Rags to riches: Late Mike Dreher helped turn Modineer into county’s largest manufacturer
When Mike Dreher bought Modineer from his father in the 1970s, family members say the business was very close to going under.
Mike’s son, Michael, tells a story about how his grandfather was essentially ready to give the Niles-based business away to two potential buyers (the price was so low) before Mike stepped in.
“My dad said, ‘Pa, if you are going to give it away, why not give it to me?” Michael said. “The two guys got up and walked out the door. That’s how he (my dad) got the business.”
More than 40 years later, Modineer is the largest manufacturer in Berrien County, either outlasting or outgrowing other local manufacturers that were bigger at the time when Mike took over, including Simplicity Pattern and Tyler Refrigeration.
Mike, who died Saturday after an extended illness, is being remembered this week by family and friends for his contributions to the company and his kind nature.
Mike’s other son, Gary, said their father’s story is a fine example of the American dream.
“Modineer Company was nothing when my dad had it — it was just the little shop down the road,” he said. “It was kind of a rags to riches story, really. He started out with nothing. When he got married he had a few hundred bucks in his pocket. That’s it.”
Change for the better
Mike, known as “Big Mike” to friends and family, grew up in Niles and graduated from Niles High in 1953. His father, Paul, started Modineer as a tool and die shop in the 1940s, making and selling dies to other manufacturers, among other things.
As a teenager, Mike would shadow his father at work, learning all there was to know about how to run the business.
When Paul retired in 1973, Mike and his wife, Shirley, purchased Modineer from him and transformed it from a tool and die maker to a production/manufacturing shop, plus tool and die.
Mike’s sons say that decision allowed the company to survive and eventually thrive, evolving into 800-employee business it is today.
“He took it from a failing company when my grandfather had it and moved it forward,” Michael said.
“If we would’ve stayed in tool and die industry we probably wouldn’t still be in business,” Gary said.
When Mike took over the business from his father, Gary said it had approximately 30 to 35 employees.
By the time he sold the business in 2000 to his three children (Michael, Gary and Patricia), Modineer had around 200 employees and a strong foothold in the automotive-parts-making business.
Another reason for the company’s success, his sons said, is that Mike had a strong sense for which jobs to take and which ones to leave on the table.
He also had a conservative approach to capital expenses, making certain the company would never overextend itself financially.
“If he couldn’t pay for it, he wouldn’t buy it,” Gary said. “One of his contributions was to control our growth so we wouldn’t get too crazy.
“He instilled in us the framework of how it should get here today.”
A family business
Roger Kluge retired as chief financial officer for Modineer in 2014 after working there for 28 years, most of them under Mike’s leadership.
He said Mike understood his own limitations and wasn’t afraid to seek advice from his employees, family and friends.
Kluge said Mike often gave credit for the company’s growth to its employees.
“He always cared about his employees — he tried to bend over backward for them,” Kluge said. “I can’t say enough about that. He treated everyone like family.”
Mike’s sons described their father as a kind and giving man with a robust personality and a smile forever etched on his face.
“I don’t think he ever had an enemy — I really don’t,” Michael said.
“He was a great people person and his employees meant a lot to him,” Gary said.
As hardworking as Mike was, his sons say their father always reserved time for family — one of the reasons why they remain close to this day.
Growing up, Gary said he and his siblings were required to be at the dinner table every night at 6 p.m. or there was hell to pay.
“We would have dinner and he would go back to work,” Gary said. “Very rarely would he miss a 6 o’clock dinner.”
“That’s how we got in the business — we would go with him (to work after dinner),” Michael said.
Mike’s sons say one of their father’s biggest points of pride is that Modineer remains family owned with four generations of the Dreher family working there.
“He was so proud of this place and proud of us too, what we’ve done,” Michael said. “The legacy of this place was very important to him,” Gary said, “And it is to us to.”
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