2016 Distinguished Achievement Award: Q&A with Stephen H. Siegele

// Chemical & Biological Engineering

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Stephen H. Siegele

Chief Executive and Consultant

BSChE ’84

Recipient of the 2016 College of Engineering Distinguished Achievement Award, Nov. 11, 2016.

 

How did you choose to attend college at UW-Madison?

I’m from Chicago, and I followed my older brother. He was a business major four years ahead of me. I visited the school during my high school years and enjoyed the time and what I saw. I followed him into business school.

 

Why did you choose engineering as your major?

About a year and a half or so into my business curriculum, I made a decision that I wanted to pursue business opportunities in technical companies. I felt it would be the right approach to receive an engineering degree. I started thinking about engineering degrees and my father, who is a chemist, suggested I take chemistry. I found chemistry, and then chemical engineering, very interesting.

 

Who was your favorite engineering professor?

Professor Crosby; I had him for ChE 426, Mass Transfer Operations. It was a very challenging class with him. I then had him for summer lab, and actually, during summer lab I got to be fairly close to him. I very much enjoyed summer lab and taking it from him. He was a very interesting professor. He tended to be a very difficult professor in a number of ways and I took that on as a challenge and built a very positive relationship with him so that after I graduated and had success in my first business, I asked him to do some consulting with me, and so it came full circle.

 

What was your favorite engineering class?

Transport Phenomena and summer lab—summer lab, in particular, because it was so applicable to my career. It taught me so many things that I could apply and use in my career. This was an in-depth lab course. It was very extensive and we were applying what we learned to that point. The lab was structured into teams. Time management and teamwork were critically important, as it is in business.

 

When you were a student, what was your favorite place to eat or hang out on campus?

I played a lot of pick-up basketball games at the Shell. That was my release. And my favorite places to eat were State Street Brats and the Memorial Union.

 

What’s your fondest memory of your time on campus?

I appreciated it the longer I was out. And I most remember the friendships that I made. I stayed in contact with a number of my fellow students in chemical engineering.

 

What lessons did you learn as a student that has benefited you most in your career?

My chemical engineering degree and all of my experiences in the College of Engineering were critical to my career. A ChE degree is very versatile and allows one to pursue almost any career. In addition, the problem-solving techniques and ability to apply engineering thought principles apply to all situations. I also focused on business school classes and chemical research while at Madison. My ChE degree, business classes, and extensive R&D work allowed me to secure an excellent R&D position in the semiconductor industry upon graduation. These experiences led me to start my first successful business four years after graduation from UW.

 

What is your current title and company?

I’ve been somewhat retired for close to 20 years. I’ve served on public boards, and I’m also chief executive or a board member of a number of privately held companies. I am a serial entrepreneur, always looking for or developing new technologies to commercialize.

If you ask me what is my strength, I’m an individual who can review technologies and determine whether or not they can be commercialized. I spend a lot of time working with universities, professors, and various people from industry to evaluate those opportunities. Sometimes I participate in them myself; other times I consult with entrepreneurs.

When I start companies, I take a very cautious and conservative approach. I prefer to maintain equity. I attempt to self-fund and minimize the number of shareholders. Not every opportunity allows this. However, I focus on these types of opportunities and work very hard to structure the entity in this way. This allows for future expansion and possible dilution if or when necessary. I started my first company at age 28 with a minimal investment and only a small number of shareholders. We were able to grow this company and take it public without ever assuming meaningful debt or dilution.

 

Of what professional accomplishment are you most proud?

Four years after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in ChE from Madison I came up with an idea that I believed had commercial merit. I focused on a startup plan and let nothing hold me back. I started small in R&D materials that I thought would grow with adoption in the semiconductor industry. My company grew rapidly into the international leader in our market. I developed a strategy to take our company public via a pooling of interests transaction. We successfully implemented this and I was able to retire from the company after integration to continue my entrepreneurial efforts.

 

Who played the greatest role in your achievements?

There were two individuals: My mother had a great influence on me while I was growing up . She was instrumental in my character growth. My father was busy building his companies and travelled a great deal when I was young. When I was in high school and college I was able to work with my father and he became a great mentor. As a young founder and CEO I asked my father to be part-time chairman of my company. This helped greatly, especially with working in Asia. We gained a level of respect that was difficult to achieve for a young startup company there.

Also, my family: It’s very important for an individual who tries to do the things I did to have a very supportive spouse; Julie, my wife, was very supportive. It was very challenging for her because I spent about 80 percent of my time on the road. I spent a lot of time overseas, and here we were trying to raise a family. I said I’m going to have to dedicate myself 100-percent to this business, but it doesn’t mean I’m not dedicated 150-percent to our family. I have to depend on you to raise our children, and I promise you we won’t have to do this for my entire career. I couldn’t have done it without Julie. We had our first child, Nicholas, and then when our second child, Lauren, came along, I said now we’re at a point in time to exit, and it was very important for me to finally be home with my family.

 

What advice would you give students in your discipline today?

What’s really important is to remain dedicated to your studies and the pursuit of your degree. If you doubt the value or importance of the degree you’re pursuing, don’t allow that doubt to change your direction or to concern you because it will be well worth the effort you put in and you’ll reap the benefits the rest of your life in your careers. You have to persevere and I like to tell students that it’s going to be the hardest thing you’ll ever do—but don’t ever doubt that it will be worthwhile. ChE is such a versatile degree. You may pursue whatever interests you. Opportunities will present themselves. Be ready to take advantage of them!

 

If you had to do it all over again and pick a major other than engineering, what would you choose?

I would absolutely not change my focus of chemical engineering. I would certainly pursue some of the business classes I think are necessary; I probably wouldn’t have done it in the order I did, which was business first and then chemical engineering. I had 45 credits more than I needed! The proof is with my son; he got a business minor with a chemical engineering major at Berkeley. I guess that was my chance to “do it all over again.”

 

What are your hobbies/interests?

Travel with my family (Colorado, Asia), athletics, fishing, boating and work. I’ve always enjoyed playing sports. However, work and my businesses have often consumed me.

Author: Engineering External Relations