As a teenager in high school, Bergmann Associates Inc. president and CEO Thomas Mitchell wanted to be an architect-until a mentor flatly told him he was not cut out to become one.
Mitchell was upset, he says, but after more than 20 years in engineering, he admits it is probably the best career advice he ever received.
“I think what was interesting about being an architect was building-the building process-the creation of an environment where people work and live,” Mitchell explains. “I think that was an interest, and what I didn’t fully understand is that there is more to the building and to a construction product than what the architect does.”
Mitchell, 53, heads one of the area’s largest engineering companies as the firm tries to pivot its identity to make architecture as synonymous with Bergmann Associates as engineering is.
The company, which has 48 licensed engineers, had $30 million worth of projects in 2004.
Overall the firm has 250 employees, including 170 in Rochester. The rest are spread out over Bergmann Associates’ offices in four states.
But as early as five years after the firm was founded in 1980, architecture became a central service at the company. Nearly 20 years later, Bergmann ranked as Rochester’s fourth-largest company on the Rochester Business Journal’s most recent list of architectural firms.
With 11 registered architects, the company had more than 220 active projects in 2004.
Along with some of the city’s biggest architecture firms, Bergmann Associates was selected to serve jointly as associate architect for the $230 million Renaissance Square project, which is planned to include an underground transit center, a downtown campus for Monroe Community College and a performing-arts center.
Some of the firm’s most notable architectural projects have included the Rochester Public Safety Building, the Heidelberg Digital LLC world headquarters and Brooks Landing. The firm recently was recognized for its work on Putnam Hall at SUNY College at Geneseo by the Rochester chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
Yet Mitchell says, “Many of our clients don’t think of us as an architecture firm. They think of us as an engineering infrastructure firm.”
At First Federal Plaza, where Bergmann Associates Inc. has its headquarters, the second floor is shaped in an open-centered diamond, both ends of which are enclosed by glass, revealing to visitors in the waiting area some of the firm’s Rochester-based designers at work.
The design was part of a renovation at First Federal Plaza that Bergmann Associates did to underscore the firm’s architectural and interior design prowess.
James Durfee, vice president and design principal at Bergmann Associates, says that while architecture has been a central service at the company for many years, it was not until the last five years that it became a principal focus.
“It’s become one of the strategic directions that Tom has taken us in,” he says.
The idea, Durfee explains, is to leverage the firm’s expertise in niche areas such as college and university work, public properties, retail properties and historic preservation.
Durfee points to work for clients such as the University of Rochester, University of Buffalo, SUNY College at Brockport and St. John Fisher College.
But the goal now is to take the firm’s niche expertise in Rochester and start deploying it in the company’s out-of-state offices.
Engineering his future
Despite his early desire to be an architect, Mitchell does seem almost destined to become an engineer-and a leader.
Architect Victor Tomaselli, principal of architecture firm the Thomas Group, says he loves to tease his friend about his engineer-ness.
“By perpetuating the ongoing rivalry between architects and engineers, I never miss the opportunity to humble him and share every engineer joke I hear,” Tomaselli says.
But he explains what makes Mitchell a good engineer is his analytical nature and his tendency to be logical, thorough and accurate.
He calls Mitchell a boy scout-dependable, empathetic and accepting-and a savvy businessman who is fair and ethical.
But more than anything, what has made Mitchell CEO of Bergmann Associates are his extreme attention to quality, his communication skills and most importantly his naturalness as a leader.
That is what his predecessor says. Donald Bergmann left the post of CEO at the company he founded last year, when he turned over the reins to Mitchell.
“He teaches people how to become effective leaders: it’s the most important thing you can do,” Bergmann says. “He’s good at helping other people understand.”
And that is not only useful with his staff but all the other project players with whom the firm works. Bergmann explains Mitchell excels at keeping people on track and away from weak process or poor practice.
“We serve the public. We don’t just exist for ourselves in engineering,” Bergmann says.
Bergmann and Mitchell have known each other for more than 20 years, though Mitchell has been an employee at Bergmann Associates as employee for four or so years.
Before he joined Bergmann as director of quality, Mitchell served as a consultant with the company on a joint venture for Xerox Corp., along with two other firms.
But Mitchell knew Bergmann before that project in 1996.
The two met through the New York State Society of Professional Engineers Inc., where Bergmann was president.
The organization was a big source of help and guidance for Mitchell when he moved to the area in 1984.
But it was even before then that he turned to professional organizations for guidance.
Earlier in his career, as he began working as a practicing engineer at Boston-based Stone & Webster Engineering Corp., Mitchell found himself as a project manager, regularly relocated to different construction sites across the country.
“I found that I spent a good amount of time out on construction sites where I may have been the only representative for my company or at least the engineering/design organization,” Mitchell says. “I may have been working with the construction, the contractor or construction company or the owner, and in some ways I felt abandoned in those areas because those companies, those individuals were looking to me for answers and to take responsibility for the designs that my company provided, and so usually my relationship with my company was a phone call.
“What I found, at that time, I used the local engineering community. I got very involved in the National Society of Professional Engineers very early on. I think that was because I felt that I was alone and didn’t really have professional associations and guidance to help me understand some of the ethical obligations I had,” Mitchell says.
Since then, Mitchell has served as president of the state Society of Professional Engineers, the Practicing Institute of Engineering, Monroe Professional Engineers and the Rochester Engineering Society. He also has been a member of NSPE.
Southern Tier native
A native of the Elmira area, Mitchell earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Clarkson University in Potsdam.
A career in engineering was clear to him soon after the advice he received in high school.
“I liked working with small engines. I liked going out to the sites and looking at construction methods,” Mitchell says. “I think what (my mentor) recognized is that I really preferred more understanding how things work and making things work.”
Mitchell realized he was very detail and process-oriented, he says. As a result, his career path became obvious.
After college, Mitchell went straight to Stone & Webster, where his leadership skills quickly were recognized.
After a series of intense career development programs at the company, which rotated young professionals through different divisions and different disciplines, engineers got specific field assignments to ensure they had experience in different roles at the company, such as finance,
safety and operations.
The experience showed how the whole engineering process came together, Mitchell says. The training demonstrated the purpose and impact of a design on the user.
But after he became a practicing engineer, he soon was assigned leadership roles at the company.
“I got involved in supervising others, leading design teams or getting involved in project management, and so because I was a good leader, or at least recognized as a leader, in some ways I didn’t get as much time to spend in the engineering and technical details that I enjoyed,” Mitchell explains. “But I think that was replaced with added responsibility and the satisfaction of being able to lead fairly large and complex projects,”
His career focus at Stone & Webster, where he spent 11 years, was the engineering, design and operations of electric power-generating facilities.
“In my career, my emphasis, my training has been all in power plant design, power plant systems. Energy and power have been the things that I read all the magazines on, go to the national shows and contribute to committees, co-committees and technical committees,” Mitchell says.
Coming to Rochester
After leaving Stone & Webster in the early 1980s, Mitchell was hired to move to Rochester to start Bell Engineering Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of Bell Corp., the purpose of which was to provide customized power plant engineering.
Mitchell spent 11 years with the company. When he left, the staff there had grown to 35.
But as he worked to build Bell Engineering, he began calling on clients, hiring staff, creating design procedures and dealing with swings in the economy.
“It was exciting, and it was daunting, but it was also pioneering. We were competing with companies that had staffs 100 times the size of ours,” Mitchell remembers.
Because Mitchell spent so much time traveling from site to site as a project manager at Stone & Webster, he was anxious to move to Rochester and become part of a community.
But his leadership role at Bell Engineering often kept him on the road.
And then in the mid-1990s, the power industry went into decline. Due to deregulation, investor-only utilities stopped building power plants.
“The environment wasn’t right in New York State for a lot of independent power, co-generation, so there was a downturn in the industry. So I was faced with maybe leaving the area in order to pursue that business,” Mitchell says.
But by that point, Mitchell’s wife, Patricia, and their three teenage daughters, Elizabeth, now 28, Kathryn, 26, and Victoria, 21, wanted to stay in Rochester.
“When I realized, faced with the idea that there was not going to be a lot of possibilities for the design and building of power plants, I focused on what I really like doing, which was solving the problems of the client-the owner,” Mitchell remembers.
Early in his career, Mitchell realized what he liked doing best was solving problems for the users of the facilities he worked on. Understanding their needs and finding answers for those needs in design, he says, are perhaps what he likes best in his career.
It was in 1996 that Mitchell began working on the Xerox project with Bergmann Associates. He worked with the firm as a consultant for the next three years.
When he joined Bergmann Associates as a full-time employee it was to improve quality and work performance and reduce costs.
As director of quality, Mitchell says, he had an impact on all parts of the business. He soon became chief operating officer.
It was the camaraderie and the respectful way people treated each other at the company that attracted him to Bergmann Associates, he says.
Even during his time as a consultant, Mitchell was impressed at how respectful people were to him, he says. He felt like a fellow employee; he felt appreciated.
He took on the company’s leadership role not to turn the company around, but to build on and improve processes.
Now the focus is to increase services at the firm’s out-of-state offices.
One-third of the firm’s work is outside New York. Since Bergmann Associates has built up its architecture practice, the company wants to begin deploying more of that expertise at those offices, which include two in Florida, two in Pennsylvania, one in Michigan and one in Ohio.
“To offer opportunities to our employees, we must grow. Western New York is one of the slowest-growing markets in the country so we must grow in markets outside of this region,” he says.
Bergmann Associates’ Durfee says the idea is to leverage particular areas of expertise at the firm and expand those areas to the firm’s regional offices.
An example is the renovation of several old train stations in Florida, Durfee says. Architects at the Rochester office who have historic preservation expertise are now being deployed at some of the train station projects and sharing their skills with the company’s Florida offices.
Bergmann Associates is positioned now to grow at its seven regional offices, Mitchell says.
“In the architecture and engineering business, nationally and internationally, medium-size firms such as ours are being bought up by larger firms. The challenge for our firm to compete in today’s market is to offer the customer service of a small company with the breadth of services and cost-efficiencies of a larger company,” he says.
But another aspect of working at Bergmann full time is that Mitchell finally has established some roots in Rochester. He has gotten involved with local organizations like the Hope House, a community outreach program serving disadvantaged families in Webster, where he and his wife live.
He serves on the building needs committee of St. Paul’s Church in Webster and recently has become a member of the Rochester Rotary club.
In his free time, Mitchell enjoys art and music, skiing and golf, his friend Tomaselli says. Mitchell says he also likes tennis.
He attributes his success in his career and his life to Patricia, whom he first met in Elmira, during summer break from college.
The couple has been married 30 years.
“I would like to confess that everything that I do well is a result of her fantastic support of me and my aspirations. I draw my strength and happiness from her,” Mitchell says. “To borrow a slogan from the town of Webster, she ‘makes life worth living.'”
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04/29/05 (C) Rochester Business Journal