BLOOMINGTON - No tears fell and no lips quivered over George Farnsworth's departure. And nothing could please Farnsworth more. The retiring president and chief executive officer of Farnsworth Group knows the 100-year-old-plus engineering/architectural firm remains in good hands. He and the company's 12-member board started making an orderly transition of leadership nearly four years ago.
"The company is bomb proof," said Farnsworth. "We could triple in size without any problem. This group solves problems and moves on."
Farnsworth, 62, officially handed the company reins on Feb. 1 to Karen Jensen, a civil engineer with more than a decade of senior management experience. Farnsworth remains on the company board until April.
"George garners a lot of respect. He is retiring at a high point for the company," said Jensen, who joined Farnsworth Group in 2002 to lead the company's infrastructure group.
In 2005, Jensen and Farnsworth began working as partners to manage the company in much the same way his father, George L. Jr., and his partner, Sam Wylie, had done. The two forged their partnership as Farnsworth & Wylie in 1955. The company changed its name to Farnsworth Group in 2000 to establish a single identity for its clients.
The company began a major transformation 10 years ago to move from a Central Illinois engineering/architectural firm to a national firm offering full services, including surveying, mechanical/electrical/plumbing and commissioning. The latter involves quality assurance in ensuring a project gets completed as a client envisions.
Much of the growth was achieved through mergers and acquisitions. What began as a single proprietor " Elmer Folsom " surveying McLean County municipalities in 1890 has grown into a 250-employee firm with offices in Bloomington, Peoria, Champaign, Effingham, Shorewood, St. Louis, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Los Angeles, Calif. About 100 employees work in Bloomington.
"A lot of growth has been driven by our clients. Their scope has broadened. Almost all of the jobs we do are unique," said Farnsworth, pointing to a "mouse house," or research center at Duke University as an example. "We did not set out to be a national firm. Our clients took us there."
As the firm began its expansion, Farnsworth decided to bring in "outsiders" to serve on the company's board. Don Skaggs, former publisher of The Pantagraph, serves as board chairman. Other board members are Charles Smith of Champaign, a retired engineer, and Fred Niehaus of Colorado, a business executive with expertise in marketing, media relations and consulting.
"They provide the bubble-popping comments. They help us to see when the emperor has no clothes," said Farnsworth.
While the company's employees take pride in getting every job done, Farnsworth pointed to water planning efforts by Bloomington, Normal and McLean County as the finest in the nation. Farnsworth Group has been heavily involved in creating a 50-year wastewater treatment plan that involves expanding the Bloomington-Normal Water Reclamation District wastewater treatment facility on the southeast side.
Both Farnsworth and Jensen take particular pride in the Children's Discovery Museum because it reflects a trend toward "green" building design. Farnsworth Group provided the mechanical, electrical and plumbing work for the downtown Normal facility that includes a number of energy conserving features. It earned a silver certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.
"Both the Clinton and Bush administrations created green initiatives for federal projects. Private industry has found it pays. Green design is environmentally responsible and profitable at the same time," said Farnsworth, noting the firm has 15 U.S. Green Building Council certified engineers on staff.
While Farnsworth can't remember a day he didn't want to come to work, he's looking forward to spending more time with volunteer work and his family. He serves as chairman of the BroMenn Regional Medical Center board and serves on the public building commission and the speaker's bureau for Unit 5 schools.
He and wife, Mary Lou, take horse riding lessons at Wellgreen Farms near Downs. The couple, who recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary, also plans to visit their three children and four grandchildren. Their daughter, Laura Chelsen, teaches English and French in west Chicago; son, Geoff, teaches seventh grade in Whitefish Bay, Wis.,; and son, Andrew, is a graduate student at Illinois State University.
"Nobody spends a day here without benefiting from something we did, whether it's roads or buildings," said Farnsworth. "This company is in position to go on another 100 years."