Mark Zumdohme is honored as Nebraska’s Diplomat of the Year (from left to right: Desiree Wineland, President of the Nebraska Diplomats; Mr. Zumdohme; Nebraska Governor Jim Pillen)
Before moving from Germany to Nebraska in 2006 to establish Graepel North America, Mark Zumdohme wouldn’t have been able to find the state on a map. Seventeen years and multiple business expansions later, he has been named as Nebraska’s “Diplomat of the Year” for helping other companies chart their course to the state. Last month, Governor Jim Pillen honored Mark—now CEO of Graepel North America—with the award to recognize his effective promotion of Nebraska and gracious hospitality to visiting business leaders.
Mark’s journey to Nebraska began in the mid-2000s when Graepel, a manufacturer of perforated sheet metal parts, decided to open a location in the Midwest region of the United States. The family-owned German company had begun shipping parts all over the world, including to a growing customer base in the U.S. agricultural industry. Graepel’s CEO asked if Mark would be interested in relocating to the U.S. to lead a new North American sales office.
Mark consulted his wife, Heike, about the opportunity. After a few weeks of deliberation, they decided to make the move to Omaha, Nebraska. At the time, the couple knew only one person in Omaha–Phil Michel, with the Nebraska Department of Economic Development (DED). “Phil had been in contact with our company years before,” said Mark, “and he was our primary, go-to person for business relations in Nebraska.”
DED’s consistency in exceeding Graepel’s expectations of customer service had initially attracted the company to Nebraska. The agency continued to offer strong support as the company established itself in Omaha. Graepel North America started with Mark as its only employee, renting a simple office with a phone line. “DED went above and beyond what we needed,” he said, recalling the transition. “They took really good care of us, helping to find an office and an apartment.”
Mark successfully grew sales for Graepel during its first few years in Nebraska. In 2009, he hired the office’s second employee, an engineer from Germany. At the time, all of Graepel’s products were still made in Germany and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to U.S. customers. Occasionally, parts would get lost or damaged along the way. To avoid this problem, Mark and his team decided to start manufacturing in Nebraska. “We began doing welding, bought brake presses, and actually imported two large hydraulic presses from Germany by boat.”
By 2011, Graepel was operating out of a rented facility with 20,000 square feet of space. “We outgrow that space really fast,” Mark recounted. “All of sudden, our products could ship from within the U.S.—that was a big advantage and a game changer for our business development. We benefited from Omaha’s central location in the middle of the country.” Having an advantageous site for distribution helped Graepel grow its business beyond the agricultural market, supplying products for construction equipment and heavy-duty trucks.
In 2014, the company built its own 40,000 square foot facility, doubling in size to support its growing operations. Sales continued to be strong, even with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. In 2022, Graepel again doubled its physical footprint, expanding to 80,000 square feet.
“We’ve been very blessed to have ongoing support from the State of Nebraska throughout our journey,” Mark said. “DED helped us along the way every time we grew or needed to make a connection with suppliers, business partners, or attorneys. I have always been able to get help—DED has been a great resource.” Mark specifically credited DED for helping Graepel find a shovel-ready site for its existing facility and for providing easy-to-access incentives to support construction.
“Every time we’ve expanded, we’ve been able to take part in the various incentive programs the state offers. They were easy to sign up for and manage. We didn’t need to hire an outside consultant to oversee the incentive programs—our own accountant did it.”
From an initial workforce of one, Graepel has grown to a team of 70. “The quality of the people we have is very, very good,” Mark said. “They have a lot of loyalty. They’re hard-working people. They have an extremely good work ethic, which has helped us grow.”
Through the German American Chamber of Commerce, Graepel has launched an apprenticeship program—the Industry Consortium for Advanced Technical Training (ICATT)—to grow its workforce. Mark recruited one of Graepel’s local customers, fellow German manufacturer CLAAS, as a partner in the venture. Annually, Graepel looks to hire two apprentices through ICATT.
Mark’s belief in the value of apprenticeships comes from personal experience. He grew up just minutes away from Graepel in northwest Germany—a rural, agricultural region not unlike much of Nebraska. After high school, he won a spot in a five-year apprenticeship program through the company. It ultimately allowed him to earn an apprenticeship degree, a business degree, and a Diplom-Kaufmann (comparable to an MBA degree in the United States). “The apprenticeship helped me to build my career tremendously,” said Mark, and it has inspired him to offer similar opportunities to youth in Nebraska.
Soon after moving to Omaha, Mark joined the Nebraska Diplomats—an organization of business leaders dedicated to promoting the state. “It gave me access to about 280 business leaders in Nebraska. You can give other members a call, talk about their business specialty, and set up an appointment to connect. This kind of informal network works well, and I’ve enjoyed doing it through the years.” As a Diplomat, Mark also regularly hosts meals for fellow business leaders considering an investment in Nebraska. Mark has found that, as was once true of him, “most people don’t know about the state.” He relishes the opportunity to share Graepel’s story and to familiarize his guests with the many benefits Nebraska has to offer.
Mark and Heike Zumdohme have built a family in Nebraska. They have three boys, ages 16, 14, and 11. Mark says they have enjoyed the state’s “safe and family-friendly environment” and good schools. “Our kids go to the public schools here, and I am very impressed with our school district. We always benchmark [our boys’ educational progress] to that of our friends’ kids in Germany,” Mark said, confirming that his children are every bit as academically advanced.
Like Mark, Heike has thrived in Nebraska, initially in the medical field and now as CEO of a music and arts school. “The school started with 50-100 kids, and now they have over 500,” said Mark. “My wife runs the show—as well as our family—so I’m not sure who has the more challenging CEO job!”
The Zumdohme family enjoys belonging to an informal group of Germans in Omaha. “Each month, one person volunteers to host in their home, and the others bring the beer and the food,” said Mark. “That’s how Germans in Omaha get together, and we’re glad to be part of that group.”
Having spent 17+ years in the state, Nebraska has become home for Mark and Heike. It’s actually the only home their three boys have ever known. “We both like Nebraska, and we’re grateful the community has welcomed us here,” said Mark. As his “Diplomat of the Year” award attests, the feeling is mutual. The state of Nebraska is honored to have the Zumdohmes living and working in Omaha.