me with respect because I was doing everything they needed,” he said.
Petkov arrived in the United States in 1984 with no knowledge of English and little money to his name. He connected with his friend who had crossed the Black Sea and, with his help, got a job at a gas station near Anaheim, California, and then at a machine shop in Santa Ana, California. He studied English between shifts until an engineering design job opened at Schlage, a lock and hardware company, in San Jose a year later.
“I told these guys, ‘My English is very bad, but I’m a very good designer,’?” Petkov said.
The hiring team wanted proof. They sent Petkov home with some machine parts; he sent Schlage a design, and the company hired him.
Petkov built Schlage’s first fully automated machine, a lock polishing device. When Petkov finished the project, Schlage’s president summoned him to the company’s headquarters in San Francisco and assigned him to a ?$3.5 million project.
“I was the happiest person in the world,” Petkov said.
Schlage transferred Petkov to Colorado Springs in 1988. That year, he began building machines for other companies on the side. He worked at night to complete projects in his garage, including a machine that engraved serial and part numbers onto the curved sides of aircraft brake discs. Shortly after delivering the machine to Goodrich Aerospace in 1992, Petkov left Schlage and built his company, IP Automation, with a simple slogan: “Where Ideas Become Reality.”
A firm believer in the value of different perspectives, Petkov assembled a team capable of imagining and executing the development of highly complex machinery. Under Petkov’s leadership, their ideas have taken many forms - machines that create the springs in the heels of Nike shoes, mold the hard inserts in the toes of work boots and test the endurance of Schlage’s locks and door closures, to name a few.
The company has about 30 employees and does?multimillions of dollars in sales each year, though Petkov wouldn’t give a hard number. Though the widespread outsourcing of manufacturing jobs forced Petkov to downsize over the years, many of his early employees have remained loyal to him. Larry Ahr, who designed the software necessary to operate the brake disc engraver while Petkov was still working from his garage, stayed with the company and became its senior software engineer. He said the diversity of activity has kept him engaged.
“No two projects are the same,” he said.
More than two decades after starting his own company, Petkov hasn’t lost his zeal for innovation - and he has no plans to retire. For inspiration, he looks to Einstein, the quintessential genius whose insights are hung alongside his grandchildren’s drawings in an office full of books and designs.
One quote - “The day you stop learning is the day you start dying” - seems to encapsulate the energy that keeps him focused in the earliest hours of the morning.
“He has lived the American dream,” said Bob Coyne, who worked with Petkov at Schlage. “He has seen it all and came from dire circumstances and became a wizard of machinery.”
Information from: The Gazette, http://www.gazette.com