Hungarian descendant Tony Berenyi has come a long way from farming sugar beets and sheep with his father on a Montana ranch.
At a glance
COMPANY: Berenyi Inc.ADDRESS: 49 Immigration St., CharlestonSPECIALTY: Engineering, architecture and constructionOWNER: Tony BerenyiAGE: 52FROM: Grew up in Montana and Union, S.C.RESIDENCE: CharlestonFAMILY: Wife, Cokie; four daughtersEDUCATION: The Citadel, degree in civil engineering, 1982; MIT, degree in structural dynamics, 1987.MILITARY EXPERIENCE: Army Reserve, served in first Gulf WarWEBSITE: www.berenyi.com
Today, he heads Berenyi Inc., a Charleston engineering and architectural firm with an imprint on some of the biggest industrial names in the Lowcountry: Alcoa, Boeing and Nucor Steel, just to name a few.
With other projects around the country, the firm is on the cusp of ambitious railroad projects in Africa potentially worth billions of dollars.
Berenyi grew up digging ditches, among other chores, on the farm to bring water to the fields. Because of that, he had a hankering for building things to make life easier.
His parents eventually left the harsh winters out west and briefly moved back east to New Jersey, where their grandfather lived. By his teenage years, Berenyi’s father, Gustav, who knew welding and carpentry, moved to the Upstate of South Carolina and took a job in construction.
“As long as people build new stuff, they will need construction workers,” he recalled his father saying.
Berenyi graduated from Union High School in 1978, but he never forgot something else his father, a Hungarian immigrant who spoke broken English, said years earlier.
“My dad said, ‘In today’s society, you have to have an education to make it in the world,’ ” Berenyi said. “We were out digging a ditch, and he said, ‘If you are going to get an education, suck it up when you are young. An education will open up doors, and once you get it, don’t rest on your laurels.’ ”
The words stuck.
Berenyi went on to The Citadel and earned a degree in civil engineering. From there, he went to graduate school at MIT, receiving his degree in structural dynamics by 1987.
His father also believed in serving the country through the military, so Berenyi took a commission with the Army Reserve, went to Engineers Officers School and then helped design offshore platforms for the Navy.
Building a company
By 1989, Berenyi set up shop in a 2,000-square-foot office on Ladson Road by borrowing money from his uncle to own his own building.
“I wanted to show people I was committed,” he said. “It paid off.”
Berenyi started building a client base and was on his way to growing his business. But the next year, he had to close his doors.
Iraq invaded Kuwait, and Berenyi, with his Reserve commission, was called to duty, where he commanded a 250-man unit in the two countries and earned the Bronze Star for his combat experience.
Before he left, he told his customers he would let them know when he returned.
Eight months after the Gulf War started, Berenyi came back, reopened his office and tackled his first big project, a then-Exxon-owned plastics recycling center in Summerville, which he helped design and build.
By 2000, the business grew so much that he moved it to new quarters on Daniel Island and then in 2009 to the Seabreeze building, a refurbished old jail off East Bay Street beside the Columbus Street Terminal of the State Ports Authority.
Branching out with the housing boom, Berenyi Inc. grew to 45 employees as the company took on landscaping, surveying and stormwater work for subdivisions.
“When the market crashed (in 2008), all of that work dried up,” Berenyi said. He thought it would come back as it had in previous economic downturns, but it didn’t.
“After about a year of sitting around here looking at the walls with nothing to do, I said, ‘Let’s go back to our core business.’ ”
That meant industrial customers, businesses that make things and were in need of engineering expertise to add on to existing operations or build new facilities.
Berenyi’s staff fell by two-thirds as the Great Recession and its after-effects lingered.
With a newfound emphasis on industrial clients, Berenyi had a hand in working with Alcoa on a plant in Louisiana, Boeing’s sprawling aircraft assembly campus in North Charleston, the Medical University of South Carolina, Nucor Steel, State Ports Authority and S.C. Public Railways, among many others.
With other projects in the works locally and across the U.S., Berenyi now finds himself on the verge of his biggest deals ever.
He is waiting word from the government of Tanzania for a $2 billion contract to build 1,200 miles of rail in northern Tanzania, which he estimates will require about 3,000 workers.
Much of the existing rail was built by the Germans at the end of the 19th century, with minimum maintenance since then and some of it in disrepair.
Berenyi not only met with the country’s president and chief ministers, but he also traveled 2,000 miles of the country’s existing rail lines over several days in August and September to get a first-hand look at current conditions.
“This is what we need to get your rail system fixed,” he told them of the $2 billion cost.
Because there are long stretches of up to 200 miles without a gas station or any place for provisions, Berenyi incorporated his military experience by telling the government the work would have to entail a degree of self-sufficiency, one of carrying in enough supplies, cooks and maintenance personnel to keep the project on track.
Since then, Ethiopia to the north and countries bordering Tanzania have expressed interest in upgrading their rail systems as well.
“They don’t want us to stop at the border (of Tanzania). They want us to keep going with rail in their countries,” Berenyi said.
On Thursday, he learned the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo also is interested in a $2 billion to $3 billion rail development deal and wants to sign a contract.
Back home, he has several other projects in development stages as well. To keep tabs on the work his company performs, Berenyi asks clients to fill out customer evaluation forms. He also fills out one on them, citing the ease or difficulty of the working relationship. “We know we are not everything to everybody.”
Five years ago, he penned a book called “Secrets for Savvy Business Owners.” He is working on another on leadership.
“By me studying leadership principles, it has helped me to be a better leader,” Berenyi said.
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524.