The ‘King of Cans’
Juergen Kroos is already noticeable in his neighborhood. On his 140-ft. by 100-ft. residential lot in Englewood Isles, he grows over 40 different fruits and vegetables, and he gives many of them away to friends and neighbors. Want some oranges, passion fruit, papayas, lemons, limes, plums, strawberries, pineapple, persimmon or bananas? He’ll get you a few. Or how about parsley, rosemary, basil, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, eggplant, onions, cucumbers or parsnip? Sure, help yourself. He enjoys gardening, but he gets even more pleasure from giving samples to others who enjoy eating them.
But that’s not what Juergen is truly notable for. Gardening is only a sideline, a hobby. Juergen is, and has been for years, the “King of Cans”—that is, the master at making those ubiquitous containers of so many food products we all eat.
Think about it. A can must be light in weight, yet sturdy. It must be suitable for containing powders such as tea or coffee, solids such as pears and peaches, liquids like soups and sodas, or semisolids such as dog meat. It must be suitable for long-term storage, yet easily opened. And it must be pliable enough to take on any shape or size, from a snuffbox to a barrel. The manufacturer must have a production line that shapes the can, inserts the product, seals the can and adds the label. The process of making it is complex and variable, and it takes someone with the technical and mechanical skills, the experience, and an understanding of the whole process to master it. Juergen has done just that. Here’s how he became the “King.”
He was born and raised in Glashagen, Germany, well within the region that was known in the post-World War II era as East Germany, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik. His parents were wealthy farmers, with 1250 acres of land given to raising sheep, cows, pigs, horses, grain, sugarbeets and potatoes. Their “farmhouse” looked like a Victorian estate you’d see on BBC television. And Juergen and his seven, count ‘em seven, siblings didn’t have to work the farm. There were over 40 hired hands to do that. “We had a sheltered life,” he says, “… until 1945.” That’s when the war ended and Russian troops moved in to occupy their sector of Germany. Russian soldiers plundered the Kroos farm, “taking everything that wasn’t nailed down,” Juergen remembers. Shortly after that, their farm being large, it was confiscated by the East German authorities in the new Communist government. “A friend of ours in the administration warned us of this two days before it happened,” Juergen recalls, “but when we received the formal notice, we had two hours to collect our belongings and leave the farm.”
There followed a tortuous trip for the family of ten, by horse-drawn wagon, by cattle car, by train and “by hook and by crook” that ended up in Goettingen, in the British zone of occupation in December of 1945. Over the next eight years, which can best be described as “hardship” in that war-torn country, Juergen’s schooling came in fits and starts, but he got his first exposure to English and earned an apprenticeship in can manufacture, becoming a journeyman machinist as well as a journeyman farmer before he was to emigrate from West Germany to Canada.
When he disembarked in Canada from the liner “Seven Seas” on May 23, 1954, he says, “I was 22 years old with $5 in my pocket. What a beginning!” And oh yes, he had a contract to serve on a farm near Ottawa for one year. He lasted three weeks. The living conditions were miserable and the work strictly hard manual labor. So he headed for Montreal and thus began an odyssey that took him through job sites in ten different locations, ever-increasing responsibilities and compensation, and eventually a demand for his knowledge and skills from companies in some 20 countries around the globe.
He began by teaching horseback riding to vacationers in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal. That fit his background as a rider on the family’s farm in Glashagen, but it was just a temporary stopgap. He soon found a job as a tool & die machinist at Eagle Toys in Montreal. A year later he took a similar job at an aircraft factory in southern Ontario. His first big break came when he landed a position as a maintenance machinist at American Can, one of the giants in the field of container manufacture. “They transferred me to the section where the cans were manufactured. It gave me the chance to learn everything about can manufacturing, and I applied some of my own ideas to improve the machines for better production,” he says. AmCan realized they had a budding talent on their hands. They first assigned him to train new machine workers and then asked him to come to the company’s headquarters in New York City.
Out of AmCan’s New York headquarters, the execs began to ask Juergen to trouble-shoot in factories around the U.S. and also in Puerto Rico, Canada and Venezuela. He did so, and in solving some problems for the company he made lasting contacts and friends within the industry. When AmCan moved its headquarters to Greenwich, N.Y. in 1971, Juergen asked to go back to work at the factory level, and he was assigned first to Baltimore and then to Tampa as Engineering Manager. In 1975 AmCan asked him to go to England to straighten out their British subsidiary. Then followed stints at Indianapolis and Rochester, N.Y. “Wherever there was trouble, they asked me to go,” Juergen avers. “And I went.” And he learned how to deal with problems in every facet of container manufacture.
He decided he would retire when he reached 55, but his services continued to be needed, and he didn’t officially step down until 1987, at age 56, with 31 years of experience behind him at AmCan. “My wife Kaetie and I toured up and down the coast of Florida to choose a place to live in our retirement, and we settled on Englewood. It had everything we were looking for: beaches, golf, a freshwater lake for irrigating my plants, and friendly people,” says Juergen.
But with such an early retirement age, Juergen wasn’t about to quit working. He had his own consulting firm: Kroos Associates, consultants in metal container manufacturing technology. His consulting work included clients in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Peru, Honduras, India, Thailand, the Philippines, China, South Korea, Slovakia, Austria, Italy, Germany and Switzerland. Not to mention the United States.
In 2001 a serious bout with Guillain-Barre’ syndrome—an autoimmune disease that left him paralyzed from head to toe—sidetracked him for well over a year. “I could breathe and eat, but nothing else,” he recalls. He went through an arduous rehab regimen and is cured … mostly. A modest limp and the cane he carries are his reminders of those difficult days. His passions for golf and tennis have been victims of his ailment, but he has other pastimes now: his gardening, poker and bridge with friends, spending time with his three children and five grandchildren, two of them lovely young adopted Chinese ladies. His wife Kaetie passed away a year ago, and at age 90 he has given up most of his consulting work. Yet companies still vie for his time and advice whenever they encounter trouble.
After all, he is still “The King of Cans” to many around the globe.
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Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of the article that originally ran in the July 19, 2019 Englewood Review.
Dean Laux is exploring interesting folks living in our community. If you know of anyone with an interesting background please send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Include the person’s name, contact info and give a brief description of the person’s background