Passing the Torch – a Legacy of Dedicated Leaders
Mr. Benesch staked just about everything on the success of his engineering business venture – “My capital to start was a $3,500 mortgage that my wife took out on our home in Springfield, IL…”
While he credits his wife Bea to his early success, it wasn’t just his family’s support and belief in him that allowed his business to thrive. Mr. Benesch put in the time and effort to back it up.
“Starting very early in the morning, I used the hours between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. for calls to prospective clients and I worked until late in the evening on the engineering design and drafts,” he recalled in his memoir.
Living, working, and building relationships in Chicago, he spent much of that first year away from his family. While they remained in Springfield, Mr. Benesch commuted—oftentimes only on Sundays—because 80-hour work weeks were par for the course at that time.
In leadership, we can delegate authority and responsibility to others, but stature and integrity, well, one has to acquire those on their own.Alfred Benesch
The sacrifices he made in those early years were more than worth it; as his business continued to grow, Mr. Benesch found himself attracting some of the most talented young engineers that not only Chicago, but the world, had to offer. He led by example, cultivating a team of experts with an ever-expanding technical skillset and a focus on harnessing innovation at every turn.
At the age of 74, after a quarter century in business, Mr. Benesch stepped down as president of the company he founded so that the next generation of leaders could prosper. He knew that it was time to give others the opportunity “to realize that, in leadership, we can delegate authority and responsibility to others, but stature and integrity, well, one has to acquire those on their own.”
Stepping in to fill Mr. Benesch’s shoes after his retirement was his very first employee – Harold Sandberg. He became a mentor to many during his 60-year tenure, serving 11 years as president and 21 years as chairman of the board. Harold was a technical expert in almost everything that the company had a hand in, from complex railroad bridges and long-span highway bridges to high-rise buildings.
“Mr. Sandberg was incredibly driven and incredibly intelligent,” John Carrato, former Benesch president and CEO, remembers of one his mentors. “Quality was very important to him and he demanded your best – he was always encouraging us to do better.”
Throughout his career, Harold consistently took on challenging projects, unrelenting in his quest to continue learning and innovating, often saying, “If you stop learning and innovating, you may as well retire.”
Harold didn’t retire from the company until he was 86 years old.
Continuing Mr. Benesch’s tradition of stressing quality through engineering, the company’s expertise expanded into complex buildings and bridges under Harold. Over the course of his tenure as president, the firm designed and supervised the construction of more than ten high-rise buildings and four major river bridges. That effort, commitment and dedication laid the foundation for the awards and industry recognition that came during the 1980s and 90s.
It wasn’t just the technical engineering aspect that Harold worked to instill in his employees, he was also committed to cultivating the company’s next generation of leaders. He was one of several champions of Value Engineering at Benesch, and under his leadership, employees developed engineering design aids and computer programs, keeping the company on the forefront of technology.
If you stop learning and innovating, you may as well retire.Harold Sandberg
“Harold was deeply involved in a lot of complex projects and very active in professional organizations – he truly believed in advancing the engineering profession,” former Benesch president Michael Goodkind says.
When Harold’s successor Lou Bowman and his partner Jack Barrett left Benesch to start their own firm, the company was financially strapped with little backfilled work. That’s when Michael took over the helm. “I was shocked when I was told the shareholders had selected me to be president, but I told the rest of the leadership team that if I had their support, I would love to lead the company.”
Michael had been with Benesch for 13 years at that point. He came aboard early in his career but had already worked at several other firms, never staying in the same place for more than two years. That changed when he arrived at Benesch.
“In my early years, I actually shared a desk with Mr. Benesch. He was frugal, so when he would come into the office, I would leave so he could work – no sense in paying for the extra office space,” Michael recalls. “On days when Mr. Benesch did come in, he would take clients out to lunch and sometimes he would bring me along. It was fascinating to listen to the stories he would tell and learn from him – Mr. Benesch had a wealth of experience and knowledge.”
As president, Michael—along with Marv Rothman, Robert Carter and Muthiah Kasi—led the company through a transition period like it never experienced before. “It was scary – we were in tough shape, but the fact that the employees who stayed with us trusted our executive team, it meant a lot – it was rewarding and at the same time very nerve racking.”
Taking a page out of Mr. Benesch’s book, Michael and the rest of the company’s shareholders took out personal loans to buy enough stock to keep the firm afloat for the first year and a half until they were able to bring in more work, essentially betting on their future success.
And just like it had for Mr. Benesch, it worked out. As the company began to turn itself around financially, Michael focused on further developing the engineers that put their trust in his team’s leadership. It was during this period that Tony Karam came aboard Benesch’s executive team after retiring as Chief Engineer of the Illinois Tollway.
Of course, it wasn’t just the presidents who made an impact at Benesch. I was very lucky to have many dedicated leaders by my side.Michael Goodkind
“To continue Benesch’s success, Tony pushed the idea to promote our project managers when we met with clients. In the old days, it was Mr. Benesch and Mr. Sandberg who were the face of the company,” Michael describes. “Clients already knew me, but we wanted to introduce them to who was really getting the work done for them. We wanted our clients to get to know the next generation at Benesch.”
One of the project managers they met was John Carrato.
“I can honestly say I never remember consciously thinking, ‘I want to be president of the company one day,’” John recalls. “I was always driven by learning and taking on more responsibility and that’s what I focused on.”
Like Michael, John’s early days at Benesch were shaped by the guidance and expertise of Mr. Sandberg. “He was just a very special man and an important mentor early on in my career. He was probably one of the biggest reasons why I never left the company.”
From day one, John made it his team’s mission to diversify the company in its service offerings and geographic locations. “We needed to grow, and if we grew as a company, there would always be opportunities for employees to grow in their careers as well.”
Within the first year of his presidency, the firm had successfully merged with an engineering consulting firm in Nebraska – the first step toward company growth by merger or acquisition since 1986.
I loved being CEO, but by stepping down, I think it creates opportunity all the way down the line. I’m excited for what the next generation will do.John Carrato
By the time John stepped down as president in 2020, the firm had quadrupled the number of people it employed, with offices in ten additional states and a number of new professional services added to the company’s portfolio.
“Of course, it wasn’t just the presidents who made an impact at Benesch,” Michael says. “I was very lucky to have many dedicated leaders by my side during my tenure: Kasi made VE an integral part of our processes and elevated our quality control; Robert Carter was instrumental in getting us on sound financial footing and improving invoice processes; and Tony Karam knew how to market the skills of our design and construction staff in ways we hadn’t been doing before.”
In addition to acknowledging the leaders that surrounded him, Michael also points to those who followed him as critical to the firm’s continued success.
“I’m really proud of what the generation that came after us was able to accomplish,” Michael says. “John and his team—they had a plan and they moved on it. To take the company from 200 to almost 750 employees during that amount of time… it’s incredible.”
“I’m really proud to be part of a legacy firm, and I want to see that continue on,” says John, who is now Chairman of the Board at Benesch. “I loved being CEO, but by stepping down, I think it creates opportunity all the way down the line, and I’m excited for what the next generation will do with our company.”
In the fall of 2020, Kevin Fitzpatrick took the reins as president and CEO. Like many of his colleagues, Kevin has been with Benesch for nearly all of his career—including three summers as a college intern. And like the presidents that came before him, he brings his own vision for fostering another successful era for the company.
“2020 is certainly a year all of us will remember,” Kevin says. “The unique challenges of a pandemic forced us to be highly responsive to the needs not only of our clients but also our employees—moving to remote environments, finding ways to stay connected—all while continuing to grow the firm and further develop the skills of our team.”
That last point, Kevin says, will be a key element of his presidency.
“Our employees have a real desire to always be improving, to hone their skills and take on new challenges, and so we’re constantly looking for ways to provide development and open doors. Cultivating leaders at every level is a crucial part of the company we’ve become.”
Cultivating leaders at every level is a crucial part of the company we’ve become.Kevin Fitzpatrick
Embarking on a business venture that ended up outlasting its founder, Mr. Benesch started out with little more than his own experience and his dedication to building a successful company. In passing the torch to Harold Sandberg, his first employee, Mr. Benesch set in motion a legacy that empowered each new leader to take their vision and build upon the success of their predecessors, and through that vision, elevate the firm and its employees.