The Humble Beginnings of Alfred Benesch
On February 2, 1946, Mr. Alfred Benesch opened the doors to his consulting engineering company, and within three days, Alfred Benesch & Associates, Consulting Engineers, had its first commission – the design of a large reinforced concrete building, a women’s dormitory for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Mr. Benesch led a life full of experiences that took him across the globe, always meeting new people, as he was constantly in search of opportunities to improve his study and practice of engineering. Through those experiences and the people he met, he came to the conclusion that in order to be successful in his venture, he would adhere to and root his business in the following three major principles:
- Produce top quality work
- Treat not only your clients, but also all other people you meet, with consideration and fairness, placing great emphasis on being helpful at all times
- Establish a professional integrity of never to misrepresent, always to live up to your promises and to your client’s expectations in all respects
“It is my firm conviction, that we owe the good reputation of our business as well as our growth and success of it, which gradually developed into national scale, by simply adhering to these principles,” Mr. Benesch stated in his memoir.
It is this foundation that he built his business on, and that foundation lives on today as Alfred Benesch & Company’s leadership continues to look for and instill those values in the professionals they hire and reflect it in the work they do.
Born and raised in central Bohemia, a state of the former Austria-Hungary Empire, Mr. Benesch served in World War I as a private in the Corps of Engineers in the Austrian Army, studied civil engineering at the university in Prague, and in 1922, emigrated to the United States, joining his brother in St. Louis. There, he overcame a language barrier and the switch from metric to standard unit of measurement and honed a reputation as a hardworking design engineer with an adherence to quality work at a local architectural firm.
Upon coming to Chicago, he became a successful project design engineer traveling across the country to consult on challenging and innovative projects at the city’s most prominent engineering firm at the time – Lieberman & Heim. During the Great Depression, Mr. Benesch lost his job at the firm and described engineers as being “a dime a dozen” in that period. To continue to support his young family, he unloaded rail cars at a nearby railyard, taking with him what he considered “a valuable life lesson in manual labor.”
With the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he picked back up with his professional engineering career, taking a position with the Illinois Division of Highways, and rising through the ranks in the Bureau of Bridges, until 1942. After losing his parents in Auschwitz, he felt called to duty and joined the U.S. Army as a Captain serving in the Engineering Special Service Regiment during World War II, again rising through the ranks until he requested a dismissal of service in 1945 at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
It was his return from war and the thought of going back to his old job that he started to think about running his own business. His first idea – opening a chain of hamburger joints, as he had a reputation for fixing delicious open-faced broil burgers.
With food still being rationed, this idea didn’t pan out, but his friends and former colleagues encouraged him to follow his instinct when Mr. Benesch, after a day of wandering the downtown Loop in Chicago, proposed a second idea – his own consulting engineering company.
Furnished with three makeshift drafting tables and an old writing desk, Alfred Benesch & Associates operated out of a small office on West Washington Street in downtown Chicago for $25 a month. Mr. Benesch himself described it as a “dilapidated, six-story fire trap” with a single elevator cab that could be started and stopped with the pull of a rope.
In the first year, his business received 40 commissions, covering the design of all types of buildings, and within the first five years, Mr. Benesch no longer had to solicit business because it came either through repeat orders from his current clients or through recommendations from current to potential clients.
His company continued to find success and from that small office on West Washington Street, Alfred Benesch & Associates came to be known as Alfred Benesch & Company. The company also grew in number of employees – at the time of Mr. Benesch’s retirement in 1971, the company employed more than 50 professionals. Today, Benesch has 750 employees with offices in 18 different states offering a suite of professional services from bridge and highway design to wastewater and civil/site planning.
Mr. Benesch built a company respected not only by his clients, but by his employees as well, all by staying true to the three principles he credits his success to – quality, kindness and integrity.
Over the years, Benesch’s Chicago office has moved several times, but it remains the company’s headquarters. Today, our office in Chicago rises 33 floors above Wacker Drive, with views of the iconic Chicago Riverwalk, Lake Michigan, and many notable skyscrapers, some of which Mr. Benesch had a hand in designing. While much has changed in the last 75 years, we’ve stayed true to our legacy, and have not forgotten that the company’s success is owed to the man who started his engineering firm at 68 West Washington Street – Mr. Alfred Benesch.