Of Character and Vision: Remembering Naum Staroselsky
“I do have my pride . . . but not these things on the wall” (Barnathan 1991).
Speaking with Bloombergin 1991, Naum Staroselsky was in his prime. Aged 58 and a lauded entrepreneur – the “things” on his wall included the 1986 “Small Business Innovator of the Year” award received from the Reagan Administration – Staroselsky certainly enjoyed the emblems of his hard-won success, but his pride rested not in tokens nor in tokenism.
Characteristic of those invested in achievement, pride alone is rarely enough to drive such men and women – it is often their character and their vision. And in the pursuit of work commensurate with his talent, he brought to life something far greater than himself, forged from his travails, knowledge, and experience.
With his unfortunate passing in July, Naum Staroselsky left a legacy that not only created hundreds of millions of dollars of value for those who would benefit from his vision – but also undoubtedly improved countless lives by making the world a better place.
A Man of Character
Born in 1933 to a physician mother and journalist-turned- engineer father, Naum Staroselsky came of age in St. Petersburg, Russia, amidst the wreckage of the Second World War. Eventually earning a doctorate in engineering from Leningrad Polytechnical Institute, Staroselsky would marry Ksenia Ostrovsky in 1957 at age 24, and they would welcome their son Serge in 1960. By the early 1970s, Naum was successful in his mechanical engineering work, his family was in a “privileged position in Soviet society”, and yet, he was growing unsettled (Eastham 1986).
“As with many immigrants from the former Soviet Union, his life in Soviet Russia had many twists and turns,” notes Serge Staroselsky, who followed his father into engineering (Staroselsky 2018). “As a young man, he started out believing in the communist system, quickly becoming disillusioned while working for the Soviet defense industry.” This disenchantment was fueled in no small part by anti-semitic discrimination that Soviet Jews had experienced following World War II. The lack of opportunities and political oppression, coupled with this antisemitism, led Naum to make a tough decision for the sake of his family’s future.
They would emigrate to the United States.
‘It was not very easy at 40 years old to make a decision to start again from scratch . . . It was a high chance to lose everything I had,” recalled Naum in 1986 (Eastham 1986). Seeking religious refugee status, “it was necessary to create some kind of story about joining your relatives in Israel,” to obtain permission to leave the Soviet Union. With the help of Jewish organizations, the Staroselsky family passed through refugee centers in Rome and Vienna while passage to America was in process of arrangement (Ibid.).
“When he came to the U.S. in 1974 with the help of the Jewish community, he had very few material resources – only his determination to bring his ideas to life,” remembers Serge, who was fourteen at the time (Eastham 1986). “[But] luck also played some role; he met the right people, who were willing to invest in a startup business. It was tough going in the beginning – you really had to believe in yourself and your ideas to persevere” (Ibid.).
His perseverance would payoff sooner rather than later. Starting Compressor Controls Corporation with fellow expatriate Alex Rutshtein and three Iowan businessmen in 1974, Naum was about to become the most un-Soviet person imaginable to many back home: an unabashed American capitalist success (Staroselsky 2018).
A Man of Vision
“We’re very proud of Naum Staroselsky, who came to Iowa and in 12 years built a nationally known company and is recognized as one of the nation’s business leaders” – Iowa Governor Terry Branstad; May 1986 (Fairfield Ledger Staff 1986).
Naum’s success had not gone unnoticed. Writing in the Des Moines Registerin 2012, the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh heralded Naum as a model legislative illustration for the tremendous benefits immigrants had long provided to the state, as “successful Iowa firms created by immigrants have created numerous employment opportunities for Americans. In 1974, Naum Staroselsky, a Russian immigrant [with Des Moines businessmen Jack and Larry Ladin], founded Compressor Controls Corp. in Des Moines. It now has 300 employees in 12 countries” (Nowrasteh 2012).
Such accomplishments often require a village. “Of course, he could not have succeeded without very significant input from others, such as original business partner Larry Ladin, (former Executive Vice President) John Hampel, who came from Fisher Controls, and (Technology Executive) Saul Mirsky, [another] fellow Soviet émigré,” Serge recollects (Staroselsky 2018). “This business of turbo compressor control as a specialty did not exist until Naum came and created it,” espoused Hampel to Turbomachinery Internationalin 1994 (Ruch and Schaefer 1994, 3).
“Prior to CCC, antisurge control and protection were not considered a specialized area . . . He was the first to show that you needed specialized algorithms for effective antisurge control – and he invented and patented these algorithms, fueling CCC’s success” adds Serge. This underscores the ground-breaking work Naum was discouraged from pursuing in his native Russia, though large Russian organizations would ultimately reap significant benefits from his ingenuity, including Gazprom, who realized an estimated annual savings of $1 billion-plus from 1994 to early 2000s via efficiency gains and performance enhancements (Ruch and Schaefer 1994, 7).
When Naum retired from CCC in 2003, he had sadly lost Ksenia five years previously. He would eventually find personal rejuvenation, marrying his second wife Lili Ash and moving to Florida. Remaining ever true to himself, Naum never stopped creating or being visionary, taking on diesel engine efficiency in his final years.
A Man Worth Remembering
Serving as CCC’s Chief Technology Officer, Serge Staroselsky carries his father’s legacy forward. “He [was] a rare combination of being a good engineer, as well as having a good business sense. He saw the ‘big picture,’ and he had a lot of the qualities that you find in people that actually create something successful. He played chess in his youth, and solved problems by applying chess principles: think ahead, get the big picture, focus on the task at hand.”
His big-picture focus paid immense dividends. As a testament to his inventiveness, the United States Patent and Trademark Office lists more than two dozen entries Naum filed over a thirty-six year period (Justia Patents n.d.).
“He did not think in terms of being successful or not – he had ideas, which he wanted to implement – [and] success came almost as an afterthought. Today, many companies that supply antisurge controls, even OEMs, use the concepts developed by CCC in one form or another.”
Yet, to Serge, these are not the characteristics that most honestly define his father’s greatness: “He led by example and earned the respect of his colleagues. Not only professionally, but on a personal level. At the end of the day, this is what counts.”
Naum’s business legacy lives on through CCC, the global leader in turbomachinery controls. His creation employs almost 300 engineers and other professionals around the world, leaving a lasting – and global – impact on the industry.
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Fairfield Ledger Staff. Iowa couple earn national SBA award.May 22, 1986. https://newspaperarchive.com/fairfield-ledger-may-22-1986-p-16/ (accessed November 12, 2018).
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Ruch, Skip, and Becky Schaefer. “CCC: Controlling Interest.” Turbomachinery International35, no. 6 (September/October 1994): 1-8.
Staroselsky, Serge, interview by Brandon K. Findlay.RE: Questions for tribute piece to your father(October 30, 2018).