Humble Hall of Famer

OSUIT alumnus built business into great success

OSU Institute of Technology

Jim Swank cofounded a company that now employs about 300 people, yet he downplayed his credentials while humbly accepting the honor of induction into the OSU Institute of Technology Hall of Fame last April.

"I came to OSUIT not to go to school but to play baseball and basketball," says the retired president and CEO of RAE Corporation. "The head of the school must have liked baseball and basketball, too. He came up to me one day and said, 'I don't think you're going to make a living playing baseball or basketball. Maybe you should think about being a student.'"

Swank completed the two-year air conditioning and refrigeration program in 1958. It helped prepare him for a career that followed an unexpected path and culminated with his retirement in 2000 as president and CEO of the company, which designs and produces engineered heating, cooling and refrigeration systems.

"The education I received at OSUIT gave me the capability I expected – product understanding, product development, product creation," Swank says. "All of those things are what I expected when I went there."

Choosing a career field

Swank grew up during the Great Depression. World War II was over by the time he joined the Army, which stationed him in Germany. After the service, he returned to America determined to pursue an education through the GI Bill.

"I didn't have any clue as to which school or what education," Swank says. "I was told that at OSUIT, you could easily select an employment in a shorter term. And there seemed to be more opportunities in air conditioning and refrigeration than in most industries at that point."

Swank's wife, Verona, worked while he went to college. After he gave up sports, Swank started working in Tulsa for Webster Engineering, a commercial refrigeration manufacturer. He even took a few months off from school to work full time before completing the academic program.

He remained with Webster Engineering not only through college but well afterward. In fact, he stayed through one corporate merger and didn't leave until 1971, when the operation moved to Columbus, Ohio.

Now what?

Swank was unemployed for about a month and unsure how he would provide for his three children when a call from a friend changed his life. He became one of six co-founders of Technical Systems Incorporated in 1971 and spent five years establishing and overseeing the startup's manufacturing operation.

This predecessor of RAE leased a small, "somewhat rickety" building in the MidAmerica Industrial Park in Pryor Creek, Oklahoma. The first air-conditioning unit it sold was 2-feet-by-2-feet.

RAE interior

RAE designs and produces engineered heating, cooling and refrigeration systems.

Today, RAE has more than 120 sales offices from coast to coast and sells units with up to 500 tons of capacity. The corporate headquarters encompasses about a city block in the MidAmerica Industrial Park.

"I'm not sure what RAE is today even applies to what the company was then," Swank says. "We were so much smaller and had limited dollars, but what we did then resulted in this corporation."

Swank became majority owner in 1976, borrowing money to buy stock. He knew the company's equipment very well but soon realized he had a lot to learn about its finances.

"I felt we could – in fact, did – hire capability," Swank says. "There are many people who are able to work with numbers that wouldn't know an air conditioner if they met it. You learn rather quickly if you have someone skilled to do it, and at least we had sense enough to get skilled people."

Technical Systems Incorporated began expanding even before Swank took over. In 1974, a sales division named Refrigeration Systems Inc., went to Boise, Idaho. A decade later, Century Refrigeration was established. Then came the addition of RAE Coils, which sells heat transfer coils.

In 1992, RAE Corporation was established to unite those four divisions into one entity. Swank was president and CEO, and his eventual successor was rising up the organization's ladder.

Like father, like son

Eric Swank began sweeping floors for his father's company at the age of 15. He completed OSUIT's air conditioning and refrigeration program in 1990. By the time health issues led to Jim's retirement in 2000, Eric was the logical replacement.

"He knew all about the equipment, distribution and design," Jim says. "He had a lot of experience with all of this company except for the financial part. He had to learn that side rather quickly. I was taught slowly, but when he took over the opportunity to do it, slowly didn't exist."

Jim says Eric's leadership of the organization has made him proud from day one, and he has no doubt Eric will guide RAE to even more success in the future.

"I believe that we still value the things that our founders valued, which is excellence in our people, products and relationships," Eric says. "Although I don't know what the next 40 years hold for RAE Corporation, I do know that if we are better today than we were yesterday, and better tomorrow than we are today, it will take us where we want to be as an organization. We will be able to handle anything the world throws at us, and we will continue to be the excellent company we are, now and in the future."

Giving back

The Swanks and RAE are dedicated to benefiting others. Jim supported the establishment of Thunderbird Youth Academy in Pryor, which helps high-school dropouts pursue a path to a positive change. He was also influential in establishing OSUIT's presence at MidAmerica Industrial Park.

The RAE Family Foundation assists the company's employees dealing with financial hardships due to uncontrollable circumstances. It also provides scholarships for the children of RAE employees.

Roger Shepherd, chairman of OSUIT's air conditioning and refrigeration program, says the Swank family and RAE have also greatly supported OSUIT even beyond financial support.

"In the 13 years I have been in this department, RAE Corporation has always been there to assist the program with field trips, hiring interns and graduates, being involved with the advisory board and career days, even donating equipment," Shepherd says. "It is people like Jim Swank and companies like RAE that make this school what it is today."