It was a long and winding road that got me to meeting and ultimately working with Fred, and what he ultimately represented to me was an even longer road that has taken over 27 years to traverse. Just saying things like a mentor, visionary, serious, creative thinker, and things of that nature don’t really tell the tale—they’re too superficial.
Though many may not have seen it—or even realized it, he was a deeply sensitive person behind what many termed a stern appearance. He was always concerned about his employees’ well being and that they had a good comfortable work environment. As a clear example, when I first started at SM&A (Shen Milsom & Associates back then) my “office” was literally a windowless closet without a door. Almost daily, Fred would stick his head in and apologize. I eventually got a poster of a window and within a year or so moved into an office with a door AND a window. Guilt is good!
Needless to say some things one never forgets, and I clearly recall my first international business trip to Hong Kong in late 1989 where Fred personally made certain that my flights were in order, that I would be picked up at the airport, and everything was covered. And then at the last minute, he stopped in, handed me a slip of paper with a phone number on it, and told me that I had to take his parents out to dinner!! REALLY?? Actually it was great—in three hours I learned so much more about Fred than I could ever have otherwise.
He was totally driven by business. He was an astute businessman that understood what many engineers did not—the business of the business. His clients were always foremost in his mind, working tirelessly on highly detailed proposals, delivering the best, creative and most cost-effective solutions, and incorporating that notion into every person that set foot within our office walls.
And of course one can’t forget that SM&W is a family business—and I was an outsider (as he would inappropriately call me a “round eye”) looking in. He taught me the finer things in life, beginning with learning to eat peanuts… one at a time…using chopsticks. My take-away from that was patience and moderation.
But probably the most important lesson was in two parts, first is to put yourself in your clients shoes, take their seat at the table, seeing things as they see them, and truly represent their values. The second, and maybe the most important, was to carefully listened to the client, looking to understand the true meaning of what they were saying—extrapolating that into a concept that would represent their long term goals.
So that long and winding road has come to an end. Two people that in many respects were polar opposites finding a common ground to work together closely; the intense discussions we would have—at times rather adversarial where we would totally disagree or misunderstand what the other was saying, at other times deeply personal with a strong bonding between us as we talked about our staff, our projects, and our families. Regardless, the lessons taught by The Master will never be forgotten.
Thank You Fred for those lessons, the benchmarks you have set, and the legacy you have left behind.
Steve Emspak is a partner at Shen Milsom & Wilke.