A Publication of WTVP

As President and Chief Executive Officer of Farnsworth Group, Inc., Karen Jensen appreciates the effect her firm’s work has on communities. Whether it’s a new fire station, improved water treatment systems and roadways or new building technologies to reduce energy consumption, Jensen is proud of the firm’s 100-year history providing engineering and architecture services. Jensen’s husband Brian and their three children recently spent three years living abroad in England. She continued to work for Farnsworth Group during that time before returning to the U.S. and being named President/CEO of the company. While she enjoyed the opportunity for her family to experience living abroad, she returned to central Illinois with a greater appreciation of the Midwest and the Peoria area. She is a graduate of the University of Nebraska, where she earned her degree in Civil Engineering, and she later earned a master’s degree in Business Administration from Illinois State University. Jensen realizes that most clients recognize Farnsworth Group as a leading central- Illinois consulting firm, but many may not know that the company has evolved into a full-service firm working on some of the nation’s largest construction projects from coast to coast.

Tell about your family and years growing up.

My father was in the Air Force, so we moved quite a bit when I was growing up. Along with my two brothers and sister, I had the opportunity to attend many schools and live in a number of places in the U.S., but not internationally. When international assignments were required, my father left his family in place and worked remotely for a year at a time. When he retired from the Air Force, we settled in western Nebraska, where my parents still live today. After graduation, I went to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and received a B.S. in Civil Engineering. My husband Brian and I were married our last year in college, then graduated and both obtained employment in central Illinois. Fast forward 25 years, and our family has grown to include three children: Taylor, 14; Andrew, 12; and Lara, 8. When Brian received an opportunity to work abroad a couple of years ago, times had certainly changed from my years growing up, and our family made the move together. We thoroughly enjoyed our experience living in England for almost three years.

Who or what influenced you to become an engineer?

I didn’t have a clear vision for my career when deciding options for college. My high school counselor suggested that an engineering curriculum might be of interest, given my aptitude scores in math and science. Once I got into the general curriculum, I knew the civil engineering option was best for me.

Tell us about Farnsworth Group.

Farnsworth Group is one of the oldest engineering and architecture firms in central Illinois. Our company’s history dates back to the late 1800s, when our original founders traveled from one Illinois community to another providing survey services for municipalities. Today, municipal engineering and surveying continues to be one of Farnsworth Group’s core service areas. Over the years, we have evolved to meet the changing needs of our clients and today offer a full suite of engineering services and architecture. In addition, we have a specialized group focused on energy consulting, green building design, LEED certification and building commissioning. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System is the nationally-accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high performance green buildings. Building commissioning is a service offering that ensures a building and its components are designed, installed and tested to perform according to the original intent and the building owner’s operational needs.

We have really become a full-service consulting firm driven first by the challenges faced by our clients and second by providing the leadership to take our clients into cutting-edge design techniques and opportunities. Along with this client-centered approach and professional foresight, we have demonstrated a commitment to our communities, knowing that neither our clients nor Farnsworth Group will succeed if our hometowns, regions and states are not prosperous. This combination of corporate philosophies has allowed the firm to grow from a central Illinois-focused company into a nationwide presence with offices in Missouri, Colorado, California, Wisconsin and Georgia. We now have over 300 employees, with 55 in the Peoria office, and we are still growing.

Tell about the career path which led to your position at Farnsworth.

After moving to central Illinois, I worked at a small locally-owned engineering firm. While my technical training was good, I quickly realized that additional training in the many aspects of business would be helpful, and I began taking business courses which ultimately led to a master’s degree in Business Administration. I went to school part time for four and a half years while working full time in engineering. This additional education was a highlight in preparing for my career. I also discovered that I thoroughly enjoyed all of the business aspects, which are so fundamental to any organization. In the late ‘80s, our consulting firm was acquired and I was able to help the president prepare for the offer and sale of the firm. As the new parent company acquired other firms, I was asked to join the corporate team in 1990. The consulting and laboratory company that was formed had 1,400 employees in 28 locations. Serving in various management roles, I ultimately became president of the company. The opportunities and exposure I had with this experience were incredible. I stayed with the company until other acquisitions resulted in the corporate headquarters moving out of central Illinois. I chose to stay in central Illinois for all of the reasons we enjoy and call this home. That decision ultimately allowed me to come to Farnsworth Group.

How did your previous positions prepare you for your current career role?

I was very fortunate that I was provided opportunities to have indepth roles in a variety of technical and business areas. By serving in a technical role in design, field observation and as a project and client manager, I gained a first-hand understanding of the challenges our professionals face in performing their roles in the consulting business. From a business standpoint, I was afforded the opportunity to have positions in accounting, finance, marketing, planning, human resources, administration and operations. Having been able to get into the details of those areas helped me immensely as I’ve moved through different roles and responsibilities during my career and in my current role at Farnsworth.

What is unique about Farnsworth Group?

I think our employees are among the brightest and most passionate workers I have ever had the pleasure of working with. They are not only passionate about their work and their craft, but at the core of their work is doing the very best for their clients. It has certainly been a pleasure to watch our company flourish these past several years, and our employees have been the drivers to make that happen. When you care deeply about the work you do and the people you work with—both colleagues and clients—good things always happen. And I think our employees are having some fun along the way.

We are also a company whose 50-plus shareholders are all employees, so our clients interact with staff who are owners of the company. Many of us live, work and raise our families here in central Illinois, so our work directly benefits our everyday lives and those that come into contact with our projects. As owners of the company, we are able to chart the course of our company without influences from outside or remote owners. Employee ownership provides our employees the opportunity to make a real commitment to the company and make Farnsworth Group their choice for a career. Our clients appreciate developing a long-term relationship with someone they can count on—someone who has a stake in the company itself.

We are also unique in that we offer full-service capabilities. Not only can we design a new fire station, office building or school, but we can also provide the roads, infrastructure, site plans, etc. that are required to make any project become reality. We also have individuals who are experts helping communities apply for grants, assist with referendums and lobby local, state and federal government legislators to obtain the necessary funding required to get these projects off the ground.

Tell us about Farnsworth Group’s Peoria office.

The Peoria office represents a great success story for our company. The office has grown from four employees to more than 50 staff. Today, we offer nearly every service discipline available in our company out of the Peoria office.

The Peoria office’s success can really be attributed to our staff. We have dedicated ourselves to hiring the most talented staff that we can find, and they have really committed themselves to their work and integrated themselves into the community. I think clients respect our staff’s work. Our philosophy goes beyond simply completing a project for a client. We approach these opportunities as long-term relationships and partnerships, and I think we are really starting to see the rewards of that philosophy.

What are some of your current projects?

This is certainly an exciting time for central Illinois, and we are fortunate to be working on many of the projects that are really transforming our communities. Farnsworth Group is providing architecture and engineering services on the new Illinois Medical Office Building currently under construction downtown on the University of Illinois Peoria campus. That facility will have a dramatic effect on the landscape of downtown Peoria, as did Farnsworth Group’s architectural design for The Riverfront Gateway Building. We’re also working with the College to evaluate and study their downtown campus for future use and development. We are providing A/E services for renovation of the historic YWCA building that will become New Hope Apartments and provide 80 new efficiency apartments for our community’s less fortunate. We’re also providing full-service A/E design on a new Peoria fire station and working closely with Illinois American Water to upgrade the water mains and infrastructure in the area.

Farnsworth Group has been instrumental in the area’s growth, serving as the design team for more than seven new subdivisions throughout the Peoria area. We’re also helping design and develop an entire neighborhood for senior citizens in Hanna City. In addition, we have long-term relationships with the Peoria Housing Authority, City of Pekin, Village of Metamora and the City of Havana, just to name a few of the nearly 100 Illinois communities we serve.

Farnsworth Group served as the architect/engineer for the new Bank of Illinois building in uptown Normal, which is a fantastic ‘green building’ designed to achieve a LEED silver certification. That facility will become home to our Bloomington architectural and facility engineering staff. In addition, one of our folks was appointed to a state committee that will help the state of Illinois adopt sustainable building procurement criteria.

While those projects are important for the Peoria area, we are also working nationwide. We are currently providing building commissioning services for multi-million dollar projects at Children’s Hospital in Denver, CO; Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland, CO; the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, GA; GAP stores nationwide; and a number of major universities including Duke University, the University of Chicago, Brown University and the University of California, among others.

What impression do you hope clients have of Farnsworth Group when working with them?

I would like for every client to say that our staff delivered services in a very professional manner and provided significant value. I would hope that we fulfilled their goals, and that our core values— integrity, loyalty, fairness and competence—came through in the performance of our work. Of course, I would hope that their experience would lead them to using Farnsworth Group again on their next project.

I conduct client satisfaction visits in which I meet with our clients and ask them how we are doing and if there is anything we can do better. It’s important that we are meeting our clients’ expectations throughout the duration of the project. I get a lot of satisfaction talking with clients, and it’s invaluable to hear how we are doing and find out about any issues or opportunities firsthand.

I recently met with a client about a sewer project that has been talked about since the late 1970s. Providing a new sewer system for this community of 2,000 people has been in the works for 30 years, and now we’re doing the design. The impact on this community will be enormous. They want to keep their schools and they want to keep their sewer rates reasonable, and this project is going to allow that community to grow and prosper. It’s very fulfilling to see our company playing such an integral part in a community. And I have an appreciation and admiration for the local government officials who are just civic-minded people spending much of their personal time doing what’s right for their communities.

As a female engineer and president of the firm, are you in a minority group? Are business associates sometimes surprised that you are the president?

It’s true, I am in the minority, as are most females who are in a CEO leadership role. While it is still a male-dominated field, the number of females entering the engineering field is increasing each year. I guess sometimes people are surprised because a female CEO of an engineering/architecture firm is not what they would normally expect. However, I’ve never known it to be a problem. Once people get to know you and understand your abilities, it’s not an issue.

What are some of the current trends in the industry?

We are really seeing green building and sustainable design take hold in the Midwest. We have been providing these services for the past 10 years, primarily on the east and west coasts, and now it’s becoming a hot topic here as well.

The energy markets are also rife with opportunity. We have developed some outstanding partnerships with wind energy companies. Farnsworth Group has been involved in the new wind farms in McLean County, conducting the survey, siting and transportation work and will be working on the new Railsplitter Wind Farm near Delavan. We also see the biodiesel market heating up. With the emergence of a number of ethanol plants throughout Illinois and alternative fuel sources, there is a need for water, wastewater and engineering services.

With such a focus on energy consumption and rising oil and gas prices, we also see commitments from the major petroleum companies to improve their infrastructure. Farnsworth Group’s pipeline engineering group is seeing a number of new opportunities siting pipelines, repairing existing lines and providing other engineering services. We’ve really seen tremendous growth in our pipeline engineering group and have developed a number of valued relationships with these major oil companies.

What are the challenges you see ahead for the company?

Because our successes are so dependent on staff, I think one of our primary challenges is being able to attract and retain quality staff. Across the nation and in the central Illinois area, there is a shortage of individuals with the technical backgrounds we need for our business. Engineering and architectural schools are graduating fewer students, and there is fierce competition to attract and retain great talents. There’s just not enough supply to keep up with the demand. As a result, we are being creative in our employee recruiting and retention areas and are remaining focused on hiring only the best talent.

Another challenge we face is government funding, especially at the state level. The ability to provide state funding and reasonable funding sources for the local and state projects is challenging. But I think we are really at the forefront with our government affairs team who are dedicated to taking advantage of those funds, and helping clients obtain the necessary funding.

What advice can you give college students contemplating an engineering degree?

I would certainly encourage students to enter an engineering program. There is so much variety and different engineering disciplines from which to choose as your understanding of the field and interests develop. In the years to come, there will be many opportunities for students, whether it’s in the industrial or consulting sector—the demand for engineers is continuing to increase substantially. Also, engineering provides a wonderful fundamental background for business pursuits and it’s a good baseline degree for moving ahead in this century in a technology-based world.

What would you like our readers to know that hasn’t been asked?

I think most people know about our long history with municipalities throughout Illinois, but many don’t realize we are providing services nationwide on some of the biggest projects in the country. Farnsworth Group is known nationally for its Building Commissioning, LEED and sustainable design (green building) consulting and energy services. The firm was at the forefront in these areas, with our staff serving as members of committees that helped define these sustainable guidelines and criteria nationwide.

For instance, just last month Harvard University selected Farnsworth Group to provide whole project commissioning for the University’s new Allston Science Complex. Certainly Harvard University ranks as one of the premier institutions in the U.S., and they were looking for one of the nation’s premier commissioning providers for this project, which will include four high-performance buildings being designed to achieve LEED Gold certification. This is a great opportunity for our company and is really a testament to our leadership role in the building commissioning field.

In addition, Will County, Illinois, the second-fastest growing county in the country, has contracted Farnsworth Group to help turn the much-talked-about—and often controversial—third Chicago airport into reality. The company is leading Will County through the governmental process necessary to get the airport approved and ultimately constructed. Farnsworth is helping Will County become the airport’s “local sponsor” by developing an airport governance structure, financing model and marketing plan. Construction of this airport will mark the first new airport being built in the nation since the 1960s, and Farnsworth Group is helping lead that effort. IBI