A Farewell Q&A with Retiring SEH CEO/President Sam Claassen

June 19, 2019

Being a part of a company for 40-plus years may not be for everyone, but for retiring SEH CEO/President Sam Claassen, it provided him with many rewarding days, lifelong friendships and a valuable perspective on what’s really important in the end. In the midst of packing up boxes containing 40 years of plaques, notes, pictures and books, he took a moment to share some thoughts and provide some advice.  

What’s it like to have worked at the same company for 40-plus years?

Well, it doesn’t seem that long.  Half my career was at Rieke Carroll Muller Associates (RCM). I was just getting started in my career. Learning how to sell work and do engineering work. I worked with clients that I still stay in contact with today. When we merged with SEH in 1999, I had more opportunities. I’ve had many roles, worked on lots of projects—I was always challenged. So, it was like working at different companies, but I had the opportunity to work with the same people and clients.

What are the pros and cons of working in a company for 40-plus years?

One pro is that you really know the Company. The people. The work. The clients. There’s no learning curve, so you have the opportunity to get right to business. Cons? I don’t have any.

What do you think is one of the greatest assets SEH offers?

The ESOP. It’s been a mission of mine to help employees know the benefit of having an ESOP and after even five years they have a significant balance for their retirement. I encourage every employee to understand the ESOP, know what it offers and how it positively impacts your future.

Where do you think you’ve had the greatest impact as CEO?

I believe I’ve had an impact in two areas: defining our core purpose of Building a Better World for All of Us® and a creating a culture of accountability.

Why did you introduce Building a Better World for All of Us®?

To create a common purpose for our Company. I heard a TED Talk about the importance of uniting a company around a core purpose. I thought about the work we do and how it impacts our world. I thought people would resonate with Building a Better World for All of Us® – that’s simply what all of us at SEH do every day.

What do you mean by a culture of accountability?

I live by the phrase: “If I say I’m going to do it. I do it.” I expect the same of others. That is a culture of accountability.

What are you most proud of in your career at SEH?

I am proud of the SEH Team. We have some of the best employees in the industry. I am proud to say I worked here 40 years among the best. I’m also proud of how giving our employees are. Over the past seven years, our employees and Company have donated close to $300,000 to help feed the hungry and heal the sick. Willingly, people give back. It’s a testament to the people who work here.

What were some of the greatest opportunities you had?

The opportunity to change employees’ lives for the better. Whether that was through our overall Company performance and profit sharing, offering a promotion, or giving the opportunity to work on a complex project. One of the most rewarding feelings to have is to know you positively helped shape someone’s life. We all have that opportunity to change lives for the better—whether it’s through a small gesture like a thank you, or offering a new job opportunity. Helping others succeed is a great opportunity.

In your career, what have you found most rewarding?

Sometimes it’s the little things. A letter from an employee who left for a different opportunity and shared how much she loved SEH. Thank you notes from high school students in how our donation helped them win a competition. I’ve kept all these notes. As I read some of them while packing, I was reminded of how small gestures can be so rewarding.

What advice do you have for people advancing in their careers and going into new roles?

Have confidence. Know you will do well. Know you will get through. Set priorities. And adjust those priorities as needed. Always ask: ‘What should I be doing in this role, and am I doing that?’ If not, adjust.

How do you know you’re in the right profession?

It starts with knowing who you are and then finding your passion. In high school I was good at math and science. My dad was an engineer, and I wanted to work with my dad. Then, the Clean Water Act passed. I knew being a wastewater engineer would change lives. I knew I was in the right profession. Hone in on what you’re good at and then apply that skill or knowledge to something you’re passionate about.

If you had not chosen the engineering field, what was the second option?

I would have been an attorney. I think that because when I have an opinion, I tend to not let go. I am a bit competitive. But, I can say, I’m glad I chose the career I did.

What are some highlights of your career?

Of course, my time as CEO was a highlight. The highlights relate to how proud I feel about our people. I felt proud when the team was excited about a big project win. Or, when we acquired a new client. Or, won an award. I was proud every time. That’s a highlight.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Take more risks. Don’t be afraid of challenges ahead. Say yes more often. 

What would you say if an engineer just starting their career, asked you: ‘How do I get ahead?’

Work hard. Do your best. Do what you say you’re going to do.

What are your plans for retirement?

More travel. More time with grandkids. More time to volunteer.  Being retired gives me more time to learn something new. I’ve always been a life learner and now I can expand my interests. I would like to learn a musical instrument. I would like to learn Spanish. My daughter-in-law is from Mexico and Spanish is her first language. I would like to converse in Spanish. 

What difference do you want to make as you proceed into this next chapter of life?

I believe I can make contributions in our world mission to create clean water. Twenty percent of people in our world do not have access to clean water. There are many advocacy groups for this cause. I plan to evaluate and look for the opportunities where I can make the greatest difference.

What words of advice do you have as you leave SEH?

I’ve given this some thought. I have 12 action steps for professionals no matter where they are in their career.

  1. Do what you say you will do.
  2. Say yes.
  3. Work hard. Do your best.
  4. Get things done on time.
  5. Volunteer.
  6. Develop your brand.
  7. Value all people.
  8. Listen.
  9. Give presentations. Keep it simple.
  10. Make good eye contact.
  11. Develop industry friendships.
  12. Have fun.

Sam Claassen joined Rieke Carroll Muller Associates (RCM) in 1977. (RCM was acquired by SEH in 1999.) He served in multiple leadership roles and led SEH as its CEO/President from 2010-2019. Sam retires June 30, 2019. 


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