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BLUEPRINT FOR SUCCESS

Like the company he leads, Tom Dennis is successful, but decidedly low-key. His engineering firm, The Dennis Group, offers planning, architectural, process engineering, and construction management services to the food and beverage industries, and is among the world’s leaders in that highly competitive field. Meanwhile, Dennis and a partner have become successful players in the Springfield real estate market, having purchased and renovated several landmark office buildings. Getting him to talk about these successful ventures is difficult, however — he’d rather spend his time tending to his often-demanding clients.

It’s a script right out of central casting — a storyline that must have been written by the regional economic development commission. Tom Dennis is a local guy — he’s from Feeding Hills. After graduating from college with a degree in Engineering, he went to work in Boston. When he grew frustrated with the path his employer was on and made the decision to start his own venture, he came ëhome’ to do it, because he liked the area, and the cost of doing business was much cheaper than it was inside Route 128. And he really liked the airport that was only a few miles down the road in Windsor Locks, one that you could get in and out of without losing half a day.

He started in the attic of his home on Fairfield Street in Springfield, and eventually bought a struggling downtown landmark, Harrison Place, renovated it, and put his offices there. His company, The Dennis Group, which designs food-processing facilities and counts a number of Fortune 500 companies on its client list, doesn’t do much business locally and could be located anywhere. But Dennis — and those who have helped him build this venture — want it here.

He even lives in Springfield.

Yes, it’s a story that Allan Blair and other leaders at the EDC could turn into a promotional piece as they try to market the Pioneer Valley and the Knowledge Corridor. But it’s a story you almost have to pry out of Dennis.

Like the company itself, he is very low-key. His venture now employs more than 100 people, 70 in Springfield, and has four offices scattered across the country. But because of the unique nature of its work and the quiet nature of its leader, it flies under the radar screen. Also low-key are his real estate ventures. Dennis and a partner, William Stotler, have bought and renovated a number of Springfield office buildings, including Harrison Place (later sold to the Picknelly family) and the former Wesson Hospital. Dennis is quite active in his real estate pursuits and takes great pride in those ventures — there’s a framed picture of Harrison Place on his credenza — but he says he directs most of his energy to The Dennis Group and its continued growth.

"This business is my first priority," he said. "There are a lot of hardworking, performance-oriented people who deserve nothing less than that from me."

Dennis will give you that same answer when you ask about community involvement and participation with area non-profits and various development groups. He’d love to — but at the moment, and for the foreseeable future, he’s focusing on his clients and how to provide them quality service and, most importantly, value.

Indeed, as he talked with BusinessWest, Dennis, the subject of this month’s CEO Profile, was interrupted several times by calls from customers and potential customers. "It’s the nature of the business," he said at one juncture. "I’m here for my customers."

In a wide-ranging but fast-moving interview, Dennis talked about how he has blueprinted success for his company — although he rarely uses the word ëI.’ He credits a group of young, entrepreneurial-minded engineers — many of whom are now partners in this venture — with the firm’s steady growth over the years.

"Our guideline here has been to hire anyone who will make this a better company," he explained. "We know that if we have the right talent within our organization and create an environment that lets individuals apply their craft, then work will come our way, and it has."

Progress, by Design

Dennis, 48, told BusinessWest that he had no intention of putting his name on the company that he started in the fall of 1987. Several possibilities — most of which he can’t remember — didn’t pass muster with the state Secretary of State’s office (they were too close to existing business names), so he eventually settled on The Dennis Group — only it wasn’t really a group, just Dennis and some engineers he subcontracted work to.

He knew there would be a group, though, and that quiet confidence is part of his business philosophy and management style.

As a youth, Dennis was drawn to mathematics and science, and at Rutgers University, he earned degrees in Chemical Engineering and Biology. The biotechnology field was still in its developmental stages at that time, he said, so he focused his attention on project engineering. He eventually took a job with a Boston-area construction management company called Carlson Associates, and worked on a number of projects in this country and overseas, many in the food-processing industry.

"I was really attracted to project management work — taking an assignment from start to finish," he said. "As project manager, you get your arms around a whole project and understand it from the inside out, which to me was fulfilling and appealing."

He enjoyed the work and living in Boston, but when Carlson was bought by a French conglomerate, he would soon decide to make the shift from employee to entrepreneur, although he is still not really comfortable with the latter term.

"The French company sent a bunch of accountants over to run a design and construction-services business," he explained. "Very early on, I decided that this wasn’t compatible with my philosophy, so I decided to leave."

His decision to come back to Springfield was grounded in familiarity and, to a large extent, economics.

"My wife was pregnant at the time, and I knew that the cost of living was much less out here," he said. "Also, there was a major airport nearby, which was a necessity, and I thought that I might be more readily able to attract people as a startup company if I was here, as opposed to Boston, which was much more expensive."

He set up shop in his attic — "it was an old Victorian, and the attic was huge; it’s better than it sounds" — and got started only a few weeks before the stock market collapse in October of 1987. That event served to slow the start for The Dennis Group, but not for long.

Through contacts he had made earlier his career, Dennis was able to win a number of domestic projects, and he used that work to develop a reputation in the multi-billion-dollar food-processing industry and build a portfolio.

Food for Thought

Then, as now, the company had no salespeople and did comparitively little marketing, he explained, adding that its reputation for quality work and relationship-oriented approach to doing business have been its best selling tools.

"There are no salespeople Ö we rely on doing good work and having it lead to more work," he explained. "If we’re not developing relationships, we’re out of business. And if people don’t like what we’ve done, then we’re out of business as well."

Over the years, the company has undertaken more than 2,000 projects and enjoyed what Dennis calls controlled, or smart, growth, taking a conservative approach to business. Its main strength has been its diversity, he explained, noting that the firm can handle $5,000 consulting projects and also oversee $100 million new-plant-construction ventures.

The company has managed projects for some of the most recognizable names in the food industry, including Kraft, Smuckers, Dreyers, Lender’s, Dole, Sara Lee, Poland Spring, Campbell’s, and others, and some that are less well-known, such as the Haverhill, Mass.-based company Hans Kissle, a pioneer in the development of pre-packaged salads, desserts, and other deli items.

Recent projects include three plants, all more than 200,000 square feet, that the company built for Dole in Soledad, Calif., Springfield, Ohio, and Yuma, Ariz. to produce packaged salads; an 86,000-square-foot plant built for Heinz, Ireland in Dundalk, Ireland to produce frozen-ready meals; a 50,000-square-foot plant built for Stockpot Soup in Woodinville, Wash.; and another plant for Dole in Hulsingborg, Sweden.

"We’re efficient and very flexible, so we can handle all-sized projects," he said, noting that the firm will design and build 1 million square feet of production and warehouse facilities a year. "That diversity is very helpful to us."

This is a highly competitive industry, said Dennis, adding that competition comes from firms as large as Bechtel and as small as a two- or three-person local construction company.

Over the years, the size and scope of projects has varied, from plant design to creation of new packaging processes, said Dennis, noting that the wide geographic range of the firm has necessitated creation of another large office in Salt Lake City and smaller facilities in Toronto and San Diego.

The headquarters will remain in Springfield, however, he said, because the Pioneer Valley, with its many amenities, is a large asset for the company. "There’s a quality of life here that I enjoy and everyone here enjoys."

Dennis returned repeatedly to the subject of Bradley Airport, and said that for a business owner who spends as much time in the air as he does — 50 trips a year by his count — it is an invaluable resource.

"Logan is better now than it used to be, but it’s still hard to fly in and out of," he explained. "Some people may not realize it, but Bradley is a great asset for companies in this region."

As he talked about the firm and its consistent growth, Dennis focused consistently on the word Group in the company’s name. "There are a lot of people who are responsible for the success of this company Ö I didn’t do this myself."

Dennis told BusinessWest that, while he was sole owner at one time, he has made long-term associates partners, in a structure similar to that used by most law firms.

"There’s not a lot of vertical growth in this company," he explained. "So where people grow is in responsibility, the opportunity to become a partner and have some ownership in the firm."

Governance is shared, he said, adding that there is little of what he would call ëmanagement’ in his day-to-day activities.

"Maybe what makes us work is that we don’t have any management," he said. "What we do have is a lot of talented people. We have an administrative group, and we’re very structured in our projects, but we have none of the traditional management layers."

When asked for his own job description, Dennis said he still leads a number of projects himself, and will continue to do so.

"Last year, for example, I ran three projects, and I use that format to train people, improve our systems, develop relationships with our clients, and help grow the talent here," he said. "I could never be a full-time administrator; first of all, I don’t think I’d be very good at it, and second, I get a lot of fulfillment out of what we do."

Dennis’s approach to business — a blend of passion and conservatism — is mirrored by his philosophy with regard to commercial real estate.

He told BusinessWest that he has a fondness for old buildings, and has collaborated with Stolter to purchase several of them in downtown Springfield, including the Stearns Building, the former W.F. Young building on Lyman Street, and the old Wesson Hospital, which the partners are converting into a center for technology-based ventures.

His favorite project, however, was Harrison Place, the 10-story downtown office tower that was half-vacant and in very poor condition when the partners bought it in 1995. The two made a major investment in the property, and Dennis took the first two floors and the basement for his engineering firm.

"I really like this building, and we really enjoy being here," he said, noting that he had to be talked into selling the property, now named the Bank of Western Mass. Building, to the Picknelly group in 1999. "There’s some history here."

Producing Results

Thinking back to those early days in his attic on Fairfield Street, Dennis said he couldn’t have predicted then that his company would grow to its current size and stature.

But he knew he had the necessary ingredients for a successful venture. Listing them again, he mentioned people, location, diversity, and a firm focus on quality and price — "those are the keys to any business."

Putting that package together has provided Dennis with a career that’s been rewarding on a number of levels. And it’s given the Pioneer Valley’s economic development leaders a script they would like others to follow — a true blueprint for success.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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