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Alumni Profile: From Farm to Executive

by Patrick Kirchner

An alumnus chronicles the serendipitous events that led to his becoming an agricultural engineer and executive for a top agricultural equipment manufacturer.

Wayne Martenas, agricultural engineer and executive for a top agricultural equipment manufacturer. PHOTO: CARDONI

PHOTO: CARDONI

It’s a fall morning in 1969, and Wayne Martenas is driving his parents’ 1966 Dodge Charger 165 miles down I-476 to prove he can do a few push-ups and sit-ups.

The 17-year-old high school senior from Bloomsburg, Pa., grew up on his family’s farm, where he learned early on to till the earth, raise cattle, fowl, and swine, and to suss out the formula that correlates reaping with sowing—the axiom of agriculture. But now he’s primed to take on life’s next adventure, an adventure that will begin, he hopes, at the U.S. Air Force Academy. 

Like many curious boys his age, Martenas loves airplanes. He’s obsessed with the whole idea of flight. That’s why he fired up the Charger for the three-hour trek to McGuire Air Force Base, just south of Trenton, N.J., to endure the two days of physical fitness tests required of all potential Air Force Academy candidates.

During the tests, he performs well. And to boot, he has the academic achievements, the letters of recommendation, and the well-rounded background of a kid who participates in loads of extracurricular activities—all checkboxes the academy ticks off when making its selections.

But a couple of months from now, despite his high marks, Martenas will receive an official government letter notifying him that he was not selected as a primary candidate—meaning no Air Force Academy. His next life adventure will be vastly different from what he had expected.

 

Wayne Martenas with machinery. PHOTO: CARDONI

PHOTO: CARDONI

Launching a Career

It’s a late summer afternoon in 2012, and Wayne Martenas, now 60, is walking, unhurriedly but with purpose, through Technical Center-Building 40, a large engineering office and production facility surrounded by fields of shoulder-high corn in the small town of New Holland, Pa. 

Forty-three years after his go at the Air Force Academy, it turns out that not getting in wasn’t such a bad thing after all. It opened Martenas up to the field of engineering and a rich career that spanned 38 years with Case New Holland (and its predecessor companies), one of the world’s largest manufacturers of agricultural and construction equipment. Along the way, he racked up 16 engineering patents to his name, plus a handful of industry awards.

As he walks through Technical Center-Building 40—one of about a dozen buildings at Case New Holland’s (CNH’s) eastern Lancaster County campus—Martenas points out the hundreds of cubicles where innovations for new farm equipment are conceptualized. He calls out the parts and prototypes shop where those concepts start to take shape in physical form. He nods to a new materials lab being constructed at CNH’s southwest wing near a tractor-testing track akin to a monster truck course. Over the last four decades, he’s gotten to know this business from top to bottom. 

After graduating from Penn State back in 1974, Martenas’s initial plan was to work for four years for what was then called Sperry New Holland—just long enough to acquire the field experience to obtain his Professional Engineer license. Then he would move back home to Bloomsburg, work the family farm for three seasons of the year, and do some agricultural consulting during the winter. But, again, things didn’t work out the way he had planned. It turns out that designing some of the industry’s most cutting-edge farm equipment was just something he was meant to do.

So he started his career at Sperry New Holland as a junior engineer, spending roughly ten years creating and tweaking designs for large agricultural machines and gradually growing into design, senior design, and project engineer roles. The majority of his 16 design patents came during that first decade.

When Ford bought Sperry New Holland in 1985, the company had just begun to extend its presence globally, and Martenas was in the role of liaison engineer, having recently moved to Zedelgum, Belgium, to help New Holland’s American processes merge with those of its facilities in Europe. This launched Martenas’s ascent up the management ranks and sent him bouncing around the globe in various roles over the next 20 years.

In the late ’80s, Martenas moved to Basildon, England, as one of the managers of Ford New Holland’s new PowerStar Series 40 Tractor program. In 1991, Italian auto maker Fiat bought the company, and Martenas moved to Canada for the launch of the Genesis tractor line. In 1998, he moved back to Zedelgem in his first senior management role as the chief engineer for New Holland’s global line of harvesting machines. A year and a half later, New Holland announced that it was buying the Case Corporation, a large manufacturer of farm and construction equipment, and Martenas picked up additional responsibilities of helping synthesize the engineering teams from the two companies into one.

After many of his ideas had been implemented in the Belgian facilities, Martenas and his family moved back Stateside in 2002 to Burr Ridge, Ill., Case New Holland’s global headquarters for engineering. Soon after this, he was promoted to vice president of engineering, and in this role Martenas was responsible for all of CNH’s agricultural products—tractors, harvesters, combines, tillers, sprayers, floaters, and more—overseeing a $300 million budget and 800 employees at 24 locations around the world.

He held this position through September 2008, and soon after moved back to New Holland, Pa., to become CNH’s vice president of facilities and security—a position tasked with ensuring that all of CNH’s buildings were up-to-date and its 30,000 employees were safe on the job. In many ways, it was a far cry from the work he had done up until that point. “But,” Martenas says, “it still involved engineering. Whether it’s a farm machine that fails in the field or a building’s HVAC system that fails, solving the problem is still technical.”

As of January 2013, Martenas is retired from CNH, capping off nearly four decades of engineering achievements. Looking back on his life, it is remarkable how his career came to this endpoint through just a couple of wry twists of fate.

 

Wayne Martenas walks through area with machinery. PHOTO: CARDONI

PHOTO: CARDONI

Refining Interests

Back in the late ’60s, roughly a year after his initial Air Force Academy tryout, Martenas actually received an offer to be a primary candidate. But by that time it didn’t matter. He’d already made up his mind to chase down his curiosity in airplanes from different angle—an aeronautical engineering degree at Penn State. Or so he thought. This time, it only took a personality questionnaire, a University course book, and a sharp-eyed Penn State Hazleton counselor to steer Martenas’s life plan, once again, on a different trajectory.

“She said to me, ‘Why is aeronautical engineering interesting to you?’” Martenas recalls. “‘Most of that is probably going to be near a big city and in an office building. From your questionnaire, it sounds like you like to be outside doing things. Have you ever thought of agricultural engineering?’ And I said, ‘Of what?’”

Even as a kid who grew up devoted to a life of farming and his local 4-H clubs, Martenas didn’t know the field of agricultural engineering existed, much less that it was available to him as a formal course of study. It was the perfect marriage of his agricultural values and his technical interests, so he received his background in the hard sciences at Penn State Hazleton, then transferred to University Park for engineering studies and, eventually, specific course work in agricultural engineering.

“One of the strengths of the agricultural engineering department—and the College of Ag Sciences in general—is that it’s one of the most diverse engineering educations you can get,” Martenas says. “Everyone has to take some classes in machine design, some in structures, some in material handling, and so on. You get a wide perspective of engineering across a wide range.” 

Martenas also was active with the campus 4-H group, the Ag Engineering Club, a fraternity, and fraternity sports. Being involved in a broad range of activities is a mantra he echoes even today to prospective employees and his own two children (his step-daughter, Kate, graduated from Penn State with a degree in nutrition and dietetics, and his son, Michael, is currently enrolled at University Park).

“When I hire people, I typically focus on what else they did beyond academics—sports, clubs—to push themselves to do more,” he says. “Someone coming out with a 4.0 who spent all their time studying isn’t receiving as broad of a background as a person who’s involved and doing things with other people. Communication is so important in any business, as is being able to work with teams of people.”

Similarly, Martenas also stresses that understanding the global nature of business today is equally as important for young professionals entering the field. “If you’re going to develop products to be sold in India, China, Europe, and Latin America, you want input from a diverse team that doesn’t just focus on, say, North America,” he says. “Understanding the needs of other cultures and diversity is required to be able to develop products that meet the demands of a global environment.”

After having worked around the world throughout his career, cultural diversity in the business world is something Martenas came to understand quite well. That, and how to build one heck of a farm machine.

 

Making Machines

For a large piece of industrial farm equipment, it’s remarkably graceful looking. With its long, gently sloping crop chute and low center of gravity, the New Holland Model 900 Forage Harvester could almost be called swanlike, were it not for the fire-engine-red sheet-metal body and yellow headers.

The Model 900 was a predecessor to today’s FP230/240 pull-type forage harvesters; both machines allow farmers to gather large swaths of corn and other crops more efficiently. Martenas designed the Model 900 in the early 1980s, and in its heyday it became an industry design standard. As farms have gotten bigger over the years, newer, more efficient self-propelled models began to replace pull-behind forage harvesters, including the Model 900. But among the pull-behind types still in production at Case New Holland today, Martenas’s original concept is still used and, in many aspects of the design, has remained unchanged. It’s a lasting testament to his ingenuity. 

Describing the Model 900, he speaks intently about its details—bogie axle, feed roll, drive system, knife sharpeners—like a sculptor noting each strike of a chisel. “The way it interacts with the crops and the soil,” he says, “there’s an art to it.” 

Having spent the last four years as VP of facilities and security, Martenas’s days of designing machines like the Model 900 are long behind him. He says he misses the hands-on aspects of engineering. 

But his life path is ultimately coming full circle. He and his wife, Marian, have settled into their ten-acre Lancaster County farmette, where they recently had horse stalls built. There are fields to be tended, tractors to be maintained, and soon animals to be fed. And now, more than 38 years later, Martenas is finally sowing the seeds he intended to sow coming out of college: he’s doing a little bit of consulting work while spending most of his days back on the family farm.