As a freshman registering for college classes at the University of Illinois, Sandy Moldovan made a decision which would alter his career path. This decision led him to graduate with an engineering degree and start a firm with two partners.
Keefauver, Hillegonds and Moldovan, Inc. was the original name of this firm. During their first ten years, the firm was a regional practice, focusing on municipal engineering and residential developments. But after interest rates soared and CAT went on strike, they were forced to sell the company to Clark Engineers, Inc., a New York firm looking to expand into the Midwest. After a short year, they were able to buy the business back, but chose to keep the name, as they had become known by many in the community.
Growing up in a family that was very involved in community service, Moldovan knew it was important to be an active part of the Peoria community, both personally and professionally. He now serves as a member of the CEO Roundtable, the Heart of Illinois Regional Port Authority, the EDC Board and the Illinois Workforce Investment Board. He also serves on the Capital Campaign Committee of the Peoria Zoo and the Creve Coeur Club Washington Day Banquet Committee.
You graduated from the University of Illinois with a Bachelor of Science in general engineering. What inspired you to choose this field?
Prior to leaving high school, all I ever heard from my counselors was that the first two years of college consisted of generally the same basic instruction. I was led to believe that it really did not matter where I started since you could choose a career path at the beginning of your junior year. When I got to registration, the line for LAS was very long and the one for engineering was relatively short. My dad was an engineer, and I had worked at his firm some in high school, so I knew a little about what consulting engineers did for a living. I figured it really did not matter for the first couple of years, so I just got in the shorter line.
I picked general engineering because it offered the widest range of courses with the most flexibility. One of these options was technical writing, and I was also interested in photojournalism at the time, so it seemed like a good fit. During college, I was one of the photo editors for the Daily Illini, and really enjoyed working at the paper. The job created a lot of great experiences. I really did not make my decision to stay in engineering until the middle of my junior year. I still loved photojournalism, but determined that engineers probably made a better living.
When you founded Clark Engineers, Inc. in 1973, what were your aspirations for the company?
I actually started the company with two partners, Roger Keefauver and Terry Hillegonds. The original name of the company was Keefauver, Hillegonds and Moldovan, Inc.—known as K H and M Engineers. I always had the itch to have my own company. I had seen my dad work for a series of engineering firms and bosses over the years, and he seemed to be the happiest when he owned the firm. Also, I guess that, like many business startups, I thought I knew how to provide service to our clients and run a business just a little bit better than the people we were working for at the time. After all, I had been out of school for a little over three years.
Our aspirations changed over the years. At first, it was just to survive and keep the bills paid. After the first year or so, when we realized we might not starve, we started getting bigger clients and more interesting projects. At some point, I realized it felt good working with clients who were our friends, to help solve their problems. I guess it was at this time in the evolution, that I realized I really wanted to grow the company to something that would be a meaningful part of the community—maybe even sponsor a little league baseball team someday.
How did the company change and expand over the process of 30 years?
Our first 30 years were anything but dull with all of the ups and downs. For the first ten years, we basically grew as a very regional civil practice, doing mostly municipal engineering and residential development. We had moved out of our first office into a new building that we built in Washington, Ill.—actually doing most the work ourselves.
Business was fairly strong and the company was growing. Then the double whammy hit. Not only did interest rates go through the roof, but CAT also went on strike. Not being as sharp with business as we thought, we did not react to the downturn quickly enough, and eventually had to sell the business. Through a strange coincidence of mutual friends, we connected with a firm in New York that was looking for a Midwest operation—enter Clark Engineers, Inc.
After a short year with Mr. Clark, we decided to buy the business back. It was about this same time that we bought an engineering firm that did mechanical, electrical and plumbing services, expanding the company to full-service engineering. Since we had added some new clients, such as Caterpillar, while known as Clark Engineers, Inc., we decided to keep the name.
Again the firm started to grow, and we finally outgrew our Washington office. Our next move was to a larger facility on Dries Lane in Peoria. For reasons we still cannot fully understand, the move to Peoria was a shot in the arm to our growth. Over the next few years, our accelerated growth created the need to move again.
It was about this time that the Peoria Riverfront was really taking off and we wanted to be part of it. We moved to our current location at 111 NE Jefferson. In addition to the Peoria office, we had offices in Phoenix, Ariz., Chicago and Salem, Ill., with a staff of over 150 people. The future seemed clear—the firm would continue to grow and I would retire from Clark Engineers someday.
Explain the process of how your company was first purchased by STS Consultants, then AECOM.
For years, our concept was for the majority shareholders to sell the company to others within the company. However, after much introspection, we learned that the tax structure would make this difficult, if not impossible.
While we were not actively pursuing the acquisition alternative, two brothers on a fishing trip—one working for STS and the other for Clark—started talking about the similarities of our cultures and the almost-perfect match of mutual goals and values. Within a few weeks, Tom Wolf, the CEO of STS, and I had lunch. Approximately a year later, the deal was done. Clark Engineers, Inc. had gone from a 125-person firm to one with over 550 employees.
The acquisition of STS by AECOM, while much different from a process point of view, was done for fairly similar reasons. The majority shareholders of STS recognized the need to transition the leadership of the company to the next generation. We could do one of two options: sell to existing shareholders or find a merger/acquisition partner; the right new partner could open up growth prospects around the country, or even the world. After reviewing a number of merger/acquisition options, the Board and shareholders chose to join the AECOM family of professional firms because of shared cultures, values and its track record for doing these sorts of deals and retaining new staff and leaders well after the acquisition. Suddenly, we had gone from a firm of 550 employees to one of over 30,000, with a worldwide reach and opportunities for our staff to work on some of the most iconic projects through relationships with our new sister companies with services complementary to ours.
What has changed about the business since its purchase? How has your role as president/CEO changed?
This is a tough question because, in some ways, there has been little change. In other areas, it is significantly different.
The day-to-day operations of providing service to clients is no different now than it was under Clark. The same people are providing service to the same clients with the same dedication. Hopefully our clients have seen little, if any, change in service.
Regarding the behind-the-counter activities, the story is much different. Clark Engineers, Inc. was an engineering practice with a business on the side. We made many decisions based on what was considered our best judgment at the time. Whether it was ordering equipment, starting work without a contract or deciding to sponsor a table at some event, the decision was made with few guidelines—only if it “felt right.”
Now, both because of the size and diversity of the company, there are more guidelines and requirements upon which decisions are made. This is not a bad thing, but it does take some adjustment. Decisions that used to be made in seconds in my office now may take days and multiple approvals. Justifications are required, as opposed to merely feeling that “it is just the right thing to do.” Sometimes this process can be frustrating, but it is more of a timing issue than a change in the approval percentage. Now our job is to carry the local message to those who ultimately make the decisions.
In what capacity will you continue to work with the business?
STS, an operational company of AECOM, is in the process of changing to a Specialized Business Unit (SBU) structure. Although I am temporarily acting as the regional vice president of the Peoria, Chicago and Salem offices and am responsible for the performance of those offices, my primary role is to lead the Transportation SBU for STS throughout the Midwest.
One really positive aspect of being part of the AECOM family is that we have incredible resources to offer our clients. We are currently in the process of defining just how the STS Transportation Unit will fit into the overall AECOM transportation strategy for the Midwest. It is an exciting time to be on the ground floor of this emerging transportation group. This synergy will not only add significant resources for our clients, but it will also provide increased opportunities to the Midwest group as a whole and significantly increase the chance for new personal growth for the staff at STS.
Hopefully, I will be able to stay involved long enough to see the Midwest group live up to its incredible potential, to see the benefit to our existing client base and to expand our services to new clients.
What changes or obstacles have you overcome on your career path? Twenty years ago, could you have imagined where you are now?
My biggest challenge was to balance the time demands of the business, the community activities and my family. Throughout the years, I have told our employees that their jobs should never be the number-one priority in their lives—maybe not even in the top two. In my world, my family was always number one. The challenge was to keep that perspective every day, particularly when things were not going well at work or the community-related demands were at their peak.
At least in the early years, we were not as “wired” to the office as we are now. Cell phones, PDAs and Blackberries make it easy for the office to creep into your life every minute. I am thankful that I did not have these tools when I was younger because I am now a certified Blackberry addict!
Twenty years ago I had no real vision of where I would be now. I certainly would not have envisioned working for a public company with over 30,000 employees worldwide. I can tell you, however, that I have never envisioned retirement—not then and not now. I have been one of those lucky people who love what they do every day, particularly in the Clark years. It was rewarding to have a job where I could work with a great staff and provide services to friends. At the same time, my job allowed me the luxury to become involved in community-related activities—one of my true passions.
Outside your consulting firm, community development activities require much of your time. Describe why it is important to you to be involved. What inspires you to participate in the community?
The short answer is that I grew up in a family atmosphere where my parents were always involved in community activities—particularly my dad. It was just part of my life. When I was sixteen, a group of us raised some money and started the first teen center in Salem. I served as president and loved being involved in something important to the community.
In college, I stayed involved as much as my grades and part-time jobs would allow. My real entry into community volunteering started when our kids got involved with school and athletic activities. My wife, Carolyn, and I coached everything from little league to flag football. From there it just escalated into the Chamber Board, Community Foundations, Easter Seals and many other rewarding involvements.
As a company, the culture of Clark Engineers was guided by something we took very seriously—our Seven Shared Values. One of the values was to “Give back to the community.” Companies such as Clark need strong communities, not only to provide a certain percentage of our workload, but also to support a strong quality of life in order to attract and retain good employees—the backbone of any company. I was truly blessed to work for a company that allowed me the time to be involved and supported my involvement financially.
The personal motivation was that I love the involvement. I have heard people say that they got back more than they gave and that is really true for me. By being involved in community activities, I not only get a chance to help my community, but I am also able to meet many wonderful people who are now some of my best friends.
Congratulations on recently completing your term as EDC Chairman. Do you plan on staying involved in some way? What were some of the final projects you completed?
I am currently on the EDC Board and will continue to be for at least another year. After my board term is completed, I would like to stay involved at some level, possibly through one of the grassroots committees that form the basis for new economic development ideas.
Having been involved in the EDC for a number of years, I became concerned that many of the people who needed to be involved with the economic development for our area were not at the table. Mike Quine, my predecessor as EDC chair, recognized the same thing. We determined that there needed to be some change—not only to revitalize the EDC efforts, but also to increase the involvement of community leaders and grass-roots individuals. Another important goal of the reorganization was to reinforce the fact that the Peoria Area EDC is a regional organization—representing and working for the region.
What started as an update to the bylaws ended up being a complete reorganization with a three-tier structure. It brings the community economic development drivers from the public and private sectors to the table to lead the organization and gives all community members an opportunity to become involved at multiple levels. To borrow a phrase from our annual meeting, “We rebuilt the organization from the ground up.” Fortunately we had a great staff and a very active board which agreed with the new vision for the EDC.
Equally important, we were lucky enough to entice Vickie Clark to join the EDC staff as our COO. Vickie has brought a tremendous amount of organizational and creative skills to the organization. She has fine-tuned the EDC staff to work more efficiently in the reorganized structure and to react to the ever-changing demands of economic development.
What other boards or organizations do you currently serve on?
Actually, things have slowed down in the last few months as my involvement with the Heartland Partnership and Local Workforce Development Board came to an end. Locally, I am a member of the newly-formed CEO Roundtable, vice-chair of the Heart of Illinois Regional Port Authority (TransPORT), member of the Capital Campaign Committee for the Peoria Zoo, co-chair of the Creve Coeur Club Washington Day Banquet Committee and, as mentioned, still a member of the EDC board. Additionally, I am a member of the State of Illinois Workforce Investment Board.
How has community involvement changed over the past 25 years? The past ten?
It seems the answer to both questions is the same. While the Peoria area has always had a strong background of community involvement, you see the same people getting involved. Sometimes I would have to make an effort to remember which board meeting I was attending, because many of the same people were in the room.
Our challenge is to get the new generation of business leaders involved, along with their companies. The same can be said for the next wave of the younger workforce. I am convinced that once this younger group does get involved, they will get hooked and realize what a great experience it is to spend time working for their community.
Company involvement is also an issue. Twenty-five years ago, it seemed that most of the people who were involved with community efforts represented locally-owned companies which not only supported the involvement with time off, but also supported the organizations financially. With the increase of mergers and acquisitions, more of these companies are remotely owned and controlled. That fact, coupled with the increased emphasis on the bottom line, has made the process of securing local support more difficult.
In our case, for instance, we used to be able to support requests for financial support based on the decision of one or two local people. Budgets are tighter now and the process requires multiple approvals with a much higher level of scrutiny. While this prolonged process is understandable from a business perspective, it makes it more difficult to support all the good causes that are out there. The inevitable result is that there will be a longer lead time for a decision by remotely-controlled companies, a requirement for better justification to make the investment and a continued increase in pressure on the locally-controlled companies.
What advice would you offer to businesspeople looking to succeed in the community?
Get involved at some level in whatever capacity fits you best. Remember the three Ts—Time, Treasure and Talent. All three are important to almost every organization. Additionally, I would suggest involvement in something for which you have passion or strong interest—it will make it more fun and rewarding. The bottom line is to not wait for someone else to do it; you will be the winner in the end.
What hobbies/interests do you enjoy outside of work. Golf? Fishing? Travel?
Wow…you hit all three! IBI