How the son of an immigrant coal miner became a Philly CEO

"My father was an immigrant coal miner and he was injured in the coal mines.   So, we all had to go to work, including my mother who had never worked -- grew up on a farm and had never worked on the outside," Celestino R. "Chuck" Pennoni told me during our Executive Q&A interview, which was published in the business section of Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer.

"So, my sisters cleaned houses, basically, is what they did.  One sister worked in a grocery store with me.  My other sister worked in a delicatessen, and my other two sisters cleaned houses," he said. 

Pennoni got a job in the local grocery store, cleaning up and stocking shelves.

He was six years old.

He now runs Pennoni Associates, a civil engineering firm that employs 1,200 and brings in $185 million, he said, in annual revenues.  The company just celebrated its 50th anniversary.

"I worked in that local grocery store until I graduated high school," Pennoni said.  "I used to do deliveries.  I don’t know if I should tell you this story.  I used to do deliveries with a wagon and bicycles. 

The man who owned it -- I never knew his first name, Mr. Hudson --  Mr. Hudson said, `I’m going to have to let you go.'  I said, `Why.'  He said, `Well, my business now has gotten to the point where the deliveries have to made by car.  So, I need somebody who can drive.'  I said, `I’ll get a license.'  He said, `You’re not old enough.'  I said, `I’ll get a license.'  

So, I hitchhiked to the state police barracks, got all the forms, brought them home and filled them out.  I put in a birth date that made me 16 years of age so I could get my permit.  I asked my mother to sign it.  She said, `Why do you want me to sign this?'  I told her the truth and she signed it.  I went and got my permit and had someone teach me how to drive and I kept my job. 

At the age of eight, our local paperboy was a guy named Joe.  He asked me if I would be a helper.  So, I helped him as a helper, because his route had expanded.  Then, when I was 12, he graduated high school and I took over his paper route. 

So, in Plains, [a small town outside of Wilkes Barre], I also worked part time, later in high school, in a poultry market.  I worked in a grocery store, a paper route and a poultry market.  And, I used to make furniture and kitchen cabinets and lawn chairs.

Wow, that’s a lot of stuff. 

There’s a lot of stuff that I did and what it did was it taught me never to waste any time.  It was a great lesson.  

Tell me more about your childhood.

I’ll tell you what I’m proud of.  My mother and father were the greatest.  They were immigrants.  They didn’t go to school.  We were in America.  They said, `Well, we’re in America.  We speak English.  We don’t speak Italian.'  I went to school and I studied Italian later in life.  I grew up with four older sisters.  I think that women are remarkable.  My sisters, my mother were remarkable.  I think women just could do anything.  I saw it with my own family.  I’ve always had a lot of respect for women. 

I could tell you that Pennoni Associates we have 15 percent of our engineers are women and that is very unusual for an engineering firm to have 15 percent female engineers.

[Click here to read about the nation's failing infrastructure and what engineers can do to help.] 
You studied electrical engineering at Penn State before switching to Drexel for a degree in structural engineering. Was there anything in your childhood that indicated you'd have an aptitude for the work?  

I had an erector set when I was growing up.  We never called a handyman.  We fixed everything.  When I grew up, we actually had an ice box where the ice man would come around and you’d put a chunk of ice in the ice box. 

Then my mother’s first refrigerator was a Sears Cold Spot, which we got at Sears and Roebuck’s.  It broke.  I took it apart, saw what was wrong and hitchhiked to the Sears and Roebuck’s place when I was a kid.  I showed them the broken part.  They ordered it for me.  They told me when it would be in.  We didn’t have a phone.  I hitchhiked back and got the part and went back and fixed the refrigerator.  I mean as a kid, there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t take apart and try to fix. 

Were you dangerous?  What percentage of the time were you successful fixing it?

I don’t remember anything, but in those days we didn’t have the complicated stuff like today.  Keep in mind, my first several cars I had a toolbox in the trunk.  I mean I replaced my spark plugs.  I took my first car apart.  I put it up on blocks and I took the wheels off and took the brakes off.  I took the side pan off, the oil pan off.  I took the head off.  I cleaned everything up and put new gaskets in, new spark plugs and everything.  You can’t do that today.  Today everything is much more complicated with electronics.  You just can’t do it. 

The only thing I never attacked on my car for repair was the transmission, because a transmission has 500-600 parts to it.  If you ever look at a book on what you do to a transmission, you get a two-car garage and you make sure nothing is on the floor and you take the transmission apart and you start laying everything all over the floor in a certain sequence.  I mean the transmission is just too complicated.  So, you can’t do today what I did growing up. 

Is there anything that you do like that now?

You know, little things that might break.  I’m a big super glue guy, Gorilla Glue.  So, if something breaks, I Gorilla Glue it. 

That doesn’t sound very civil-engineer like.

It’s still structures, because it’s members.  If a cross bar on a chair breaks -- we just had one at home that broke -- and I re-glued it.  What was the last challenging thing that I fixed at home?  My wife wanted some more light in our study.  So, I went to Home Depot and I bought some track lights and I found the hot wire up in our ceiling and I spliced it with a box and put in the track lights.  I did that.  I just had a new computer put in home and when I went to put the tower in, the tower wouldn’t fit under my desk.  The old tower was on a shelf that slid out with tracks.  Well, I took everything apart, took the tracks off and got out my drill and drilled new holes, reset the tracks and put the shelf back so that the higher tower could fit. 

Is it hard for your wife to get you to do stuff? 

Not hard at all. 

When she tells you to do it, do you do it quickly?

She says, `Chuck, this is broken. What should we do?' 

She says, `What should we do?' As a wife, I'm admiring the technique.

Yeah.  She knows what the answer is.  She doesn’t say, `Chuck, why don’t you fix this?'  She says, `Chuck, what should we do?'  She knows that’s basically saying, `If you could fix it, you should fix it.'  

Pennoni started out studying electrical engineering at Penn State.

"At Penn State I couldn’t afford books for every class, " Pennoni said.  "But one thing I did is I attended every class and I took great notes.  As a freshman in college, if it was Structures 101, at the top of my page, I’d put 101-001 for the first page of my notes.  The second page would be 101-002 and so forth.  I did them very neatly.  I lettered them.  It kept me alert in class and got me into the subject matter." 

He soon realized that structural engineering interested him more, so he moved to Philadelphia, got a job at an engineering firm and studied structural engineering at night at Drexel.

A year later,  Pennoni became a civil engineer, working for the City of Philadelphia, gaining experience in design and construction management. Wanting to learn more about business and construction, he joined a private construction company and developed estimating and field construction skills. He began to teach engineering.

Meanwhile, he continued to develop his skills:

"As a structural engineer, I had read a lot of books about failures," he said.  "The vast majority of failures are due to joint failure connections of the members. 

"I never had a course in joint design," he said. "So, in the ‘60s how do you do distance learning?  Correspondence school.  So, I took five courses through the mail -- two for structural steel design, one for reinforced concrete design and connection design. 

"So, I took two steel connection design courses. Then I wanted to do a timber connections course, because I never had a timber design course.  I took a timber design course, then a timber connection design course."

By the end of 1965, Pennoni decided he wanted to start his own business. His employer asked him to stay on for another  and on March 1, 1966, he started Pennoni Associates. His staff consisted of three part-time engineering students from Temple.

Like all fledgling entrepreneurs, Pennoni worked hard to develop clients.

"I never touched a golf club or anything until 1971 when a client of mine said, `Let’s go play golf.'  So, I went to E.J. Korvette [a discount department store like Target.] I bought a set of woods, a 1, a 2½ and a 3½, which they don’t even make those any more.  I bought 3, 5, 7 and 9 for irons, a putter, a bag, some balls and some tees.  

"I actually went to a driving range first, so I wouldn’t make too much of a fool of myself.  I did some practices.  Then I went out with him to play golf and that’s how it evolved.  So, I like to play golf, as you can tell from that banner there signed by Tom Watson, my favorite golf pro," he said.  

Over the years, Pennoni's business grew, fueled by habits developed in his younger years.

Do you ever waste any time now? 

You know, I think that God gave me the gift of being very efficient in my time management. 

Any advice? 

Well, you know, personality has a lot to do with time management. So I wouldn't impose my personality on somebody else. Last night I had a hard time sleeping.  2:30. I got up and I went downstairs to my office.  I spent two hours working in the office.  Then at 4:30 I laid down to take a nap.  I woke up at 5:00.  I went out, got the paper and put on the coffee.  I read the paper.  I always like to do the Sudoku and the crossword puzzle.  Then I did my exercises, took a shower, and I came in.  In between, before I took my shower I checked all my emails and phone messages.  That’s when you and I talked at 10:00.  So, I accomplished a lot. 

What about that sleep? 

I was never one that required a lot of sleep.  I’ll be truthful with you.  I always went to bed late and got up early. 

Is it frequent that you get up in the middle of the night for two hours?

I’d say it’s not infrequent, but not frequent, if that makes any sense.  I mean I’m not doing it every week, but I do it occasionally. 

Do you have any other things that make you efficient?  

Making notes.  I keep a pencil and pad by my bed and if I think of something I write it down so I don’t forget.  I make notes all the time.  I always have a to-do list. 

Is it a running to-do list?

It’s a running to-do list.  I cross things out as I accomplish them and then I rewrite it with what’s left.

Do you make a new list every day?

Oh, yeah, yeah, easy once a day.

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