When we call out an individual as a person of the year, be it based on professional or personal merit, it’s usually because that person has demonstrated leadership qualities that have improved working relationships or contributed to some form of success, or pushed an agenda that will lead to one, or both of the aforementioned.
We define leadership with some key traits, which include, but are not limited to, the ability to communicate and inspire, be aware and intuitive, portray confidence and approachability, and to commit to a cause in which they lead.
Todd S. Beenders, plumbing and fire protection department lead at Huitt-Zollars, Fort Worth, Texas, has demonstrated a keen understanding of these traits.
“I nominate Todd S. Beenders to be the Engineer of the Year,” says Luke Martin, plumbing designer at Huitt-Zollars, “because of his dedication and hard work. He works most of the time from six in the morning until six in the evening, not because he has to, but because he loves what he does.”
Beenders fell into his role as the lead for the plumbing and fire protection departments. “It happened by accident,” he recalls. In his early 20s, after graduating from Illinois Central College, Beenders got his start as a fire protection design and fabrication engineer for a large fire protection contractor, and was left to his own devices when it came to training.
“For about six months I worked for the contractor designing several sprinkler systems, providing hand hydraulic calculations, and supervised fabrication, bundling and shipping. Everything I learned was from what I could through research and NFPA and Factory Mutual manuals,” recalls Beenders.
Despite his eagerness to learn and work hard, his progress wasn’t as fast as his employer was hoping for and he was let go from that position. But for Beenders, this was an opportunity.
Finding his path
It didn’t take long for Beenders to get back to work; he was hired that same day at an engineering firm that was owned by a family friend. The firm needed a fire protection design engineer capable of doing hand hydraulic calculations (computer programs were not yet developed). In addition to his duties, he was to help out the senior plumbing engineer when needed. This proved to be very beneficial.
“The senior plumbing engineer’s name was William Ollikainen,” recalls Beenders. “He was an older gentleman with a talent for plumbing design, and teaching it. He was my mentor and good friend who taught me the basics and made the plumbing discipline very interesting.” Ollikainen retired after three years and Beenders took over his duties as senior plumbing engineer, along with keeping his title of fire protection engineer. He continued to work, and learn, for seven years in those roles, and eventually moved on to accept a position of lead plumbing engineering designer for Yandel and Hiller (purchased by Huitt-Zollars in 1993), working on one of the largest Veterans Administration Hospitals in the nation. “I am still here 32 years later,” says Beenders. “I am glad I never gave up; I loved the job back then and I still love it today.”
Having worked in the industry for 43 years, it’s refreshing to hear Beenders say his vision has not really changed through the years. “My vision was to be the best at what I do and work harder than anyone else,” he says. “I don’t know everything. I listen to others no matter how young or old, because there is always something to learn.”
When it comes to goals, Beenders boasts that that to has always been the same: “keep learning and share your knowledge with others around you who want to learn more.”
“When I started at Huitt-Zollars 12 years ago,” recalls Martin, “I came in with a civil background and not a lot of knowledge about plumbing design. Beenders was the lead plumbing engineer and when he interviewed me he said, ‘this is not civil, it’s piping,’ and asked if I would be willing to learn. The first couple of years I did not know if I would make it, but he kept encouraging me, pushing me, telling me I would understand it. He knows about all disciplines, not just plumbing. Huitt-Zollars is a full service firm, and he knows something about every discipline in the building. He may not know how to design it exactly, but he will take the time to learn it and figure it out.”
Martin adds that since then he has learned more than just the basics of plumbing because Beenders has shown him that through hard work, and leading by example, one can make it in the field of plumbing engineering.
“He is willing to teach, mentor, and to give people like me a chance to learn this profession,” says Martin.
In addition to his professional duties, Beenders donates time and resources to local charities, and is involved in mentoring both younger and older engineers and designers. “I have provided plumbing and special systems mentoring throughout my career, says Beenders. “I’ve had senior engineers tell me that they didn’t know when they got into this business that they would be teachers too.”
So remember, cautions Beenders, “you can mentor anyone, at any age.”
Navigating the path
The core definition of engineer is one who designs and builds. It’s a lot more complicated than that, I know. But at the core, Beenders exemplifies the basic definition.
He has accomplished a lot in his career by building and designing his path, and making it available for others to follow. Beenders has learned special systems design beyond the normal plumbing systems such as fire protection, diesel and unleaded, bio-diesel fueling, CNG fueling, military aviation fueling, locomotive fueling, oil lubrication distribution systems, high pressure natural gas distribution, medical gases, process steam, landscape irrigation, municipal lift stations, municipal water supply and treatment facilities, sewage treatment facilities, industrial chemical dip tank systems, rainwater harvesting, vehicle wash water reclaim systems, solar water heating and so much more. His approach was to research these systems as much as possible to establish a complete understanding before designing them. “Learning new systems are important to me because they keep me interested in the plumbing field,” says Beenders.
Two of his many projects he is currently working on include one that involves the engineering, development and preparation of the State EPA Engineering Report and construction documents for a large lift station. And the second project involves the engineering and development of construction documents for a chemical clean dip tank system for a remanufacturing plant.
Even with an extensive knowledge in special systems design, and an exceptional understanding of various disciplines, there is always room to learn and grow.
“Obstacles come continuously in our business,” says Beenders. “If you are not able to overcome the obstacles you will never make it in this industry.”
Beenders is passionate about paying forward what he has learned through the years. He is also passionate about elevating his own understanding, and in turn teaching it to others. “A lot of the plumbing engineers and designers today are not as diversified as they were in the past,” he says. “They are only knowledgeable in the basic plumbing systems such as sanitary waste and vent, storm drain and domestic hot and cold water systems. You tell them about a special design you are working on and they look at you with the “what is that” look. They do not strive to learn new systems.”
He would like to see engineers invest more time in continued education. He advocates for ASPE-led special design seminars with non-typical plumbing systems. “Beenders has always encouraged me to be involved with the local ASPE chapter and be a member of the board,” says Martin. “I started out as the website designer for ASPE, and am now the president of the DFW Chapter.”
Beenders promotes ASPE as a great organization. “I was a founding member for the Central Illinois Chapter and through the years served as president for two terms and treasurer for another two terms. Through the years I have learned a lot from the ASPE programs and met several people who worked very hard to make ASPE the highly regarded organization it is today. It is important that ASPE continues to sponsor new and diverse subjects for seminars and technical meetings,” stresses Beenders.
At this point in his career, Beenders’ involvement with ASPE is through consultation and by promoting the organization to the younger engineers. “As I close in on retirement I will continue to be involved with ASPE and attend the local meetings and events,” he says.
Luckily, he has not retired yet. And it’s not surprising that Huitt-Zollars will be his last stop on this journey. The company motto is to “understand the needs of our clients and to meet those needs by delivering professional services with the highest level of quality and integrity.” Its core values include:
Beenders has lived up to those core values and delivered on them every step of the way.
“He is a good hearted person who cares about people,” says Martin. “It is not every day one can say they enjoy coming to work, but for the past 12 years it has been a great honor to have been able to have Todd Beenders as my mentor. I will always be grateful for everything he has done to help me and the time and dedication he has shown to teach me. No one else would have spent so much of their time to make me better, than what he has.”
As for the incoming work force, Beenders says, “don’t stop learning once you graduate and join the work force. The engineering field constantly gives you opportunities to continue growing throughout your career. Also, don’t walk away from the technical part of our industry into project management too soon. Your technical knowledge will make you so much better as a project manager if you prefer to go that direction. Remember the more systems technical knowledge and expertise you have the more your firm will stand out from the others and the more you will be rewarded.”