By Stephanie Pego
At 97 years old he still commands the attention of a room with his quiet ease and endearing laughter. The little of his accent reveals his Russian heritage, while his humility disguises the fact that he has changed the lives of thousands with his work. Here is a man who has met Albert Einstein, been recruited by former presidents and at one time was considered one of the most eligible bachelors of New York City. As the world busily glides by, Simon Syrbnik pulls the strings of business and invention behind the curtains of machinery.
Despite his anonymity in the public eye, this industrialist and philanthropist has been able to own, build and manage some of the greatest industrialist companies in American history. Despite his limited high school education, his untiring genius has helped him build engineering and manufacturing companies that have made incredible profits and employed thousands of people in countries around the world. He has had a hand countless projects from making that cement that would be used for the Nike missile silos to building turbines for commercial and military jet engines. His companies have sold new and used industrial equipment, made machines that diagnoses and treats heart disease, breeds mice to be used in cancer research and has even had a hand in creating an in-water hydro-generator that can effectively produce power in rivers and stream beds across the world.
Srybnik still goes to work five days a week wearing a custom made suit that’s the same size as the suits he wore 70 years ago. When asked why he continues to wake up and go to work every day at this stage of his life, he said, “The brain is like a muscle it must be exercised and pushed daily otherwise it starts to atrophy.”
Srybnik and his family of ten came to the United States from Belarus, Russia over 90 years ago. The seas were so rough that the trip lasted seven days longer than scheduled and his mother wound up giving birth prematurely to his youngest brother, Jay, hours before the ship sailed into New York Harbor.
He was raised on a small farm in Hightstown, N.J. where he learned the meaning of long hours and hard work, a trait that would serve him well throughout his long and successful career. “When you’re brought up on a farm you do everything. For example, you plow the fields because at that time we didn’t have tractors, we had horses. We were self-sufficient.”
Already with a spirit of resilience, Srybnik began his first ventures into business or what he calls his “favorite game.” While in grade school at the four-room school house that he and his siblings attended, students could purchase vanilla wafers for a penny. Srybnik saw an even sweeter opportunity. As there were always a few broken cookies in a box, the school lost money for those they were unable to sell. Srybnik struck a deal with his teacher where he bought the whole box outright for $3 and then independently sold the cookies still at a penny a piece. His trick with the broken cookies was simple: “If someone didn’t want the broken cookie then they got no cookies at all.” Chuckling as he recounted the story, Srybnik revealed that he made a profit of about 60 cents a box and that business cunning that soon catapulted him into the professional world.
By the time Srybnik turned 14, he withdrew from high school, applied for his working papers and moved to New York with his family where Simon found work as a young helper in a machinery factory. There in the midst of whirling belts, bolts and blocks of raw materials, Srybnik discovered his uncanny talents as a machinist. “I was there for 4 years and I became the best machine rebuilder, salesman and buyer at 18 years old,” he said. “And then I quit.”
Just like with his early cookie business, Srybnik knew that he always wanted to be the master of his own fate. Now as an adult in the eyes of the world, he took the leap into the independent business. “With $2,500 I started my business. I spent $500 and bought a car. In order to make a living, I went from shop to shop fixing machines, buying machines and reselling them,” Simon says matter-of-factly. This kind of courage to take a risk paid off for Srybnik.
He attributes a large part of his courage and success to his family. In moments of financial doubt and sleepless nights Srybnik’s mother stood by her son ready to remind him, in Yidish, “Don’t be afraid.” Similarly, one of Simon’s oldest business partners to this day is his younger brother Louis. When discussing his older brother, Louis said, “He’s the most trustworthy person I can image.”
Trusting in others is an important hallmark of some of Simon’s proudest business moments, both personally and for the history of the United States. During World War II, at the age of 22, Srybnik was invited to serve on the War Production Board with his business at the time Portland Industries in Bangor, Maine. He won the opportunity to help build the first underground missile base and first nuclear submarine in the United State that Louis said was “probably why the Russians don’t occupy Cuba today.”
For Srybnik, that project was an earned reminder for both himself and his competitors of just how far he had brought himself. “Getting to build the first missile base in the United States was a big feather in my cap because we got to outbid the Boeings of the world, these two Jewish boys from Brooklyn.”
During the war effort, Simon continued working on different military projects like re-appropriating machines that could quickly, mass-produce bullets and building turrets for tanks and cannons on battleships. One opportunity he remembers the best never required any extra effort on his part. Simon keeps a letter sent to him after World War II of a company that had desired $250,000 worth of machinery. At the time the prospective buyers only had $5,000 remembers how two, young engineers petitioned their project and asked for assistance from one of his salesmen despite their insufficient funds. Srybnik saw these men and decided to give them a chance and the machinery they needed, with $5,000 as a down payment. It was almost three years later that he received the full payment from the men who has used the machinery to build the trigger for the atomic bomb.
A mind as sharp as Srybnik’s and a heart as giving is a priceless treasure in this world. Recently, Srybnik’s investments have been in the world of medicine.
Commanding a modern machine empire is what uniquely saved Simon’s life when he began experiencing heart troubles from a blocked artery. Undergoing surgery once was enough for Simon to take matters into his own hands and created a machine now known as Enhanced External Counter Pulsation (EECP).
The idea of building a machine for EECP came to Simon on a trip to China where he saw the counter pulsation method being used. How it works is that while a patient is resting, they wear blood-pressure-like cuffs around their legs and hip area that inflate and deflate in rhythm with the individual’s heartbeat. These pulsations deliver oxygen rich blood to the heart without requiring any exertion to its muscles creating a natural method of healing. Over time these treatments can actually create new vein pathways around the blockage. In Srybnik’s case he started with the standard treatment of 35 one hour sessions and now receives EECP therapy at least once a month. This type of therapy is an alternative to surgery for many patients suffering from ischemic heart diseases such as angina or heart failure and is a safe, non-invasive outpatient treatment option.
Srybnik is now chairman of the board of the company Vasomedical that has exclusive rights to the EECP’s production. “Health has been a big problem for the world, everybody could use a little help…and this is for healthy people too. You don’t have to be sick to do this,” he said. EECP has been recently been tested for possible benefits to the eyes, brain and other organ maintenance and care and is available for use at the Mayo Clinic.
At a stage in life when most men would retire to their country homes or sail away to exotic places on their yachts, Srybnik prefers to go fishing with his friends on his old boat with a brand new racing engine captained by one his old friends. He’ll still jump off the deck in his underwear and go swimming on a hot summer day with a big smile on his face. He constantly embodies one of his life ethics: “You do the best you can and you give the best you can.”
Enriching the quality of life is the drive behind Srybnik’s creativity. He cultivates his next projects late at night when he can’t sleep and, although he says it’s “no good at all,” his ideas have always proven to be the opposite. With EECP slowly gaining a foothold in the medical world, Srybnik is now exploring hydro-generators and the ability to deliver water and energy to all people of the world. Though his eyes are failing him after years of strain and achievement, he still has vision for the future.
“Everyone is to get educated as much as you can and get married quickly,” he advices the next generation. “That’s the time to be young and start a family.”
[Note: Louis Srybnik, Simon’s brother passed away May 30, 2015.]