Before he dove into a career in environmental compliance, Ken Thompson spent one year as a teacher.
And while Ken hasn't spent the last 30 years inside a classroom – teaching others is a big part of what the longtime Fehr Graham owner has done.
Even without the official teacher title, Ken has been one to many at the engineering and environmental firm. He built Fehr Graham's environmental compliance and safety department from the ground up, but as he nears retirement on Dec. 31, Ken said it's the time he spent developing staff that makes him most proud.
"I love to see young people with very little experience come in and grow over the years," Ken said. "I enjoy having a part in their mentoring and watching them turn into being great professionals."
After earning a degree in Industrial Technology Education from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, the Warren, Illinois, native landed a job as an Industrial Arts teacher in Belvidere. He and his wife, high school sweetheart Marcia, a nurse, lived in Rockford where Ken spent summers working construction which he left teaching to do full time. As the couple started a family, they moved closer to home in 1989 when Ken landed a job as an Engineering Technician at Fehr Graham's Freeport, Illinois, office.
The firm, then much smaller, allowed Ken to dabble in a bit of everything.
"I'd survey one day, and then I would be on an air permit – then back to office duties," he said. "It afforded me the opportunity to get exposure to all aspects of the business."
Former owner Mark Young took him under his wing. Ken soaked in all he could and especially enjoyed learning about engineering design. That mentoring, he said, set the stage for his future.
In 1993, Goodyear Tire Company, now Titan Tire, in Freeport, offered Ken a job as an Environmental Engineer. He left Fehr Graham and though overwhelmed at first, he immersed himself in learning and took the job in stride. He adapted quickly and calls the decision one of the best professional moves he made.
"I was exposed to environmental regulations in the corporate environment and industrial setting," he said. "Leaving Fehr Graham taught me things I still use to this day."
Ken returned to Fehr Graham in 1997 when Mick Gronewold, owner and now Board President, and former owner Todd Weegens asked him to come back and build the firm's environmental service areas.
Learning how things are made comes as second nature to Ken. His genuine interest in forming deep relationships with clients and a strong desire to solve their problems led to him formalizing the firm's environmental compliance department.
Matt Bortoli, President of Quality Metal Finishing Co. in Byron, said Ken's professionalism coupled with enthusiasm about what he does has been an asset to him and his business.
Matt said Ken handles issues in stride. Working together so many years, Ken also became a friend and confidant.
"He's a big guy with a bigger heart," Matt said. "What I'll truly miss most about Ken is his interest – not only in your business – but in your personal situation."
Deb Wycoff, Chief Executive Officer of Devansoy in Rock City, said she's appreciated how genuine and "fair-minded" Ken has been through the years.
"He's helped us immensely as a small company," she said. "I would always want Ken in my corner."
Through the years, Ken rolled with changes and adapted to new technology, processes and ever-changing regulations. He's gained the trust of dozens of industry leaders. They knew he had their back when it came to staying on the right side of compliance.
But he never lost sight of his core values: Relationships. Ingenuity. Curiosity. Hard work.
"I don't claim to know everything, but I know where to get the answers," he said.
Environmental compliance wasn't the only path Ken paved. In 2002, he became the first non-engineer invited to join the ranks as a Fehr Graham owner. That call was a testament to his commitment and dedication.
Adam Holder, another Fehr Graham owner, said he's appreciated Ken's silent leadership through the years. Their chats, he said, are like catching up with an old friend.
"Ken has had such a tremendous impact on Fehr Graham," Adam said. "He's taken the environmental component of our business and built it into our identity. It's now part of who we are."
Fehr Graham Accounting Manager Lori Willging had an immediate connection with Ken three decades ago when the small town, northwest Illinois natives met as coworkers.
"I've always been able to lean on Ken when things got rough," Lori said. "I've gotten a lot of advice, and I've appreciated every piece of it. He's not going to go away – not for me. I will always reach out to Ken. We have a tight-knit relationship, and it's one I'm very grateful for."
Ken will be remembered at the firm for his passion for mentoring coworkers and looking out for clients. Environmental Health and Safety Project Manager Scott Perian said he always knew where he stood with Ken, which was a plus for his career.
"The guy is a legend here," Scott said. "He knows his clients. He knows my clients. We won't replace him. People in this community know and respect him. We're better for having him, and he'll be sorely missed. He is Fehr Graham."
Mick Gronewold said Ken never backs away from challenges, taking every opportunity to learn.
"One of the things I've admired most about Ken is his curiosity and his fearlessness toward learning," Mick said. "Whether it's the way that he elevated himself from Technician to Project Manager to owner or how he has taught himself how to build and modify race cars, he's been tenacious in his approach to learning new things."
In retirement, Ken said he will focus on family and looks forward to spending more time with Marcia. He plans to travel more with her, and will find more time to visit their daughter, Ashley, a radiation therapist, in Minnesota. Their son, Derek, is an Engineer at Fehr Graham. Although their professional paths rarely cross, Ken said he's proud to have watched him navigate his own successes at the firm.
Ken also looks forward to leisurely yard work, woodworking and auto racing with Derek. Recently, Derek and his wife, Angel, welcomed a daughter. That may have been the final push to Ken hanging his hat.
"I want to do the grandpa thing," Ken said.
That doesn't mean it will be easy to walk away. Ken said it's the people – clients and coworkers – he'll miss most."I've been blessed," Ken said. "It's going to be bittersweet. I enjoy what I'm doing, but I'm tired. It's time. Our business is set up and made to hand it off and offer opportunities to others. But it's hard to let go."