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Career, life come full circle for IMSE alumnus

David Haffner inspects a knife handle.

David Haffner inspects a knife he crafted for a friend. Haffner crafts knives as personal gifts in his machine shop.

Industrial engineering alumnus David Haffner said his favorite question to ask people is “what have you always wanted to do that you haven’t done yet?”

For the last 40-plus years, Haffner has been doing what he’s always wanted to do, coming full circle in many ways.

Haffner was born and raised in Carthage, Mo., in the southwest corner of the state. At the time of his birth, the town boasted a population of just over 11,000 in population.

“When I was a junior in high school, I became focused on math and science,” Haffner said. “When I was a senior, I became focused on getting an engineering degree from Mizzou.”

Haffner realized his aptitude for math and science in high school. They were the subjects he said he was most comfortable with. A high school counselor recommended engineering, a field unfamiliar to Haffner. In a generation where “you couldn’t ‘click’ and do research,” Haffner investigated the discipline at the library, finding himself drawn to many aspects of engineering, and ultimately settling on industrial engineering.

“I was intrigued with industrial engineering because it was more business-fronted,” he said.

The youngest of three brothers, Haffner was the first member of his family to attend college. Carl, his father, was a mechanic — an “extraordinary mechanic,” in his son’s eyes — and his mother, Lola, was a homemaker and community volunteer. There was little money to throw around, a “challenging background” that Haffner said instilled in him a good work ethic and became one of the keys to his success.

“I couldn’t afford to go to college,” he said. “I was lucky enough that God gave me enough athletic talents to get a football scholarship.”

He talked to Dan Devine, the then-Missouri Tigers head football coach, who told him he might have a better chance to make a major college-level team if he played for a smaller school for a year or so first. Haffner said this wasn’t the only reason he didn’t jaunt immediately to Columbia.

“There’s primarily one reason I stayed [in Carthage], and she’s been my wife for 41 years,” he said of his wife, Connie, who was his high school sweetheart.

Haffner played two years of football for Missouri Southern State University — then, Missouri Southern State College — and attended classes thanks to athletic and academic scholarships until a knee injury sidelined him permanently in his sophomore year. Despite ending his playing prospects, Haffner said the injury was a blessing in disguise.

“[It] provided more time to apply to the classroom and my academics,” he said.

He worked the graveyard shift at a high explosives plant to earn extra money that would allow him to move to Columbia and transfer to Mizzou, which he did the following year. Connie stayed in Carthage, working as a keypunch operator. She and Haffner married in 1974 shortly after he earned his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering.

Following graduation, the couple moved to Green Bay, Wis., where Haffner began working as a project engineer with Schreiber Foods, Inc. He worked there for most of the next decade, working his way up to director of industrial engineering.

Haffner continued his education, completing a master of business administration through the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh in 1980.

“I had taken a lot of electives in physics and higher math classes at Mizzou,” he said. “It became clear to me I had a lot to learn about the business side of IE.”

When Haffner’s father fell ill in the 1980s, he and Connie decided to move the family — which now included son Jonathan and twin daughters Carley and Morgan — back to Missouri to be closer to relatives.

“Carthage is a small, little world we live in,” Haffner said, which paved the way for his future involvement with Leggett and Platt. Haffner went to school with one of the daughters of the then-chairman of Leggett and Platt, Harry Cornell.

“When my father got sick, I reached out to [Cornell] with a letter and let him know, if he should ever need my talents, let me know,” Haffner said.

As fate would have it, Schreiber Foods had facilities in Carthage and Monett, and Haffner was made a plant manager for the company’s Missouri operations.

But shortly after sending the letter, Haffner said he received a phone call from Cornell wanting to discuss a position in the company. Haffner — who was working on a plant launch in Kingston, Jamaica, with Schreiber Foods — had to, respectfully, turn down the offer because of his commitments to his current employer.

Keeping the offer in mind, Haffner eventually did go to work for Leggett and Platt in 1983, not only because of the company’s location, but also because of the promise he saw in the company. The transition was one Haffner said he never regretted.

Leggett and Platt is a Carthage-based company that was founded in the late 1800s as a bedspring manufacturer. In the early 1980s, company sales were around $300 million annually. Today, the Fortune 500 Company designs and manufactures parts and products used in residential, retail, automotive, aviation and other commercial industries. Annual revenue in 2013 exceeded $3.7 billion.

“Leggett and Platt was about to go through a tremendous growth, and needed more people with a technical competency,” Haffner said. “It was a target-rich environment for a young engineer.”

“I started as a staff vice president of operations. That’s just what the company needed at the time.”

He rose through the ranks, serving as executive vice president from 1995 to 2002, and president from 2002-2013. He jointly served as chief operations officer from 1999-2006, and as chief executive officer since 2006. He was named board chairman in 2013.

“When I got up to Green Bay, I observed various people working in industry. I became intrigued. I was the rookie. But overall, growth was driven by senior management,” he said of his early exposure to management.

Becoming a manager involved study of business, but also finesse learned only from personal experience.

“Managing engineers — just think of the most challenging thing you have to do at work, and that about sums it up. Engineers are independent creatures, and there’s a specific technique used to manage them,” he said.

What’s left? Haffner’s future goals are ones answered by his own “favorite question.” Was there anything he hadn’t done that he always meant to do?

After more than four decades in industry, Haffner said he’s achieved most of his career goals and admits to checking off most of the boxes on his bucket list. He called the remaining, unchecked boxes “mostly aspirational” goals. For example, he wants to educate current high school students about the values of STEM education and does this through visits to area high schools.

“I’ve been banging that drum longer than the term ‘STEM’ has been around,” he said. “I’m committed to getting more females and minorities in the sciences. Some of the sharpest minds are in an environment where they wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to the field of engineering.”

He also seeks to help students faced with the same predicament he faced as a college-bound senior by endowing the David S. Haffner Engineering Scholarship at Mizzou.

But he stays involved with the College and MU through the Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering Department’s Hall of Fame and Industrial Advisory Council, the College’s Dean’s Engineering Advisory Council, the university’s Mizzou 100 and Mizzou Flagship Council.

Haffner is the recipient of the Outstanding Mizzou Alumni award, MU Engineering’s Missouri Honor Award, and the James E. “Bud” Moulder Distinguished Alumni Award.