As the middle child of five kids growing up in Richmond, family always has played an important role in his life, Mark Gerstle said.
He jokes that his two younger siblings, who were twins, got all the attention, and that he, as the middle child, was underfed and received only hand-me-downs from his two older brothers.
The importance of family was amplified by tragedy: Gerstle’s brother Greg, who was one year older, suffered severe injuries in a motorcycle accident. Greg had planned to become a farmer after studying at Ball State University but died after several months in a coma.
“That was really traumatic for Mark,” said Andrew Gerstle, the eldest sibling.
The loss of their brother also gave Mark Gerstle perspective, said Andrew Gerstle, a Harvard-educated professor at the University of London.
It hammered home the notion, Andrew Gerstle said, that in the community and in business, the value of making money is dwarfed by the importance of people.
Mark Gerstle came to Columbus 25 years ago to work for Cummins. He made the decision in 1988 for family reasons and said he stayed with Cummins because of the corporate culture and the company’s willingness to give him a lot of different assignments.
Gerstle, 57, will retire as the company’s vice president of community affairs April 1.
Gerstle left IBM after about seven years to make his move to Columbus.
While at IBM, he had to move four times, and the company was asking him to make yet another change and set up a new office in San Jose, Calif. Such a transfer within IBM would have required a seven-year commitment that likely would have included moves to Paris and/or Tokyo. Gerstle and his wife, Diane, had two young children at the time.
Gerstle said he remembers standing on the balcony of the Embassy Suites hotel in San Jose, where it was 80 degrees. Temperatures in Indiana, where he had gone to law school and where his wife’s family lived, had dropped below freezing.
His wife asked that he not accept the new assignment in San Jose. Gerstle agreed, and the couple instead set their sights on Indiana.
Gerstle called just two companies: Eli Lilly and Co., which did not have a job he liked; and Cummins, where he knew the company’s general counsel, Steven Zeller, because the two had attended Indiana University School of Law.
Gerstle had decided in law school that he did not want to join a law firm. Instead, he wanted to work for a corporation, especially one that offered opportunities for different experiences.
Zeller told Gerstle that unless he did something completely ridiculous, he could have his pick of assignments at Cummins.
That was a critical component in Gerstle’s decision.
Gerstle said he likes new challenges and wanted to learn various parts of the Cummins business — not just remain in the legal department.
“I think I get bored easily,” he said.
He joined Cummins as corporate counsel; and the company’s leaders at the time, Chairman Henry Schacht and President Jim Henderson, told Gerstle that if he performed, he could move from the legal department to operations, sales or whatever interested him.
“It’s allowed me to stay in a company ... and do probably 10 different careers,” Gerstle said.
That approach also keeps people intellectually engaged, he said, and it means people stay with Cummins a lot longer than they initially intend.
“When people have been here a little while, they don’t leave,” Gerstle said.
During his career at Cummins, Gerstle also worked on strategic initiatives, as chief risk officer and in the company’s filtration business — although his final role proved most visible in the community.
As vice president of community affairs, he was charged with increasing the company’s involvement in southern Indiana, focusing especially on education. Gerstle served on boards of local universities, National Association of Manufacturers Institute and Columbus Economic Development Board.
He helped establish the Advanced Manufacturing Center of Excellence in Columbus, which is used by IUPUC, the Columbus/Franklin campus of Ivy Tech Community College and the Purdue College of Technology. He also championed the expansion of early childhood education.
Without Gerstle’s input, many of those education initiatives “wouldn’t have happened,” former Cummins CEO Tim Solso said.
Gerstle said his involvement in those efforts reflect the company’s values but also his own.
He said that the company’s core values — including social responsibility, diversity and a cleaner environment — played a part in his staying at Cummins. He especially liked that once you give your word to a customer or employee, you don’t need a contract because you can be sure that Cummins will keep its word.
And that, Gerstle said, had been part of Cummins’ culture before he joined the company and has continued throughout his career, thanks to a long list of people who lived those values.
“Person for person, there’s no company, in my view ... that has the integrity that the Cummins people have,” he said. “I ... hope that’s how I’m viewed, too.”
SUNDAY IN BUSINESS: Gerstle’s impact on Cummins.