A Practical Visionary

Article excerpt

Richard Liebich brought business savvy to the Job of preparing young students for college engineering.

RICHARD LIEBICH is perhaps best known as a pioneering educator. He founded Project Lead the Way, a high-quality pre-college engineering curriculum used throughout the country. But the Project, and his decades of success as an engineer and businessman, all spring from the same source.

"I like building things," the forthright 63-year-old says. Even before he graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) with a B.Sc. in civil engineering, Liebich put into practice the theory he had absorbed at Albany Frosted Foods, the upstate New York company his father owned.

"In the summer of my junior year, my dad said, You've had three years of training, so you should be able to build a warehouse. So go and build one.'" Liebich junior did precisely that-then built another one the following summer, working closely with architects and contractors to get the specs right. "All of a sudden, all of this stuff you sort of listened to during the lectures made a whole lot of sense."

While he was at WPI, Liebich also realized he was good at business. It was the beginning of a lifelong interest in entrepreneurship. After completing his undergraduate degree, he earned an MBA from Michigan State-not a common combination back in the 1960s but one that made him popular with employers. "I got a lot of job offers," Liebich recalls. "I didn't take any of them, but I got a lot of offers."

One offer he didn't refuse was from the Seabees. When Liebich volunteered for military service, the United States Navy figured they had a perfect job for him; a tour of duty in Danang, Vietnam. There he supervised the maintenance and repair of vehicles, ranging from forklifts to tractor-trailers. "It wasn't exactly what I imagined, but you go where the military sends you."

After his Navy service, Liebich joined Sysco Foods Inc., a multibillion-dollar food service provider co-founded by his father. He spent 10 years with the firm, and served as president of the Syracuse, New York, division before deciding that a publicly traded company, with its concern for quarterly profits, wasn't for him. So in 1979 he started his own company, Transport National Development Corporation, an industrial cutting tool manufacturer in Orchard Park, New York.

SERENDIPITY

AS LIEBICH BUILT his company from the ground up-"I began with zero sales, zero employees, zero everything"- he heard a depressingly common refrain from his customers: They could never find enough engineers and engineering technicians for their businesses. Liebich found the situation frustrating: "None of us were going to do well if we couldn't do anything about it, but I told them I didn't have an idea about how to solve it."

Just as Liebich was hearing these laments from his clients, his son Adam was beginning a technology course at middle school. Liebich decided to donate computers to replace the school's aged Apple models, and the program's director, Dick Blais, invited him to come by and learn more.

What Liebich found at Gowana Middle School in Clifton Park, New York, in 1995, was a pre-engineering program so ambitious that it drew a steady stream of interested visitors from other schools. Impressed, he joined the advisory board. Yet when he asked Blais how many other schools had added pre-engineering education to their curricula, Liebich was flabbergasted at the answer: None. "As a businessman and an engineer, the obvious question was, 'What the hell was wrong?'"

He learned that the problems were myriad, ranging from funding to teacher training to implementation of a basic program. "It was all too overwhelming" for schools, Liebich says. Then there was the question of generating a standardized curriculum. Blais had operated the Gowana program for 10 years with help from Hudson Valley Junior College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and General Electric. …