Engineered for Success
by Tom Speicher, writer/video editor. Photos by Larry D. Kauffman.
He gazed at the myriad parts scattered about. He looked down at his hands, covered in dirt and grease. No manual or mentor was in sight. There would be no shame in retreating from the endeavor. Instead, the mounting challenge strengthened his resolve. His vision of a smooth-running machine would become a reality.
The story isn’t describing a gearhead, diligently working on a vintage car to produce a sweeter ride for the open road. The protagonist is a 10-year-old boy, assembling the engine of an aging lawn mower to be pushed around his parents’ fenced-in yard.
Watch videoToday, the buried remnants of the lawn mower continue to deteriorate, but the impact of getting that engine to start and purr endures. The feeling of accomplishment hooked the boy for life. It led him to Williamsport Area Community College, a forerunner of Pennsylvania College of Technology. It led him to leadership positions with two of the world’s most prestigious automotive manufacturers. It led him to transform vehicle safety for generations of Americans. It led him to a full life.
Thomas C. Baloga, class of 1974, returned to his alma mater in February to share with current students stories and advice gleaned from his life of achievement. The visit to the Williamsport campus served as Baloga’s retirement gift to himself. In December, he stepped down from his three vice-president posts at BMW of North America to begin a new chapter, one that will undoubtedly focus on meeting challenges, just like his triumph over that old lawn mower.
“It actually started,” Baloga said, still smiling at the memory, generated nearly a half century ago. “It was a tremendous feeling that I actually did that on my own without a manual, without anyone helping me. I was able to figure it out for myself, and that was a tremendous feeling of accomplishment and confidence.”
Thanks to a tireless work ethic, tenacity and mechanical aptitude, Baloga has experienced those same feelings at the highest levels of his chosen specialties. His responsibilities at BMW of North America included overseeing U.S. engineering departments, technology research projects, quality and safety recall decisions, and product safety and environmental issues. Prior to BMW, he spent 11 years at Mercedes-Benz USA, where he helped revolutionize American crash testing. In between, Baloga served as president of Britax Child Safety Inc. Within five years, he shaped it into the nation’s top premium child-safety seat brand.
“I think what I have enjoyed the most has been being in a position to influence improvement, whatever form that took,” Baloga said. “That’s the greatest satisfaction I think I’ve enjoyed in my career.”
Examples of improvements prompted by Baloga abound and are most evident in the vehicle safety arena. As manager of safety engineering at Mercedes-Benz, he convinced the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety to incorporate offset crash testing rather than relying exclusively on full-frontal crash tests to determine how well a vehicle protects its occupants. Baloga reasoned that more accidents occur at an angle rather than head-on, and that testing should reflect that reality in America as it does in Europe. The findings generated by the offset tests pushed by Baloga led to structural changes in all automobiles to better withstand side collisions.
“It resulted in the transformation of the whole industry,” he said. “I know that it has reduced severe injuries, fatalities and debilitating injuries to the lower body.”
At Britax, Baloga flexed his engineering muscles in serving as the primary inventor on eight patents for the juvenile products industry. He created three different child-safety seats and introduced the first booster seat in the United States for children up to 80 pounds. At the time, child restraints were only designed for kids 40 pounds and under.
“It was very exciting to have the opportunity to look at what the industry needed, what the moms needed, what the kids needed for better protection and just do it,” said Baloga, who worked seven days a week during his first several months as president of Britax. “It was a great opportunity.”
Baloga is grateful for the role Williamsport Area Community College played in molding him into a professional who could seize such opportunities. The benefits of his automotive technology associate degree continue to resonate.
“I’m very happy that I went to this institution,” he said. “I had a lot of good teachers and mentors. I owe a lot of my success to the approach of this institution with the classroom work and the hands-on education.”
The practical, hands-on nature of WACC served as the perfect match for the hardworking, mechanically inclined Baloga. As one of seven kids growing up in a modest home in the Wilkes-Barre area, he discovered from an early age the need to be self-sufficient. New toys were the exception; hand-me-downs were the rule. If he wanted to ride a bike, he would first have to fix a secondhand one.
The findings generated by the offset tests pushed by Baloga led to structural changes in all automobiles to better withstand side collisions. ... "I owe a lot of my success to the approach of this institution with the classroom work and the hands-on education."
Eventually, he graduated from bikes to lawn mowers to cars. The first of many was a 1955 Chevy station wagon that he purchased for $40. Of course, it didn’t run, but Baloga spent a cold winter underneath the vehicle in his parents’ backyard to change that. In the end, he persevered.
“I love cars,” said the former Eagle Scout. “I always liked to tackle difficult problems. If there was a problem with some vehicle that multiple people couldn’t fix, that was what I wanted to be given. I really liked the challenge.”
After graduating from high school and spending a year working at a Chevrolet dealer for $1.60 an hour, Baloga enrolled at WACC in 1972. He felt at home learning on various vehicles in the college’s automotive lab.
“It was realistic compared to the real world at that time,” said Baloga, who fondly recalls his main automotive instructor, Ray Pickering. “It was very helpful to know what we were going to experience in the real world. It gave us real problems and real practical experience. By today’s standards, the lab would be considered incredibly archaic. But at the time, it was state-of-the-art compared to what the industry was using.”
Baloga did well in lab and in the classroom, despite holding down numerous part-time jobs to pay his way through college. He worked from 4 to 10 p.m. in the former Rishel Furniture factory, now the site of College Avenue Labs, then drove truck until 2 a.m. in support of efforts to build the bypass around Williamsport. On weekends, he assisted Pickering, who had a car workshop on the side.
“I don’t have much recollection of fun back then, but that wasn’t the point,” Baloga said. “I was getting an education. I was supporting myself, and I did what I had to do.
“My career goal was to earn $25,000 a year in the auto industry. If I could have a job that I could earn $25,000 a year, then I thought that I would have made it.”
Within five years, Baloga would surpass that goal. After graduating from WACC, he worked in heavy-duty truck repair when he came to the realization that his 6-foot-6 frame wasn’t conducive to long-term crouching under vehicles. He remembered his parents’ advice “to find a job in which you can work with your brain rather than your back because, after 20 years, your back will give out.”
Baloga went to Penn State Harrisburg, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical design engineering in 1978. He became a senior test engineer at Mack Trucks in Allentown and later joined Mercedes-Benz as a senior staff engineer. He then began his steady climb up the executive ranks at that renowned company, even spending a year living in Germany, before transitioning to Britax and eventually BMW.
Throughout all those stops, Baloga drew upon the tremendous hands-on background obtained at WACC. His practical experience “from the ground up” allowed him to learn sophisticated safety technology and automotive construction quicker than engineers whose backgrounds consisted mostly of theoretical study. “It was a huge advantage for me,” said Baloga, who, at the time of his retirement, was BMW’s highest-ranking official for engineering in North America.
While Baloga is thankful for his WACC education, he believes the current generation of Penn College students has greater opportunities.
“The difference between when I left until now is nothing short of phenomenal,” he said after touring the campus for the first time in 39 years. “It is awesome. I can’t think of all the superlatives to describe how impressed I am with the college. I wish I were a student. The opportunity to use the new technology and learn from the smart people here, it’s just phenomenal.”
In his retirement, Baloga is relocating with his wife, Gayle, from Goshen, N.Y., to a new home in North Carolina. With four adult children and four grandkids, he will make time for family and is already targeting new challenges. He seems determined to return to the juvenile-products industry and specialize in crafting restraints for kids, such as conjoined twins, who are enduring unique medical situations.
“Those kids need to get to the doctor. They need to get to the hospital,” he said. “They need to be transported safely, and there isn’t anything that exists. So I thought about getting back into that side of it because it’s a very big challenge, and it would be rewarding to do it.”
Obviously, Baloga can still hear the echo of that lawn mower.