POWERBOOK 2013: Jeff Steckbeck has hands in the biggest projects in Lebanon County
Amid site plans for hundreds of past, present and future engineering and development projects that occupy Jeffrey D. Steckbeck's office in West Cornwall Township is a mismatched decor that seems like an interior decorator's nightmare.
A poker table his mom played on for years before she died is now a makeshift meeting table. A deer head hangs on the wood-paneled walls just below some old golf clubs. On one desk is a Spider-Man lamp and on another side of the room is one shaped like a slot machine to remind of him of his hard-working father, whose only minor vice is an affinity for the casino, Steckbeck said. There is a ship in a bottle, because he'd love to buy a real one.
The other trophies and trinkets dotting the office look like they have no business in the same room — except to Steckbeck, president and founder of Steckbeck Engineering and Surveying Inc.
"Everything in here is something that had some kind of meaning to me at some point," he said. "Little things I like to be able to look around and remember. You know, before life."
"Life" has been good to Steckbeck and his company. Now in its 23rd year of business, Steckbeck still handles day-to-day operations at the company that currently calls 16 Lebanon County municipalities and municipal authorities clients, employs 25 people and is the engineering firm currently working on two of the biggest potential building projects in the county's history, North Cornwall Commons in North Cornwall Township and the Preserve at Historic Cornwall in Cornwall.
Yet the office building he built himself with help from his family is just as unassuming on the outside as Steckbeck's office is inside, and with good reason.
"Jeff is all about keeping costs down," said Michael O'Donnell, who left the firm in 2001 to start his own company but came back in 2005, when Steckbeck decided to buy the startup. "I've never met a more complicated man than Jeff Steckbeck. He can be tough, but you can't find a more fair guy. He's extremely generous, but when it comes to cost and spending, Jeff is frugal. He's a strong leader."
That admitted frugal nature — which he calls part of the "Dutchman mentality" — has helped him build one of Lebanon County's most influential businesses.
"If you want to get something done in this county when it comes to engineering, he's the guy you go to," said 15-year employee Scott Rights, the firm's vice president and COO. "He knows a lot of people in the county because he's worked with most of them and he treats them right. He's got a lot of contacts."
As with many stories of successful men, this one starts with a girl.
Lebanon-area native Steckbeck was 30 and had been working as an engineer in Texas for about eight years when he happened to be home for a wedding in 1988. At a Lebanon County pool on the Fourth of July, he saw a woman reading a book, and Steckbeck said his heart jumped.
He wasn't necessarily looking for a reason to move back home, but now he had one. His Penn State degree took him to Houston, then to San Antonio, while he worked with Texas engineering firm Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam.
He landed a job with Huth Engineers in Lancaster County and married his wife, Susan, in 1989. At Huth, he took over the company's Lebanon accounts and noticed something disturbing.
"I got to see really quickly the Lebanon market was frustrated by how they were treated by their engineers in Harrisburg, Lancaster or York," he said.
So he asked around to some of the municipalities being represented by the out-of-town engineering companies: If you had a Lebanon firm handling your engineering and got better rates, would you be interested?
"Overwhelmingly, people said, 'Yeah!'" Steckbeck said. "So in June 1990, I started my own business."
Steckbeck said the company grew each of the first eight years it operated, going from about $150,000 in revenue in its first full year to about $800,000 in the eighth. He moved the company from representing only municipal clients to seeking out private contracts as well.
With more work, however, came a more visible position in the community. In 2004, as the engineer for North Cornwall Township, he recommended the township supervisors approve a controversial, and subsequently withdrawn, Wal-Mart plan on the same land where North Cornwall Commons is now proposed. He said he lost work because of a backlash from a citizens group that had formed to oppose the project.
"From about 1995 to 2005, I was like a bull in a china shop," he said. "Around then, I started to realize you catch more flies with honey than vinegar."
He still finds himself taking controversial positions in the community, arguing on the pro-development side in various government matters. It's a position he knows sometimes makes him look like the guy ready to tear down every farm and greenway in the midstate.
That's a misconception, he said. He's just worried about the loss of individual property rights along with the increased and excessive time, cost and overall frustration that comes from obtaining government approvals for building projects.
"I can see all (development) coming to a halt (in Lebanon County) and putting us in a recession in the development business in the next 10 years," he said. "It's a recipe for a shutdown."
His business, however, is not shutting down. Not with his hands on some of the biggest development projects in the county and the stable of municipal clients getting the same kind of service Steckbeck established when he started the company.
"It's that old Dutchman mentality my father passed down to me," he said. "When I see something built, I say, 'I can do it better and cheaper.' That's how we'll keep going. I've been very blessed with a great family, good health and the best employees anywhere."
About Jeff Steckbeck
Title: President and founder, Steckbeck Engineering and Surveying Inc.
Education: Cedar Crest High School, Penn State University with a degree in engineering
Family: Wife, Susan, married for 24 years. Daughters Alyson, 32; Natalie, 20; Julia, 18; and Kathleen, 13.
Who is your professional hero? "Thomas Jefferson. Before becoming a founding father, author of the Declaration of Independence, the first U.S. Secretary of State and then the third president, he was a scientist, inventor, engineer, architect and philosopher, the proverbial 'renaissance man.' His philosophy about land, its use, and man's liberties and rights to use the land are ideals I embrace."
What's the most important thing you do every day? "Show up and care. It sets the tone and the attitude of everybody who watches me. And they all watch me — my children, my wife, my employees, my clients and my enemies."