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More than one educational path leads to the top

Rochester Business Journal
July 23, 2010

Engineers may not rule the world, but many lead the top companies and organizations in the Rochester area.

Among the region's top CEOs, several began their careers in the field of engineering, including Xerox Corp.'s Ursula Burns, Ultralife Corp.'s John Kavazanjian, VirtualScopics Inc.'s Jeffrey Markin, PT's John Slusser, Paetec Holding Corp.'s Arunas Chesonis, Graham Corp.'s James Lines and Optimation Technology Inc.'s William Pollock.

"Apart from the obvious technical requirements of any job in a technology-oriented company, there are some aspects of an engineering education that really help," Ultralife's Kavazanjian said. "They almost always have to do with problem solving."

He says CEOs often are faced with problems that seem so complex one cannot solve them.

"A good engineering education can teach you problem-solving techniques that can give you the tools and confidence to take these on," Kavazanjian said, referring to such skills as using the scientific method, simplifying a problem and taking a holistic approach.

Engineering is not the only educational path taken by local CEOs, however.

The executives leading the companies on this year's RBJ 75 list hold academic degrees in fields including English and psychology. A number, not surprisingly, have a master's in business administration or, in health care, graduate degrees in hospital and health administration.

Several on the list studied economics and finance before becoming captains of industry. They include Robert Gross, Monro Muffler Brake Inc.; Jonathan Judge, Paychex Inc.; Anthony DiMarzo, Mark IV Enterprises; Robert Morgan, Morgan Management; James Brush, Sentry Group; Warren Hern, Unity Health System; and David Klein, Lifetime Healthcare Cos. Inc.

Charles Hadeed of Transcat Inc. and Barry Gilbert of IEC Electronics Corp. studied a related field: accounting.

Others developed their negotiation skills at law school, including Constellation Brands Inc.'s Robert Sands-who worked as a full-time associate at Harter Secrest & Emery LLP in Rochester before joining Constellation, his family's business-and Joel Seligman of the University of Rochester, who was a legal academic before becoming an administrator.

Among the area's CEOs who have MBAs are Dana Gavenda of Fairport Savings Bank, Paetec's Chesonis, IEC's Gilbert and VirtualScopics' Markin.

Markin said his MBA, coupled with his undergraduate degree in industrial engineering and work experience, gave him a strong technical and business base.

"Having formal training in technology and business allows me to feel very comfortable working in many different situations with people representing a very broad group of disciplines," he said. "In my role as CEO of a public, technology-based company, I use this training on a day-to-day basis as I deal with technical and business people within our client organizations, internally within the company, and externally to the financial markets."

Gavenda majored in English as an undergraduate and minored in speech, and for a time he thought about broadcasting as a career. After receiving his bachelor's degree, Gavenda asked his employment agency adviser if he could get into a bank program, noting that his uncle worked in the field.

When he went for the interview, the human resources representative asked why, with his educational background, Gavenda was looking to enter banking, adding that teaching might be a better fit. Gavenda said the response he gave was the one he has stuck with throughout his banking career:

"I told him that the rote skills associated with any job can be learned, practiced and perfected by many, but that the ability to lead, guide and influence others flows from the art of communication," Gavenda said. "If the bank wanted a potential leader, then my communication background-coupled with my commitment to obtain additional business education-made me the best qualified prospect for the trainee position. The bank recognized my conviction, and here I am today."

Over the years, Gavenda said, his ability to frame banking and business concepts has helped customers and fellow employees understand and believe in the concepts. It has been the key to his success, he believes.

"Having been ground up by my undergraduate professors when I did not produce clear, concise communications helped me build skill sets that I hope I have been able to polish over the years," he said, noting that the ability to write for and speak to any audience also helped boost his confidence. "Obviously, I had to work to build my business and banking credentials, but my formal education provided me with capacity to extract meaning from different communication media and to then adapt that information to my purpose."

Other RBJ 75 CEOs also chose undergraduate majors that might not have screamed, "Future executive leader!"

Bruce Darling of the Center for Disability Rights Inc. received an undergraduate degree in English. Constellation Brands' Sands studied philosophy before entering law school. Peter Humphrey of Financial Institutions Inc. was a social psychology undergraduate. And John Galati of Clifton Springs Hospital & Clinic majored in psychology before receiving his master's degree in health services administration.

"These educational experiences led me to develop critical thinking, writing and verbal articulation skills, all of which have been very important throughout my career, especially in my role today," Sands said.

Galati said education has played a valuable role in shaping how he does his job, as have personal experience, a great mentor and networking. His psychology studies, for example, have helped in his interactions and relationships with others.

"Every day patients, residents, family, friends and visitors are the focus of our attention," Galati said. "Coordinating the team of health care workers, physicians, practitioners, support staff and volunteers requires understanding and interpersonal skills to assure success. Psychology provided me with a foundation for my style of management in dealing with and understanding others."

The master's degree gave Galati the decision-making tools to achieve positive outcomes, he said.

CDR's Darling said his bachelor's degree in English literature taught him to read, write and think better.

"This has served as a strong basis for a lot of the policy and advocacy work I've done at CDR, where we need to digest a complex piece of legislation and respond within a limited amount of time," he explained.

His master's degree in public relations management provided Darling with a strong theoretical base in management and communication theory along with practical application. It also helped him learn to not personalize feedback at work.

"When you pour yourself into a piece of writing, it can become very personal, but being able to accept feedback is important," he said. "I still have people edit my work. They always make it better." 

7/23/10 (c) 2010 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail


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