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MEMBER SPOTLIGHT: How the son of an immigrant coal miner became a Philly CEO

How the son of an immigrant coal miner became a Philly CEO April 18, 2017, by Jane M. Von Bergen

"My father was an immigrant coal miner and he was injured in the coal mines. So, we all had to go to work, including my mother who had never worked -- grew up on a farm and had never worked on the outside," Celestino R. "Chuck" Pennoni told me during our Executive Q&A interview, which was published in the business section of Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer.

"So, my sisters cleaned houses, basically, is what they did. One sister worked in a grocery store with me. My other sister worked in a delicatessen, and my other two sisters cleaned houses," he said.

Pennoni got a job in the local grocery store, cleaning up and stocking shelves.

He was six years old.

He now runs Pennoni Associates, a civil engineering firm that employs 1,200 and brings in $185 million, he said, in annual revenues. The company just celebrated its 50th anniversary.

"I worked in that local grocery store until I graduated high school," Pennoni said. "I used to do deliveries. I don’t know if I should tell you this story. I used to do deliveries with a wagon and bicycles.

The man who owned it -- I never knew his first name, Mr. Hudson -- Mr. Hudson said, `I’m going to have to let you go.' I said, `Why.' He said, `Well, my business now has gotten to the point where the deliveries have to made by car. So, I need somebody who can drive.' I said, `I’ll get a license.' He said, `You’re not old enough.' I said, `I’ll get a license.'

So, I hitchhiked to the state police barracks, got all the forms, brought them home and filled them out. I put in a birth date that made me 16 years of age so I could get my permit. I asked my mother to sign it. She said, `Why do you want me to sign this?' I told her the truth and she signed it. I went and got my permit and had someone teach me how to drive and I kept my job.

At the age of eight, our local paperboy was a guy named Joe. He asked me if I would be a helper. So, I helped him as a helper, because his route had expanded. Then, when I was 12, he graduated high school and I took over his paper route.

So, in Plains, [a small town outside of Wilkes Barre], I also worked part time, later in high school, in a poultry market. I worked in a grocery store, a paper route and a poultry market. And, I used to make furniture and kitchen cabinets and lawn chairs.

Wow, that’s a lot of stuff.

There’s a lot of stuff that I did and what it did was it taught me never to waste any time. It was a great lesson.

Tell me more about your childhood.

I’ll tell you what I’m proud of. My mother and father were the greatest. They were immigrants. They didn’t go to school. We were in America. They said, `Well, we’re in America. We speak English. We don’t speak Italian.' I went to school and I studied Italian later in life. I grew up with four older sisters. I think that women are remarkable. My sisters, my mother were remarkable. I think women just could do anything. I saw it with my own family. I’ve always had a lot of respect for women.

I could tell you that Pennoni Associates we have 15 percent of our engineers are women and that is very unusual for an engineering firm to have 15 percent female engineers.

You studied electrical engineering at Penn State before switching to Drexel for a degree in structural engineering. Was there anything in your childhood that indicated you'd have an aptitude for the work?

I had an erector set when I was growing up. We never called a handyman. We fixed everything. When I grew up, we actually had an ice box where the ice man would come around and you’d put a chunk of ice in the ice box.

Then my mother’s first refrigerator was a Sears Cold Spot, which we got at Sears and Roebuck’s. It broke. I took it apart, saw what was wrong and hitchhiked to the Sears and Roebuck’s place when I was a kid. I showed them the broken part. They ordered it for me. They told me when it would be in. We didn’t have a phone. I hitchhiked back and got the part and went back and fixed the refrigerator. I mean as a kid, there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t take apart and try to fix.

Were you dangerous? What percentage of the time were you successful fixing it?

I don’t remember anything, but in those days we didn’t have the complicated stuff like today. Keep in mind, my first several cars I had a toolbox in the trunk. I mean I replaced my spark plugs. I took my first car apart. I put it up on blocks and I took the wheels off and took the brakes off. I took the side pan off, the oil pan off. I took the head off. I cleaned everything up and put new gaskets in, new spark plugs and everything. You can’t do that today. Today everything is much more complicated with electronics. You just can’t do it.

The only thing I never attacked on my car for repair was the transmission, because a transmission has 500-600 parts to it. If you ever look at a book on what you do to a transmission, you get a two-car garage and you make sure nothing is on the floor and you take the transmission apart and you start laying everything all over the floor in a certain sequence. I mean the transmission is just too complicated. So, you can’t do today what I did growing up.

Is there anything that you do like that now?

You know, little things that might break. I’m a big super glue guy, Gorilla Glue. So, if something breaks, I Gorilla Glue it.

That doesn’t sound very civil-engineer like.

It’s still structures, because it’s members. If a cross bar on a chair breaks -- we just had one at home that broke -- and I re-glued it. What was the last challenging thing that I fixed at home? My wife wanted some more light in our study. So, I went to Home Depot and I bought some track lights and I found the hot wire up in our ceiling and I spliced it with a box and put in the track lights. I did that. I just had a new computer put in home and when I went to put the tower in, the tower wouldn’t fit under my desk. The old tower was on a shelf that slid out with tracks. Well, I took everything apart, took the tracks off and got out my drill and drilled new holes, reset the tracks and put the shelf back so that the higher tower could fit.

Read more from Jane Bergen on Chuck Pennoni:

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