Veteran civil engineer Rob Rennebaum has worked on a variety of Palm Beach County projects, from the International Polo Club in Wellington to the environmentally friendly EcoPlex offices in West Palm Beach to President Donald Trump’s new helipad at Mar-a-Lago.
But he says the defining moment of his career came this summer, when the Florida Engineering Society named him the state’s Engineer of the Year.
“This is truly a highlight of my career,” says Rennebaum, president of Simmons & White Inc. in West Palm Beach. “I am so unbelievably flattered — words cannot describe.”
Aside from his professional work, Rennebaum has been recognized for community service. He has volunteered for a variety of boards and committees in North Palm Beach and served a term on the city council.
Hometown: I was an Army brat. I grew up in Germany and Washington, D.C., and I went to junior high and high school in Virginia. Dad retired at Fort Lee. I went to school at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., and all I wanted to do was come to South Florida. The surfing, the windsurfing, the sailing, the diving, the fishing — it’s just amazing down here. I moved to North Palm Beach back in 1987.
About your company: Simmons & White was established by Charles Simmons and Ray White back in 1982. In 1987, I came as a young project engineer just out of school. I had four job interviews, and during my interview with Simmons & White, we talked for five minutes about engineering, and for like three or four hours about fishing and boating and playing. I said, “This is where I want to be.” Charles and Ray both had that work hard-play hard kind of mentality. There were five of us when I started. We grew to 26 pre-recession, then it hit us hard like everyone else. We went down to 12 people, and now we’ve since grown back to 20 or 21 now. We’ve got an incredible group of people here. That is our strong suit. We do civil engineering, and our specialty is traffic engineering, traffic signal design and intersection design. We are the civil engineer for Minto’s new town of Westlake residential project. GL Homes uses us for all their traffic engineering, signal design and turn lanes. We also have a specialty in equestrian design. We have done a majority of the significant equestrian properties out in Wellington over the past 30 years.
First job: For years, while we were in Virginia, we lived within walking distance of a little private golf course and country club. I cut grass in summers, and during school years, I’d bus tables and clean up the ballroom. The golf course superintendent was an ex-military guy, special forces, and he kind of ran the golf course like a military operation. Increasing performance led to increasing responsibility. Punctuality was very important. He always said, “If you’re not early, you’re late.” That always stood out with me.
Best business advice you’ve ever received: At every staff meeting, I always tell everyone, “It is easier to keep a client than to develop a new one.” Provide incredible client service to maintain repeat clients and obtain referrals for new clients. That really is the best business advice I ever received, and I continue to pass it along.
Biggest challenge: Consistent workload. You’re either losing sleep that you have too much work and client service may suffer — and that’s key; client service is the No. 1 priority — or you don’t have enough work to keep people busy. That balance of workload is probably my biggest challenge.
Biggest business mistake: Letting pride get in the way of business decisions. We had a situation where we were owed some money. Rather than chalking it up to business, we felt we were owed it, and we pursued it. We lien-ed the property. It was really the first time ever for us. We foreclosed on the lien on the advice of our attorneys, and then were we ever awakened to the realities of lawsuits. They counterclaimed and said we delayed, and it ended up that the right business decision was chalking up that debt to business. But we pursued it, and it ended up being a three- or four-year process of stomachaches, and a horrible experience. We learned a lot about business vs. principle. It was maybe $50,000, on a big job that was significantly more than that. Nobody won.
Best business book you’ve ever read: Good to Great by Jim Collins. What a great book that was. I still think about the lessons in Good to Great about leadership and business atmosphere and the right people.
Most important trait you look for when hiring: Spark in the eye. Attitude. I always say I look for that excitement, the passion, that spark in somebody’s eye. We can train anybody to do the land development and traffic work we do here. We all work together, and we all play together, so having that compatibility and that positive attitude.
What you see ahead for Palm Beach County: People have been saying for years we’re going to run out of land and projects, but it just keeps coming. There’s infill. I see redevelopment. There are a lot of historical properties that are subject to assemblage and redevelopment.