Title: Owner and CEO
With Neundorfer Since: 1972 (40 years in air pollution control)
Hometown: Chardon, Ohio
Residence: Willoughby Hills, Ohio
Home Life: Married 40 years, three grown sons
Best Thing That Happened to Me: My wife and sons
Worst Thing That Happened to Me: My brother's death in a 1984 plane crash
Most Significant Thing I've Accomplished: My growth in becoming a better listener
Hobbies: Travel, anything outdoors (cycling, hiking, running, making maple syrup in the spring), mentoring
Mike (in plane cockpit) with his brother Jim
at Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base
in Columbus, Ohio. 1976.
Mike at the Neundorfer office, 2010
In many ways, Mike Neundorfer is the classic entrepreneur. He really enjoys exploring new ideas with peers and colleagues, and is constantly seeking ways to innovate. For him, innovation is a professional and personal pursuit, for himself and the people he works with.
"Over the years, Neundorfer has been a fun opportunity to bring awesome people together in a great team environment for technical and business innovation," he says. "I want people who work here to be able to align their personal goals and dreams with the company's goals, and have that alignment and teamwork result in amazing value for customers."
Mike recalls that when he founded Neundorfer, Inc. in 1972, he was driven by two motivators: love of teamwork, and commitment to excellence. Those values, rooted in his rural Ohio upbringing, remain true today—enriched by the realization that listening is key to success.
"I've come to understand that you can't help anybody unless you really listen to them—listen to their goals, their experiences, their constraints, their assumptions, and their fears," Mike says. "I'm still learning, from the people at Neundorfer and through conversations and books, how to be a better listener."
This focus on listening forms the foundation of Neundorfer's business process for helping customers: ask powerful questions, listen, co-create a vision, and help the customer get to that vision. It's a process that requires being flexible, listening, and continuing to adapt.
Adaptability was the byword of Mike's young life. During early childhood, his family moved around Northeast Ohio quite a bit, since his dad was a mechanical engineer at Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company (now First Energy), and got transferred from plant to plant, including Ashtabula and Lakeshore. Later, his dad went to work for NALCO, a chemical company based in Chicago. For the rest of his childhood, Mike and his family lived in rural Ohio, just outside Chardon, where his grandfather had a farm. Mike was the second oldest of what would eventually be seven siblings, and the oldest boy.
Mike went to Chardon High School, where he played sports and during his senior year had the lead role of Petruchio in a production of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. He and his next youngest brother, Jim, spent a lot of time tinkering with cars, engines and other building projects. This mechanical inclination led him to earn a mechanical engineering degree from University of Rochester. Later, he earned an MBA from Baldwin Wallace and completed some programs through Harvard Business School.
During his freshman year at University of Rochester, Mike met his future wife, Marcia, in chemistry lab. At the time Marcia was studying pre-med. She ended up earning a B.S. in nursing from University of Rochester, and later a Master's in sociology and a Ph.D. in geriatric nursing, both from Case Western Reserve University. Mike and Marcia were married in 1971 and raised three sons together.
Mike started his career in the engineering department of a large insurance company, and after that worked as a sub-rep for a manufacturer's rep organization. During this stint, he met another engineer, Bart Vandyken, who worked at one of the companies Mike represented. They traveled a lot together, and it was through his influence that Mike started working at power plants. He soon focused his interests on electrostatic precipitator rapping systems and accelerometer tests, which led him to start his own company.
In the early days of Neundorfer, Inc., Mike had a chance to engage in a relatively new passion: flying. His next youngest brother, Jim, was a mechanical engineer from University of Cincinnati. After going through jet training and serving in the Air Force, Jim got married, started a family, and transferred his remaining US Airforce duty to the Mansfield Air Guard where he flew C-130s and was a flight instructor. Jim also worked part time at Neundorfer, and convinced Mike that the company needed an airplane to transport service people to and from job sites.
"I sent him money to buy a 1959 Bonanza, and then hitch-hiked down to Little Rock to pick up the plane," Mike recalls. "My first flying lesson was flying the Bonanza with Jim from Arkansas to Cleveland."
Mike then got a pilot's license and an instrument license, and over the next 15 years or so flew thousands of hours. He also hired some other pilots to help fly service people around, and sometimes had two or three planes in the air at one time.
Since entering the air pollution control industry in the early 1970s, Mike said the biggest changes he's seen are shifting priorities as the U.S. coal-fired fleet ages. Flat demand coupled with new natural gas discoveries and other alternative fuels have created an uncertain future for many of the plants built in the 1960s and 1970s.
"Like all our infrastructure in the U.S., the designed life span of power plants has become shorter," Mike muses. "We tend to be a throwaway society. The benefit of that is being able to apply new technologies as they're developed. But often the technology is used to cut costs, and actually ends up reducing quality and further shortening the life of infrastructure."
In his spare time, Mike enjoys many outdoor pursuits, including running, cycling, and hiking. He's an avid traveler; he and Marcia have had many international adventures together, including a recent trip to China and Vietnam. For the past decade, Mike has also been involved with a mentoring program, and said he finds that very rewarding.
For Mike, being curious, asking questions, and listening are keys to a rewarding life.
"It's amazing how we can go through life banging our heads against the wall, when there are people everywhere who are willing to share their experience and help," he concludes.
In Your Own Words...
"My earliest childhood memories are of growing up on my grandfather's dairy farm East of Chardon, Ohio—running through the cornfields, ‘helping’ him in the barn, riding on the mud-sled behind the horses gathering maple sap. Also, one of the biggest treats in our family was going out in the woods to make firewood with my dad."
Most Memorable Safety Experience
"One weekend when I was in my 20s, I was in a precipitator in Maryland, about 25 feet up on top of the frame. I told my hole watch to go up to the control room and ask them to increase the induced draft fan speed a little; the ash was so hot it was burning me. Sometime later, I heard a roar and the air went black with dust. I couldn't see anything. I heard doors start slamming shut. They'd turned the fan up too high. I knew I was in trouble. I held my breath and swung down to the cat-walk with my eyes almost closed. I could see light coming through a door, and made my way there. I'd just barely got out that door when it slammed shut from the developing vacuum. I learned a lot of safety things from that experience."
Most Interesting Field Service Experience
"We were installing our first SmartAsh system at Beckjord Station in Southern Ohio. I got to the plant early in the morning to meet up with our group, and looked at some of the data they'd been collecting from the ash system. It had changed in the previous four hours. At first, we thought it was a problem with our system. Then, I started thinking and remembered that the plant had an SO3 injection system. I figured they were probably over-injecting, and that that's why the data was different than expected. We called the control room and sure enough, they'd been turning up the SO3. When they turned it back down, the precipitator started behaving."