If you needed water, you went to the well.
If you needed to travel, you hopped a horse and buggy.
And if you needed light, you lit a candle.
This was life at the turn of the 20th century for a young Henning H. Henningson (H.H.). But because H.H. believed in helping communities through engineering – and his own ability to make it happen – life changed. And because H.H. wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, Henningson Engineering was launched.
Born on a farm near Jewell, Iowa, in 1879, H.H. was working as a cowboy on the Montana range, truly experiencing the rigors of rural life. Cowboys played cards, and H.H.’s mathematical mind served him well in games of poker. Some even say he devised a “system” for winning. He won enough to save $3,000, and placed a bet on his own future.
H.H. returned to Iowa with $3,000 and a seventh grade education. He wanted more out of life and saw college as the way to accomplish his goals. So he applied for entrance to Iowa State University.
ISU rejected his application since he had not completed high school. H.H. didn’t blink: He appealed first to the ISU president and then to the governor, arguing that since he and his family were taxpayers, and ISU was a tax-supported school, he should have the opportunity to enter. He agreed that if he didn’t succeed in the university, it had the right to drop him.
The governor agreed, and in 1902 H.H. began his studies at ISU. The engineer who would change communities – and start our company – was on his way.
STRAIGHT ‘A’s to SALES
H.H. chose the right field of study: He was a straight-A student and became a member of Tau Beta Pi, an honorary engineering fraternity. He graduated with honors in electrical engineering and in 1907 began as an apprentice engineer with Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The company known for innovation was perfect for H.H.: He saw first-hand how big business handled engineering. But it was his work ethic that served him well as he completed a Westinghouse training course in record time. The company took notice of his energy and a few years later asked him to run its Omaha office.
H.H. was more than just a technical wizard. He had a flair for marketing and sales, enough to leave Westinghouse in 1911 and became a salesman for Alamo Engine and Supply Company in Omaha, Nebraska, quickly rising to the position of sales manager.
While at Alamo, H.H. acquired the knowledge – both technical and political – that sowed the seeds of his future company. While selling products such as steam and gas engines, water works, electric lights, irrigation and other engineering services, H.H. learned about small-town government, politics and, most importantly, how communities acquired them.
H.H. saw that the small Nebraska towns he visited could improve their quality of life through civil engineering, and they needed guidance. An engineer could guide them in adding water works, sewers, streets and electric plants. Indeed, and appropriately, it was a “light bulb” moment.
H.H. began advertising his engineering expertise and in mid-1917 started Henningson Engineering Company in downtown Omaha. He started with a handful of civil, mechanical and electrical engineers, leading jobs for cities and towns throughout Nebraska. The first project: a power house design for the City of Ogallala, located about 300 miles west of Omaha.
H.H.’s skills as a hands-on engineer and salesman propelled the firm – Henningson Engineering was soon providing engineering services for dozens of municipalities throughout the Midwest. As H.H. saw it, cities and towns needed a “middle man” who worked with municipalities, building contractors and equipment vendors. He would design a project to meet a community’s needs and then protect the owner’s interests during project construction. Sound familiar? It’s a philosophy that has continued to present day.
COMMUNITIES AND COMMITMENT
H.H. was known for his tireless work ethic. He would often travel to evening city council meetings in remote Midwest towns, traversing the gravel roads of the day. By his own estimate, he attended more than 4,000 council proceedings. After the meetings, he would drive all night to return to the office in the morning so he could prepare plans and contracts.
Under H.H.’s leadership, Henningson Engineering became known for quality and integrity. He believed in personalized service, affordable work, and sticking to schedules and budgets. H.H. won over municipal officials because he spent long hours with them and could speak their language. His presence and personal involvement reassured clients, and with good reason the firm’s simple motto became “Work Well Done.”
H.H. knew how to help in other ways as well. An early company calendar touted the phrase, “There is always time enough for kindness.” He showed this not only in interactions with communities, but also his fellow engineers.
After leading the company’s growth throughout the 1920s – expanding into increasingly larger offices in downtown Omaha – H.H. was faced with the effects of the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression. Like most companies, Henningson Engineering was hit hard, forced to trim staff and reduce work hours. But H.H. showed his character: He went heavily into debt to pay employees. He also personally assisted his out-of-work engineers by letting them use his office space as a base for job hunting, giving personal recommendations for jobs.
LEADERSHIP AND LEGACY, DURHAM AND RICHARDSON
While nearly all civil engineering firms failed during the Depression, Henningson Engineering survived. As usual, it was because H.H. found a way. He saw the promise in President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which included creation of the Public Works Administration, the Works Progress Administration and, most notably, the Rural Electrification Association (REA). All three spurred the economy and provided work for the firm, but the REA was right in H.H.’s wheelhouse: It provided rural communities with long-term loans for construction of generating plants and transmission/distribution lines.
H.H. seized the opportunity and played a major role in organizing REA public power districts across Nebraska. He applied for dozens of loans to build transmission lines and helped organize Nebraska’s first district, the Southeastern Nebraska Public Power District.
Farms and communities flourished, as did H.H.’s firm, growing to 40 employees. Through his work on the REA, H.H. met Willard Richardson, a young electrical engineer who also graduated from ISU. Willard joined the firm, playing a key role in electrification work, and later became the “R” in HDR.
H.H. also made another historic addition to the company in the 1930s: Charles (Chuck) Durham, another ISU student who started working in the summer of 1938 and joined the company full-time in 1940. H.H.’s daughter Marge married Chuck that same year. Chuck would become the “D” in HDR.
H.H. led the firm’s growth through the wartime years of the 1940s, naming Chuck vice president and Willard secretary-treasurer. By 1948, H.H. began to experience the first effects of Parkinson’s disease. He sold the company to Chuck and Willard in 1950. He retired in 1953 and died of the disease in 1958.
From poker hands to lending a hand, H.H. made timeless contributions to communities and clients.