Watch: Wabtec Celebrates Zoltan’s 60 Years of ‘Magnificent’ Service

Written by Wabtec Corporate Communications 
Zoltan recently received a service award from his engineering colleagues at Wabtec for “Putting the brakes on a coupler career.”

Zoltan recently received a service award from his engineering colleagues at Wabtec for “Putting the brakes on a coupler career.”

At age 87, Zoltan (Zoli) Kovacs is many things: a proud father, grandfather, and great-grandfather; an accomplished martial arts master and teacher; and a dedicated life-long learner, something he applied every day at Wabtec in his role as Regional Manager, Transit. But most of all, he’s a competitor—a fierce one at that!—who likes nothing more than translating his knowledge of rail applications into new Wabtec customers.

Say hello to Zoli, the longest-tenured employee in Wabtec history! And, alas, prepare to bid him adieu, as he will be retiring March 8, 2024, after 60 years of service.

To say that Zoli has had an accomplished career at Wabtec is an understatement. He’s nothing short of a life force.

Origin Stories

Born in Hungary in 1936, Zoli grew up during World War II in a humble, hard-working family that valued community and giving back. This mindset shaped him as a young man and led to his participation as a freedom fighter in the Hungarian Revolution, a populist uprising against communist rule. 

The uprising lasted 12 days before being crushed by Soviet tanks and troops on November 4, 1956. Thousands were killed and wounded and nearly a quarter of a million Hungarians fled the country. (Source: Wikipedia) 

Zoli escaped and sought asylum at the U.S. Consulate in Vienna, Austria, knowing prison (or worse) awaited him if he stayed. His request was granted, and he arrived in the U.S. on February 28, 1957, at 2:00 p.m. (Zoli’s memory for details is sharp!). Five years later in 1962, he became a U.S. citizen, one of the proudest accomplishments of his life.

“For his long tenure and experience, Zoli remains one of the most humble people you will ever meet.”

—Kevin Masterson, VP, Business Development–Transit Services, Wabtec 

A Call From Mansfield, Ohio

An engineer at heart, Zoli loved learning how things work. He pursued this passion while a young co-op student in Hungary, working as a tool and die maker at Ganz – Mavg, one of the largest locomotive and freight car manufacturers in Europe. 

Zoli with a coupler that Ohio Brass manufactured for the RTA; In subsequent years, he would go on to develop a newer version of this product. (Wabtec Photograph)

That experience positioned him well for a manufacturing career in post-war America, and he settled in Mansfield, Ohio, where an uncle of his had landed.

Mansfield, like much of America, was experiencing a manufacturing boom, and good jobs abounded for skilled workers. In fact, General Motors had a new shop in the area, and it looked like a good fit for the young Hungarian immigrant. But Zoli’s uncle steered him to a local tool and die shop, which did work for General Motors, Ohio Brass, and other leading manufacturers.

Zoli jumped at the chance to work there, familiarizing himself with American manufacturing and establishing himself as a talented, dedicated worker. Seven years later, he joined Ohio Brass, a legendary manufacturer of components for trains and street cars that would eventually become a part of Wabtec.

“At Ohio Brass, I worked as a lab technician and an assistant development engineer before being promoted to run the company’s development lab and services. This role meant that I had a hand in designing or co-designing everything we manufactured from that time on,” remembers Zoli. “I loved the variety of the work, and the opportunity to work with the best of the best, a tradition I feel very fortunate to have carried on at Wabtec.”

Zoli joined Wabtec in the early 1990s, when Wabtec became independent of American Standard via a management buy-out and a series of acquisitions that included Ohio Brass. Zoli quickly made his mark as a sales and services manager, building on the strong relationships he had fostered with railcar builders and transit authorities. His success in this role led to his promotion to Regional Manager, the title he holds today.

“My goal in life is to contribute,” says Zoli. “I am so thankful to work at Wabtec where I have the opportunity to contribute every day in a positive environment created by strong leaders with vision, passion, and knowledge. Wabtec is nothing short of a world-class organization. That’s about all I can say.”

Zoltan at an industry conference. (Wabtec Photograph)

Work at Wabtec

While experienced in engineering and design, Zoli knew joining Wabtec was a big step up. “I knew quite a bit about couplers and components that we (Ohio Brass) provided to passenger trains,” reflects Zoli. “And, of course, a lot of the coupler equipment is interfaced with the brake equipment through the air-brake system air connections. But when I came to Wabtec, I got to learn about brake systems invented by George Westinghouse, which are literally the best air-brake systems ever designed.”

This awe and respect for Wabtec’s technological prowess has colored the way Zoli approaches his job, and the way customers and co-workers perceive him.

Zoltan’s team at the 2024 North American Passenger Transit Sales and Services Sales Meeting in January 2024. (Wabtec Photograph)

“For his long tenure and experience, Zoli remains one of the most humble people you will ever meet,” says Kevin Masterson, VP, Business Development–Transit Services and Zoli’s boss. “Zoli legitimately loves Wabtec, the people, the opportunities, the depth of products we offer, and all the customers he has supported. When he walks into the shops of his customers, everybody knows and respects him, not only because of the way he treats them, but because of his strong technical understanding of our products and their application for that particular customer.”

What’s Next?

As Zoli prepares for retirement, he is looking forward to more “active” time with his grandchildren and great grandkids (Zoli is not much for sitting around).

Zoltan taught judo to a number of youth teams; he is pictured here at the Mansfield, Ohio, YMCA. (Wabtec Photograph)

“As a lifelong devotee of martial arts (I taught judo to a number of youth teams and the Mansfield Police Department well into my ’70s), I have embraced the value of humility and continuous improvement in everything I do. When I talk to someone, I want to learn something from them. I want to improve. That’s the biggest thing Wabtec offered me—a chance to learn something new every day. And for that, I am eternally thankful.”  

Video Courtesy of Wabtec

This article was originally published on the Wabtec website.

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