Adventure junkie: Vogel pushes the limits of his confidence and abilities
WORTHINGTON -- As a young man growing up in Worthington, Kim Vogel was known to dig a hole in a snowbank at Olson Park and spend a winter night braving the elements.
As an adult, he's taken that adventurous spirit to new heights --and depths -- with excursions such as a bicycle ride through Death Valley followed by a climb up Mount Whitney, lowest point to highest point, all in one trek.
Kim is also adventurous in his professional life as an engineer, starting companies that have been on the cutting edge of technology. Now living in Florida, he is the vice president of engineering at Tandel Systems Inc., a company he co-founded that provides engineering solutions in the aerospace, defense and government sectors.
Scouting for adventure
The son of Ron and Bev Vogel of Worthington and a 1979 graduate of Worthington High School, Kim discovered both adventure and engineering through his involvement with Boy Scouts.
"I was an Eagle Scout with Troop 121. Earl Nester was my scoutmaster," he said. "My (Eagle) project was to remodel the nursery at the Methodist Church. I was also a scoutmaster in Tarpon Springs (Fla.) for 14 years -- two nights a week, all my summers.
"I was in Cub Scouts when I decided to be an engineer, maybe 10 years old. I was working on my Wolf Badge at the time, and one of the things was to make a crystal radio, but you needed a quartz crystal. So I was with Mom and Dad at the grotto in West Bend, Iowa, and there was a quartz crystal in the wall. I pried the crystal out of the wall -- the Virgin Mary was looking down at me -- and brought it home with me. With a bunch of wire, a safety pin, a capacitor that I took out of an old TV behind the repair shop at Rickbeil's, I made a crystal radio out of the plans in the Wolf Badge Book. I remember putting the earpiece to my ear and hearing KELO radio, and from that moment on, I knew I was going to be an engineer."
Toward that end, Kim enrolled at South Dakota State University, where he pursued a degree in electrical engineering.
"I barely squeaked through," he admitted. "I found my transcripts the other day. It took me 5½ years to get through, but I took a year off. I did my walk-about through the United States, was a bum and wandered around the U.S. for a year --backpacked and hitchhiked, kind of wandered everywhere. I slept in parks and under bridges and did migrant farm labor for money. I met a lot of interesting people. When you live on the street, you meet a variety of people. One thing that showed me, was that for every nasty person I met, I met 10 really good people, people who would step out and help me for no reason, give me food, a place to sleep and want nothing out of it. ... The nasty people get all the attention, but the core of the world is still really good. It also taught me that I can live on nothing, which did lead me to be an entrepreneur. I don't fear that I will lose everything, because I know I will survive."
After that year of discovery, Kim came back "a whole lot more focused" and finished out his degree. His first engineering job was in Arizona, working on synthetic aperture radar for Goodyear Aerospace.
"It's very cool radar," Kim described. "The technology is incredible. All I can tell you is: Don't stand outside with your clothes off, because people are watching more than you know. We can be 150 miles away, shoot a radar beam off an open door, bounce it off the rebar and take a picture of the inside of your home."
From there, Kim went to work on spacecraft computing systems at Honeywell, transferring to Florida with the company.
"I worked there from 1990 to '95. That was the dot-com era, and I got a wild hair while I was on a Boy Scout trip. We were sitting around a campfire, and one of the guys that I was with said that he wished he could develop this product and wondered if I knew any engineers who could figure out how to do this. I said, 'I can do that.'"
That campfire conversation turned into a company, Tritheim Technologies, which was on the cutting edge of smart card technology at the time. As architect of the Tritheim product line, Kim holds a number of U.S. patents.
"We named it after Johann Tritheim, a German monk back in the 1400s who was commissioned by the German monarchy of the time to come up with a way to encrypt messages. He developed the logo rhythmic tables, was the first to apply math to encryption. A bunch of my patents are in encryption. The chip that I developed is in a lot of cable boxes today.
"We sold that company in 1998. By that time, we had about 80 employees and were doing about $30 million a year. In 18 months, they took it to five people with less than $1 million in revenue," lamented Kim. "The guy that I founded it with was a Tennessee hillbilly, and I was a Minnesota farm boy. This Wall Street company that bought us was convinced that farm boys and hillbillies weren't capable, so they kicked us out and took the company to nothing."
Kim took a three-year hiatus from work, pouring his energies into developing high adventure programs for Boy Scouting, until he was convinced by one of his former co-workers at Honeywell to start another company.
"Mike Varga, my current partner, was my primary investor with Trithiem, but he had stayed on at Honeywell," Kim explained. "He got the wild hair to start a company, and he said, 'You've got to do it with me.' But startups are a terrible, terrible endeavor. You put in all your money, all your time and have a 7 percent chance of making it. But he kept asking, so I said, 'I'll come see you for a month and show you everything I did with Trithiem, all my mistakes. That was 10 years ago in November. I never left."
The new company, called Tandel, is named after no one.
"The only reason it's called Tandel is that when we started, the URL is one of the most important things and every single English word imaginable is already owned by somebody or it's a word that's 10 miles long," Kim explained. "It was the only domain name we could find that made any sense that we could spell."
Tandel now has 200 employees, offices in the Clearwater-Tampa, Fla., area, Houston, Texas, and Phoenix, Ariz., and just acquired another two companies in the last two months.
"We are an aerospace company, do primarily subsystems for spacecraft, launch vehicles and commercial aircraft -- a lot of navigation and guidance systems for spacecraft, software for commercial aircraft, navigation, everything from collision avoidance to flight controls."
One of the projects Kim is currently working on is Orion -- the replacement for the U.S. space shuttle.
"The vehicle management computer is what makes it fly through space, guides it through space," he described. "And we're just finishing up the navigation gyros for the new sets of GPS satellites going up and software for the new 787 Boeing aircraft. Another (project) is solar probe B, which is going to cruise through the corona of the sun."
When Kim met his wife-to-be Virginia through an online dating site five years ago, he found a kindred spirit. They like to travel, and Virginia, an accountant by trade, also has an adventurous bent and is willing to rough it a bit.
"We have to go when it's not tax season," he said. "We went to Alaska for a month, flew into Anchorage and a month later had reservations to leave from Ketchikan, not knowing what we were going to do between. We slept on a truck, on the decks of ships, cabins along a river, were north of the Arctic Circle. It's great to travel with someone who is willing to say, 'I don't have to have a shower or a nice hotel room.'"
Last May, Kim and Virginia climbed in the Swiss Alps, trekking the back side of the Eiger, one of the most famous peaks in the world. Then, in September, Kim and some co-workers undertook the biking-climbing challenge of Death Valley-Mount Whitney. It was a follow-up to an earlier rim-to-rim run in the Grand Canyon.
"In 20 hours, we went from the south rim across to the north rim, tagged it, and then all the way across and back up," Kim explained about the canyon trip. "You just do it as fast as you can. A good side story: On the north rim, it's really steep and the trails are cut into the side of the cliffs, it just drops off. I've got my headlight on and I'm in the front when I pick up a pair of eyes on the trail in front of me. I flipped the headlight to the beam, and there stood in front of me what I found out later was a Mexican gray wolf. There aren't supposed to be any wolves in the canyon, so I thought it had to be a coyote, but it was the biggest coyote I had ever seen.... He's coming up, and we're going down; there's no ground to give. I stood there for a minute or two, just admiring him -- so gorgeous, just prancing back and forth. He didn't know what I was because I was shining light in his eyes. So I clapped and yelled, and he realized I was a person and we were both in trouble. He looked up the side of the cliff, and there was a little roll in the cliff and 18 feet up was a ledge. He jumped, jumped again. Landed on the ledge, and then sat down, crossed his legs, looked down at me as if to say, 'You can pass.'"
Wanting to tackle an even bigger challenge, Kim devised the California trip, which would combine bicycling with a hike up the side of a mountain.
"We went from Badwater, which is the lowest point in the continental U.S., to the top of Mount Whitney, which is the tallest point in the continental United States," he explained.
Vogel's crew traversed from 282 feet below sea level to a height of almost 14,000 feet, although they came up a bit short of their goal.
"We trained quite a bit. ... We rode a lot and ran a lot," said Kim. "I think ultimately we suffered because, one, we're getting old, and two, a big hill in Florida is like a quarter mile of 2 percent grade. On this trip we had grades that were 11 miles long and 13 percent grade. I scoped it out a few days beforehand in a rental car, a Ford Focus, and I had it floored going up the hill and all I could do is 40 mph. I thought, 'This is going to be terrible. This is going to be really gut-wrenching.'
"The rides were tough. We split it into two days, about 75 miles a day. The issue was, you started at minus 200-some feet, then you go over a mountain range of 5,000 feet, back down to a few hundred. You were beaten three times by the mountains. And then I've never been on such a steep hill going down, with turns all the way down, going 45 to 50 mph on a bicycle. I hoped I didn't hit a bump or lose control. There was no slowing down, a 19-mile stretch with never pedaling once, all at 40 mph."
When they finally reached Mount Whitney, the party of four had to ascend up a trail that was still slippery with the previous winter's ice. A couple of his fellow adventurers had trouble coping with the altitude and sheer drop-offs, so they had to quit short of the summit.
For Vogel, pursuing such activities isn't about getting an adrenaline rush; in fact, he says he will "do anything to avoid the rush feeling."
"I don't consider myself a risk taker at all," he reflected. "From my point of view, I am generally conservative and cautious. However, I have learned that what one person considers risk, another person considers normal daily activity. I think people may confuse confidence with risk taking. I am confident in my ability to plan and prepare for these adventures. I am confident in my ability to make good decisions. I am confident in my ability to get out of tough situations. Risk escalates when you are not prepared/confident to handle it.
"I like to do these things because they bring great memories and experiences. I would never have met that wolf if I had not been on that trail at 2 a.m."
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327