LINCOLN — Roland Temme has two globes in the wood-paneled office at his metal fabrication business.
One globe wouldn't begin to adequately express Temme's worldview. He loves other cultures and hires refugees from troubled regions across the world to work at TMCO Inc., the sprawling factory he owns near Lincoln's Haymarket district.
It started when he brought on a Vietnamese war refugee who came to Lincoln in the 1970s. More recent hires have included Burmese immigrants and others who have spent years in tent camps after fleeing violence.
And it started because Temme's “do what's right” philosophy feeds a deep-seated desire to help people in need who have drive and dreams. Work hard and do the right thing, he says, and good will come back to you.
The shy, laid-back CEO has won accolades for his generous spirit. The most recent recognition came Sunday when he received Lutheran Family Services' Faith in Action award at the group's Global Voices — Faith in Action gala in La Vista.
But he said more than generosity motivates his work with refugees.
“In a business, everything has to make good economic sense,” he said. “When we hire, we want to hire the best people regardless of the job.”
Partly because they have known poverty and suffering, he said, the refugees work hard and make fine employees. And now, he said, they're family.
Temme's “farm boy” roots, a manager's rejection of a good idea, and a fortuitous assignment in the military shaped his philosophy on business and life.
Temme, 73, grew up with eight siblings, including a twin brother, on a farm near Wayne, Neb. Nothing in his upbringing suggested that he would develop a lifelong affinity for other cultures.
“On the farm,” he said, “I didn't know the world existed.”
He studied engineering at the University of Nebraska, but dropped out. He joined the military and was stationed in Japan as a French horn player in the Army band. He met several Japanese students through a fellow band member who had family there.
“His friends became my friends,” Temme said. “They were all college students learning English. I couldn't speak Japanese when I got there. I was totally immersed in a different culture. It was a very important part of my life.”
So important that it shaped everything to come, including his 33-year marriage to Hiroko, the sister of one of those friends.
Back home, he switched majors to business and earned his bachelor's degree at NU. He was working as a materials manager at a Lincoln company and outsourced jobs to workers from a local agency that helps mentally disabled people. They were so proficient that he kept giving them more work, and an idea was born.
Let's hire them and cut out the middleman, he told his boss.
Nope, the boss said.
“I told myself that someday, if I ever have an opportunity, I would do it differently,” Temme said.
That opportunity came in 1974, when an engineer acquaintance asked him to open a machine shop. He started the Total Manufacturing Co., or TMCO, at Fifth and J Streets in a $125-a-month “shack between the tracks.” He had five equity holders, a few machines and one employee, a hearing-impaired man named Chad Wilson.
Wilson was a hospital janitor who hadn't finished high school. He was a hard worker. Temme thought he would be the perfect first employee, though Wilson didn't know sign language and had no way to communicate.
All he needed was good hands, Temme said. He taught Wilson how to use the machines, and the younger man got really good at it. He worked at TMCO for nearly 40 years, until he retired three months ago.
Temme realized that he didn't need words to connect with employees. When the opportunity arose, he hired his first refugee.
“I had a frame of reference for working with people who can't communicate,” he said. “I show somebody, and if they can repeat what I show them, we're good.”
TMCO now has 200 employees, about 30 from countries such as Kosovo, Togo, Nicaragua, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. It makes about 300,000 parts a month for other companies around the world, with 2,500 jobs going at any given time. Park benches, trash cans and frames for combines are among its fabrications.
The company also is in the early planning stage of a plant expansion.
Temme said his employees are the heart of the company's success. The workers, however, say he's the backbone.
One of his most recent hires, Charland Mpandy, fled from war in Congo to the Ivory Coast. When unrest broke out there, he went to Ghana, where he lived in a refugee camp for 12 years.
The 38-year-old, who had been a mechanic, arrived in Lincoln in 2012 through Catholic Charities. He got a six-month job at a meat-processing plant but was desperate when that ended. He sold his car to pay rent, but still faced eviction.
He said Temme was the answer to a prayer. Temme hired Mpandy as a machine operator three months ago.
“He's a good man. God had a mission for him and placed it in his heart,” he said in French-accented English.
Anwar Rida, a native of Iraq, is the head of the fabrication department at TMCO. When the Iraq-Iran War started, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein sent Rida, his parents and eight siblings to Iran with nothing. Saddam jailed four other relatives of Rida and later had them killed.
The surviving family members eventually moved to Syria, found jobs and rebuilt their lives. But they saw no future in the Middle East, so they immigrated to Lincoln.
Rida, who went to law school in Syria, joined TMCO in 2001 and moved up the ranks from supervisor to department head. Though he could have studied for a law license here, he didn't want to leave his TMCO family.
“There's a good future, good pay, and the opportunity never stops,” he said. “Every night before I go to bed, I pray for Roland and his health.”
Rida's brother also is a supervisor at TMCO.
The refugees learn English and machine skills from their American-born colleagues. But the refugees teach as well, said John Albers, an equity holder who has been with TMCO almost from the beginning.
“They're a good role model for the rest of the employees,” Albers said. “If someone coming to this country with a lot less than I have can make it, we know there's a reason to work a little harder.”
Temme also teaches Junior Achievement classes at schools and is a TeamMates mentor. His love for varied cultures comes through in that work.
His curriculum for JA is global marketing.
Instead of reading about immigrants in a book, “I bring in the real deal,” he said.
His TeamMate is a refugee from Myanmar, a small sixth-grader who was malnourished when he got to Lincoln. Temme has worked with the boy for three years and proudly shows visitors a photo of them together, grinning. He also found the boy's father a job at TMCO.
Temme's children inherited his curiosity about the world. Daughter Diane, 27, lives in Birmingham, England, and has visited more than 25 countries. Son David, 29, studied Spanish in college and teaches in Spain. As kids, they learned Japanese from their mom and Chinese at Saturday classes.
In an email, Diane said her dad taught her values through example. He also taught her about hard work and making your own way.
“I didn't get help from my parents on school projects like the other kids did. But they were probably all the more proud of me for getting A's, because I earned every single one of them.”
Things always mean more, Temme says, if you earn them. He's grateful he can provide that opportunity for the refugees and all his employees.
“For me to own a business ... it's beyond my wildest dreams. For everyone who works in this company, I want their dreams to come true, whatever that may be.”