On December 25, 2019 we lost a gifted engineer, an incredible entrepreneur, and, above all, an inspirational leader that many of us had the great fortune to know: Donald J. Bergmann, P.E.
To know Don was to know a drive and vision that few often embodied, from developing one of the first full-service firms in Upstate New York, to being a front-runner in virtual reality simulations, to expansion into Philadelphia, Buffalo, Toledo and Jacksonville markets.
It’s clear that his drive was a result of inspiration that he drew from powerful leaders throughout his life. This started early in Don’s days serving as an officer in the US Naval Engineering Corps and later the Naval Reserves, and during his time at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), were he majored in civil engineering and played lacrosse under the legendary coach Ned Harkness. During my visits with Don, I remember him sharing stories of the power of teamwork and shared purpose that Coach Harkness inspired in all of them through his actions and words.
Don put those leadership learnings to work himself right away in his professional career in consulting engineering. Following 18 years at Erdman, Anthony & Associates, here in Rochester, Don saw the opportunity to expand out on his own. He had a vision for a new approach in consulting that was tailored to client relationships and full-service solutions. With his great eye for talent, he tapped a couple of thirty year-olds (Brian Dougherty and Gary Olin) and a couple of twenty year-olds (John Murray and John Flint) to help him start Donald J. Bergmann and Associates.
Don was always the visionary and never doubted the success they could achieve. When the firm quickly reached 25 people, they outgrew their humble beginnings in the Terminal Building in downtown Rochester. Don soon had his eyes on a 5-story office building a block away. While the others worried it might be too big, John Murray recalls Don’s hesitancy for a totally different reason because he feared, “the building could only hold 300 people!” Soon after, as Don had predicted, they needed more space and bought the nearby Jonathan Child House to accommodate their expansion. From there, expansion to Philadelphia, Buffalo and beyond was not far behind.
Don was also the ultimate entrepreneur, who never let a potential opportunity pass by. While the firm started out as a civil and transportation design company, he was quick to expand capabilities to serve Kodak’s mechanical engineering support needs. Shortly after he added architecture, which has since grown to become a major part of the business today. The full-service firm was well into its formation.
Being the consummate visionary, he was always ahead of the competition with new ideas. The Hoosick River Bridge, the Corning By-Pass, the Stutson Street Lift Bridge (today known as the O’Rorke Bridge) were huge early projects that put Bergmann Associates on the map as a world class civil engineering firm. Don always maintained an incredible work ethic that infused the company’s culture even to this day. “We thought he was super-human,” said Brian Dougherty, “given the amount of work he completed in a day”.
He also recognized that the engineering profession would be greatly impacted by technology and was eager to embrace innovation, being one of the first A/E companies in the US to offer virtual reality simulations. Under Don’s direction, Bergmann invested significantly in a Silicon Graphics Onyx Supercomputer, which provided the computing power to render digital images to create a ‘virtual’ simulation. “We had no idea what we could do with such a powerful piece of equipment,” Gary Olin recalled, “but we soon realized that it would help differentiate us and get us many engineering and architectural projects.”
Ken Avery, who started with the firm in its early years, said it well: “For most people, ‘seeing is believing’. For Don, and those he inspired, ‘believing is seeing’. He constantly put us in those places that are typically uncomfortable for engineers, but he instilled confidence in us through his inspiration and enthusiasm.”
Don helped shape entire generation of engineering and architectural professionals who are making an incredible impact on our world today. He created an environment where we could believe in ourselves, and understand that, by applying ourselves creatively, pushing our boundaries and making good decisions, we could succeed in whatever client or project we committed ourselves to.
Today, as only the 3rd President and CEO in the company’s 40-year history, I humbly and gratefully reflect on the time when Don and ‘the Associates’ started the company. John Murray defined Don with the words “Optimistic, Confident, Fearless, Hardworking, Inspiring and Visionary”. I have learned that these characteristics are still vital today to continue to grow the company and fulfill the dream that Don had. Don was very inspiring to me personally and instilled in me the confidence to reach beyond my wildest dreams in growing as a person and as a leader.
Thank you, Don, for all you’ve contributed to improving our world. Your vision and drive to make a difference live on here at Bergmann, and with the hundreds of professionals you inspired throughout your life. We are all better for the time spent with you.