by Lindsey Munson, writer, The American Mold Builder
The AMBA Mold Builder of the Year Award was created to recognize outstanding contributions as an industry leader and as an active AMBA member. The 2022 AMBA Annual Conference was held in Itasca, Illinois, where Tom Barr, president and owner of TK Mold & Engineering, Romeo, Michigan, was named AMBA Mold Builder of the Year. An industry leader with decades of experience, he has taken his company, the future of the trade and his community to the next level of moldmaking earning the respect and applause of his peers.
When congratulated, Tom Barr said, “It’s a group effort. I was telling my team, that even though my personal name is on the award, this was about TK as a team. It’s humbling. I want the team to understand it’s about them too.”
Industry Leader and Visionary
A third generation moldmaker with more than 40 years of industry experience, Tom Barr and his wife, Krista, created TK Mold & Engineering in 2003. “A few years ago, the apprenticeship coordinator we work with at the local community college labeled us the dynamic duo,” said Krista. “I always joke social worker married to business owner because it’s an unusual mix, we both complement each other into the people aspect where our employees are the reason we do what we do at TK.”
Beginning with 10 employees, Barr set out to create a family-oriented business with a mentality of all hands on deck where each person’s voice is heard and his/her input is valued. Prior to starting his own company, he worked in the family business alongside his father and uncles, learning the craft and feeding his passion for the trade.
His proudest moment was earning his journeyman’s certificate in the early 90s, which adorns his father’s and grandfather’s signature.
Today, TK Mold & Engineering has 24 employees and specializes in plastic injection molds, serving industries such as aerospace, automotive, consumer goods, defense, low production and medical. A daily reality for the industry, and which Barr is facing straight on, is consumer demand for products to be produced faster and cheaper with a tight profit margin as well as low unemployment and the skilled worker shortage. Having survived two recessions, a pandemic, and now amid an economic downturn, finding solutions to the challenges, staying competitive and making technological advancements is imperative for Barr’s company.
In recent years, Barr has invested over $3 million in expanding his building and shop floor with new equipment and a new generation of moldmakers. More than half of the company is younger than 30 years old, making a serene balance between young and mature machinists and employees in an industry experiencing extraordinary times. In a recent article, Barr comments, “When you have young people in your shop, you become a coach. You coach them through the job expectations, but you also show them what’s possible and get them excited about it.”
Engaging the Next Generation
To know what it takes from a young age, Barr watched, listened and engaged at every opportunity with his father and uncles who were moldmakers. He knew the direction he wanted to take his company – to build up and actively educate the next generation while increasing his workforce and filling industry gaps.
Barr took a chance and reached out to an apprentice coordinator at a local community college, where he began to work on a curriculum geared specifically to his company. The curriculum included applied trigonometry, drafting, electricity and electronics, CNC and EDM programming and machining, fluid power, robotics and welding. He changed the conversation, engaged his seasoned employees as mentors and built momentum opening the doors to an industry of possibilities.
Energizing the newer generation of employees, along with the company’s ‘seasoned’ team, he restructured his shop into new roles and began his apprenticeship program, which he officially registered in 2017. Putting people in roles in which they can thrive, improving quality and implementing cultural changes to attract youth in manufacturing and those in the trade have paid off ten-fold for Barr and his company. To find people alike that have the same passion for the trade is one of Barr’s greatest accomplishments.
Barr will be the first to acknowledge that Krista played a major role in the apprenticeship curriculum and overall growth of TK Mold & Engineering. To say they make a unique team is an understatement, Barr who is technically driven and was speaking moldmaking lingo since he was born and Krista who graduated with a master’s in social work saw only one end in sight – to educate, train and deliver the next generation of moldmakers. Last fall, Barr was recognized by the government leaders of Macomb County with the Best Business Award, “Trailblazer of Future Talent.”
Serving with Purpose
Since day one, Barr has been known for his “hands-on work” approach, vocal outpour and devotion to the industry. He doesn’t just talk about skilled trades with schools and businesses; he dives in and actively gets involved with local high school and community college students. As a board advisor for Macomb Community College and Romeo High School, Barr has set up programs at his facility inviting students and teachers to see how each moldmaking process works to visiting places of learning and showing them how to make mold components.
In 2021, high school students with TK’s influence and designer assistance developed an iPad holder. Students were invited to the facility where they, alongside TK employees, made over 2,000 iPad holders that were distributed at an elementary school during Covid. The project was two-fold: a fun project with purpose and accomplishment for the high school students and beneficial for the elementary students, who before they received the iPad holders were using water bottles to support their devices. And it doesn’t stop there, as this year, the team at TK and the high school students are creating cell phone holders.
In addition to his work with the future of the trade, Barr is involved in many organizations, joining AMBA in 2014 and then the AMBA Board of Directors in 2017. Barr also frequently sits on local and national panels and has been instrumental in revitalizing the Southeast Michigan Chapter of the AMBA, working to rally AMBA member shops in greater Detroit areas. His ability to link businesses and networks-pulling them together on workforce development and other pressing issues within the industry – is another example of his life’s purpose.
Barr and his wife, Krista, are leaders who walk the talk; this past year they took their employees and apprentices to their first AMBA conference – this is not just about the job – this is about growing employees professionally and personally. “The dream was not for me, but for me to take them to go and see outside of the TK walls. I hope this inspires businesses and other industry professionals to go and create further advocacy for our industry,” said Barr.
Hard work and Sacrifice Celebrated
Everyone has a choice to pick their career path; for Barr the ‘choice’ was easy. He was destined to become an entrepreneur and owner of TK Mold & Engineering, all thanks to the amazing foundation his grandfather, uncles and father laid before him. Life has come full circle for Tom Barr.
“I have been with Tom for over 40 years in this trade and I have witnessed firsthand his real character, his soul, his passion and where his heart is in this trade…. He has a hunger to make a difference,” said his wife, Krista Barr.
Barr knows that to be rewarded risks must be taken and stated, “The risk of creating a platform for young workers where you train, educate and ‘mold’ right on your shop floor; all to experience the reward, where decades of investment into young moldmakers surprises you with an equal amount of passion and love for the industry, and you are the reason they found the trade.” Barr’s hunger to make a difference for his company, in the livelihoods of the next generation and for the thriving community he serves selflessly is evidence of his commitment and love for this craft and life he has molded. “I want to leave this industry and our world a better place.”
For Tom Barr, there is no greater reward in life than to be recognized and appreciated by his peers in the same industry as one of the best out there in “moldmaking”. Humble by nature, he spoke, “This award is an honor. At the end of the day, this award goes to the team at TK and my wife, Krista. We’re all a part of it!” n