Herb Tobben

Herb Tobben, 71, who has worked for Clemco Industries since the days when it was Zero Manufacturing Co., is so valuable to the company because of his knowledge that management jokes with him that he can not retire.

Herb Tobben’s business card lists his title at Clemco Industries as “Sample Processing Coordinator, Technical Services.” His actual title should probably be “Problem Solver.”

Clemco is a “manufacturer of air-powered blast equipment used to clean, deburr, shot peen, remove coatings, finish, or otherwise improve the surface being blasted,” according to its website. Part of the brains of the operation is Tobben.

For 47 years Tobben has worked for the company, spending most of the time in what he calls the lab. He’s been given countless problems and tasked with solving them. He’s been successful more often than not.

Tobben, 71, has provided so much value he jokes that the company’s president, Arnie Sallaberry, won’t let him retire.

“Sometimes, I’d just like to get away,” Tobben said. “I told that to Arnie and he said ‘Take off as much as you want, just don’t forget to come back.’”

Tobben started off working for Zero Manufacturing Co. before it was bought by Clemco. In 1970, he sold his route delivering milk from Patke’s Farm Dairy and applied to be a welder.

“Before I had the application done, I was hired on the spot.”

He intended to have the job for a few months, but stuck around after a job in the lab department opened up. He spent several years in the sample processing lab and then moved to the floor to run production.

Tobben said he didn’t really enjoy that job as much so, when his old job became available again, he jumped at the chance to get back in the lab. Since the early 1980s, that’s where he’s been. Tobben said he’s worked on a variety of projects and tried to figure out just how to make things work. He said he spent over a year trying to figure out how to make a machine that could make a tabletop with a preferred surface coating.

The amount of time spent on that one project was immense, but Tobben said Clemco wanted to get it done right. He said the company trusted him to tear things down and start all over as long as he was making progress toward getting the problem solved.

Eventually, he figured out his table problem. He became known for solving problems. When it was still Zero Manufacturing, Tobben was put on a poster to advertise his abilities.

His skills didn’t go unnoticed. In 2010, he earned the Shot Peener of the Year award at the annual U.S. Shot Peening Workshop organized by Electronics Inc.

Most of his skills were honed on the job. He graduated from Union High School and took some classes on welding, but most of his education has been self-taught.

The fact that he didn’t go to school to learn his skills is hard for some people to believe, he said. Because he was so good at fixing things, he was sent around the country to help train people. One time, he said he was at a Ford plant in Ohio and impressed the people there.

“They called me when I was done working on the machine to get it running again and wanted to know where I went to school,” Tobben said. “The guy said to me, ‘I want to send several of our people there.’ I told him, no you can’t do that. He said, ‘No, no, tell me where you went.’ I told him, ‘Out behind the barn.’ You should have seen his jaw drop.”

Tobben works a limited schedule now. He’s at Clemco three days a week helping train people and using his experience and know-how to help out when needed. He has no plans to retire any time soon and is gearing up to start his 48th year in February.

When he’s not working, he lives just outside Washington and takes care of some cattle. Tobben said he spends a lot of time with his two children and two grandchildren to stay busy.