(2011, Fall) Alumnus Profile: Karlis Vizulis – A grease monkey with heart

Thank goodness Karlis Vizulis (BSE ME ’79) developed janitorial skills in high school because, six months away from his Michigan Engineering graduation, he ran out of money and was willing to mop floors for cash.

“I went to Gelman Sciences in Ann Arbor and told them I nearly had my degree in mechanical engineering but was having financial problems. I told them I’d do any kind of work. I said that I’d been a janitor in high school and I was hoping they needed someone experienced with a mop. Three days later they called to say they were sorry; they used outside janitorial help. Then they asked if I’d consider being an engineer for them. I think they liked the fact that I knew how to get my hands dirty.”

Gelman let Vizulis work in the evenings until graduation. He stayed there for five years. And along the way he met Charlie Von Reis (BBA BUS’68). They kept hearing about great opportunities in the world of microporous filters. In 1984, they jumped at a dozen of those opportunities, co-founding Performance Systematix Incorporated (PSI). “We set up shop next to the dryer in Charlie and Melinda’s basement,” Vizulis said. “We hustled business, developed products and eventually got some big orders that required more manufacturing space. In ’87 we grabbed some near South Industrial and Stadium. After about three years, we needed to triple that space. We found it in Grand Rapids.” It wasn’t an easy move — he loved Ann Arbor and watching Michigan football in the Big House; he still does. (“Just being there gives me goose bumps.”)

However, the move to Grand Rapids was pivotal because PSI’s business went through the roof. “When Charlie lost a battle with cancer in 1999, my promise to him was that our dream would go on.” In 2003, the company built a new facility that, Vizulis said, gives off energy, the aura of being a progressive company and the sense that the company was evolving, even in a difficult economy. Vizulis continued to evolve, too. In 2004, he received the Ernst & Young West Michigan Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

Today he is PSI’s CEO — a long way from the boy who took apart old cars, brought them back to life, then sold them for a tidy profit.

“I was a grease monkey,” he said. “My logical path was to become a mechanical engineer. I learned to solve problems; I learned critical thinking – they’re skills that are still important to me today. When I fix things at home, I do it as an engineer. When I think about it, I realize that technology and the education I got at Michigan Engineering changed my life.”

Whereas the College helped shape his life, his ethnic roots, home and family keep him grounded. He maintains strong ties with the Latvian community. The entire family is involved in a Latvian summer camp, whether attending summer programs or at the board level. They attend a Latvian church. They speak Latvian at home. In short, their culture is their life.

“Home, family, heritage — that’s what it’s all about. I love spending time with Anda and the kids — Ilze (15) and Aleks (18). Having all of them around keeps me young — I’m 55 but I feel 35. I ski and golf. I’m always charged up and excited. Family is a big reason why.”

Another reason is the support that he has gotten over the years. He singled out an “older gentleman and his wife.” “I met them when I was starting PSI. They offered to give me some guidance and help financially. I never understood why they picked me, but they did — and that was a turning point. We became great friends. I had nothing to offer them but friendship. They said, ‘OK, Karlis, when things get tough, let us know and we’ll help.’ Years later I was able to do for Dr. Jerry and Mary Lou, what they did for me, plus interest. They refused to take the interest check. I had to sit back in awe, realizing that there are actually people like that in the world.”

For the longest time Vizulis didn’t understand why his friends had given him a boost when times were tough. But now he knows. “They were paying it forward. Now that’s my mission. It means helping in the community; it means helping people overcome obstacles; it means helping students through school; it means helping someone who needs a break. They made me look at things differently and never asked for anything in return. They’re the ones I’ve always wanted to be like.”

Vizulis’ willingness to help is the reason why a mop looks as natural in his hands, today, as it did in high school — Vizulis still isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He’s a grease monkey with heart, finding what needs fixing and bringing it back to life.