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Stephen P. Zelnak Jr., IM 1969
Stephen P. Zelnak Jr., IM 1969

Alumni Profile: Steve Zelnak's Management Style Turned the Ordinary into Extraordinary at Martin Marietta Materials

Knowing how to disarm explosives is good preparation for running a major corporation, according to Stephen P. "Steve" Zelnak Jr., retired CEO and chair of Raleigh, N.C.-based Martin Marietta Materials.

After graduating from Georgia Tech with an industrial management degree in 1969, Zelnak spent three-and-a-half years in the U.S. Army, where he completed explosives ordnance school.

"We learned how to disarm all the nuclear weapons in the U.S. and NATO arsenals, and even the Russian stuff, as well as every conventional weapon out there dating back to World War One," says Zelnak, who also earned two master's degrees from the University of Alabama system. "Actually it was very good training to be a CEO because you need to be calm and focused under pressure — and believe me, in explosive ordnance disposal you'd better be calm and focused under pressure."

Zelnak's 28-year career with Martin Marietta began in 1981, when he was assigned to review the aerospace and defense giant's struggling aggregates division, which produced sand, gravel and crushed rock for the construction industry. He was named head of the division in 1982 and later elected an officer of the company.

He became president and CEO of Martin Marietta Materials in 1993, a year before the aggregates subsidiary was spun off as a separate public corporation. Three years later Zelnak was named chairman, a post he held until retiring in 2010, at which time he was named non-executive chairman before stepping down in May 2014. Zelnak remains on the company board and continues to make his home in Raleigh with his wife, Judy.

Zelnak describes himself as the kind of boss who "always had a game plan — call it 'vision' or just an understanding of where I thought we needed to go, and I expected our folks to perform at an extremely high level."

His high standards often resulted in people exceeding their own expectations of themselves. "One of the great enjoyments of being a CEO is helping people grow," he says. "We had a lot of people who viewed themselves as ordinary folks who did extraordinary things. Given the right opportunity and support, they were much more successful than they ever imagined, and that's really gratifying."

Zelnak's management style is evidenced by the numbers. Under his stewardship, the aggregates business grew from a $140 million subsidiary into a $2.2 billion enterprise.

Born in Savannah, Zelnak grew up primarily in Aiken, S.C. He was destined to go to Georgia Tech because his uncle Joe Ward said so, and no one argued with Uncle Joe.

"He told me from the time I was about three years old that I was going to Tech," Zelnak says of his "tough guy" relative, a former paratrooper and a 1951 Tech industrial management graduate. So certain was he of Uncle Joe's judgment that the first time Zelnak ever saw the Tech campus was when he showed up for orientation. But his biggest concern wasn't Tech's storied academic rigor. Thanks to a loan from the Aiken Rotary Club, he had enough funds to pay for the first quarter, but no more than that. Without much in the way of family support, he'd have to work his way through school. Co-oping seemed a logical option, but at 17, Zelnak was a few months shy of legal working age.

"My mother worked at the Owens Corning plant in Aiken for a fellow named Pierre Sovey, who ran the engineering department," Zelnak recalls. "He was a Tech guy who went on to become the chairman and CEO of Newell Rubbermaid. My mother was telling him about me trying to find a job, and Pierre got me a job at Owens Corning as a production worker— and they conveniently failed to process the paperwork until I turned 18, about two months later."

Zelnak paid his way through school with a mix of college loans and alternate quarters of work. He even worked while on campus, sometimes holding up to three jobs at once, he says.

"You stay tired," he notes in understatement. "The physical demands of taking seven three-hour courses in a quarter is very challenging. It was like you were institutionalized. None of the people in my age bracket graduated, we just 'got out.'

"But what I found when I got out was that I had more work stamina than the people I competed with. I was much more disciplined. I managed time better and was more organized, and all that was a product of Georgia Tech. I had a challenging and demanding experience at Tech. I wouldn't have called it 'good' at the time, but as time went by and I saw the value, I call it not just good, it was an outstanding experience."

Although Zelnak is retired from everyday work responsibilities, he's still active in business. About six years ago he and his oldest son, Brent, MGT '94, set up a corporation and over time have bought four companies primarily engaged in precision machining.

"Brent runs the business day to day, and I get involved in various aspects of it depending upon what we need to do," he explains. "We do some neat stuff. We make the cam shaft that drives the motor in a predator drone, for example." Other products from the Zelnak companies include the interior engine-nozzle coatings for Space-X's launch vehicles and gas turbine parts for Siemens.

Zelnak is also active with Georgia Tech. For three years running, he has taught a class at the Scheller College on management controls for Professor of the Practice Bill Todd. A former member of the College Advisory Board (son Brent is a current member), he sponsored the Stephen P. Zelnak Jr. Dean's Chair in the College of Management. In 2008 he was elected to the College of Management Hall of Fame.

In addition, Zelnak, an avid Yellow Jacket football and basketball fan, and his wife, Judy, provided a major gift toward construction of the $8.5 million Zelnak Center, a fully equipped practice facility for the men's and women's basketball teams that opened in 2009.

"I try to pitch in where I can, whenever someone would like for me to do something," he says.

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Susan Ambrosetti
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