Cape Design Engineering Thrives On Challenges

By  //  December 19, 2012

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BUSINESS SPOTLIGHT

FIFTEEN YEARS DOWN THE ROAD from the birth of Cape Design Engineering, the firm has completed more than 2,500 projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The Cape Design Engineering founding members today, left to right, are Kannan Rengarajan, Rama Kannan, Sami Mized, Lutfi Mized, Peggy Mized and Herb Wasserman. (Image for SpaceCoastDaily.com)

BREVARD COUNTY • CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – It seemed like an ordinary ribbon-cutting ceremony, except that Kennedy Space Center Director Roy Bridges used the opportunity to say something extraordinary.

Standing in front of what would soon be an award-winning building called the NASA Technical Records Center, built to house all the space program’s historical archives from its beginning, Bridges looked at dignitaries, contractors and NASA officials.

In this photo from the Spaceport News, Roy Bridges (third from right) was joined by Cape Design Engineering officials on Sept. 21, 1999 to dedicate the new NASA Technical Records Center. Relocated from the LC 37 blockhouse, technical records now reside in Building M6-489, which is in the south parking area between Second Street and B Avenue in the KSC Industrial Area. The move was dictated by Boeing’s need for the blockhouse to support their new Delta IV contract. The new location is more accessible and is designed for future expansion. (Spaceport News image)

“I want you to know,” he said with words drenched with praise, “that this whole project was designed and built in just six months.”

In the audience, Lutfi Mized, Kannan Rengarajan and Herb Wasserman beamed. The three partners who in 1997 founded Cape Design Engineering in Cape Canaveral, Fla., had been waiting for this day. In fact, they’d been desperately hoping for it.

“We’ve turned the corner,” Wasserman told his partners later. “I think we’ve finally turned the corner.”

It was 15 years ago when the three men left what Mized called “cushy jobs” with a previous engineering firm to start their own business. They had no clients and no contracts lined up.

Instead, all they had was a vision.

“A different vision for running a company,” Mized said.

The goals they set for CDE were high:

• Provide Brevard County with the best engineering services.

• Hire a creative, innovative and energetic staff that would take ownership of the company, rewarding them with bonuses based on the company’s success.

• Create a horizontal management philosophy with a true open-door policy.

• Never take customers for granted. Instead, offer excellent customer service and state-of-the-art innovative engineering at a reasonable cost.

• Seek and embrace challenging projects.

• Have fun. Enjoy the work and have a passion for it.

IN THE BEGINNING: The Cape Design Engineering founding members 15 years ago when they started the company, left to right, are Kannan Rengarajan, Rama Kannan, Sami Mized, Lutfi Mized, Peggy Mized and Herb Wasserman. (image for SpaceCoastDaily.com)

There would be no shortcuts, either. The partners met at Mized’s home and agreed to honesty, integrity, ethical and moral business practices as well as fidelity to family. Mized had worked in engineering long enough to have seen some of the seedy sides of the industry, and he was determined not to resort to any of them.

“I was going to flip burgers before resorting to any of that,” he said.

For a while there, though, it seemed like the three men might just be doing that anyway, or at least going back to being employed by a firm instead of owning one.

“For the first six months we made minimal income,” Rengarajan recalled. “We were basically running the company with our own money, from our savings.”

It was a family operation, for sure. Their wives – Peggy Mized, Rama Kannan and Maxine Wasserman – made lunches daily while doing all the accounting and clerical work. When CDE moved into their first office suite, holding just 750 square feet of space, they bought the used furniture the previous tenant had left behind for $100. Meanwhile, Peggy painted the walls while son Sami Mized, 15 at the time, set up the IT programs, the phone system, the company web site, assembled brochures and even began writing proposals. 

It was a family operation, for sure. Their wives – Peggy Mized, Rama Kannan and Maxine Wasserman – made lunches daily while doing all the accounting and clerical work. When CDE moved into their first office suite, holding just 750 square feet of space, they bought the used furniture the previous tenant had left behind for $100. Meanwhile, Peggy painted the walls while son Sami Mized, 15 at the time, set up the IT programs, the phone system, the company web site, assembled brochures and even began writing proposals.

Small engineering jobs trickled in; things like work with architectures and other minor projects. But it was nothing meaningful, nothing challenging and certainly nothing that was paying all the bills.

It was only after that NASA project, late in 1999, when KSC Director Roy Bridges singled out CDE for its exemplary work that later won an ASHRAE Award, when they felt like they’d “turned the corner.”

Big jobs with Boeing and FP&L soon followed, which Mized said really “kick-started the company.”

And now?

Fifteen years down the road from the birth of Cape Design Engineering, the firm has completed more than 2,500 projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But even though the firm now sits in a combined 10,000 square-feet of office space in both Cape Canaveral and Jacksonville, CDE still maintains the same philosophy and attitude it had during its humble beginnings.

CDE, in association with Florida Architects, Inc., completed the design of a 65,000 square foot educational facility for Indian River State College in Fort Pierce, Florida. (CDE image)

“You don’t forget where you came from and all the hard work it took,” Mized said, recalling a time early in CDE’s history when their phone system, which a friend had sold to them on the cheap, suddenly sounded staticky.

“It sounded like there were aliens in it,” he said.

He opened it up and found it crawling with ants. Soon he and Kannan were outside the building, spraying the inside of the disassembled phone with a pesticide, putting the phone back together, and then resuming work.

It helped that the three men are friends. Wasserman has since retired, enjoying his grandchildren, though he still dabbles in consulting with the company. Today, Mized serves as Cape Design Engineering’s President and Rengarajan as its CEO.

“I liked Kannan right away,” Mized said. “I could see that he was very smart, had a good work ethic and was a good family man. When I wanted to start my own business, it was important for me to partner with people like Kannan; ethical people with good qualities. And we insisted from the beginning that we were going to have fun and enjoy what we’re doing. We do this because we want to.”

Rengarajan recalled exactly where they were when Mized first approached him about going into business together. They were at the Portside Galley restaurant in Cape Canaveral, eating lunch. Rengarajan was 36, and his friend was 38; and as Mized had mentioned, they both did have “cushy jobs” that offered a measure of security.

Leave that and venture into the uncertain prospect of starting their own company?

“Lu,” Rengarajan told his friend, “I’ll go with you anywhere.”

Rengarajan had observed Mized at their engineering firm, how he had risen to vice president with 85 people reporting to him.

“Whenever we had a meeting,” Rengarajan said, “Lu always knew everything about everything. He was very knowledgeable. I always looked up to him.”

Mized had hired Rengarajan at their old engineering firm in 1995, and the two men hit it off immediately. It probably helped that both are from halfway around the globe – Mized from Palestine and Rengarajan from India.

Kannan Rengarajan recalled exactly where they were when Lutfi Mized first approached him about going into business together. They were at the Portside Galley restaurant in Cape Canaveral, eating lunch. Rengarajan was 36, and his friend was 38; and as Mized had mentioned, they both did have “cushy jobs” that offered a measure of security. (Image for SpaceCoastDaily.com)

“I liked Kannan right away,” Mized said. “I could see that he was very smart, had a good work ethic and was a good family man. When I wanted to start my own business, it was important for me to partner with people like Kannan; ethical people with good qualities. And we insisted from the beginning that we were going to have fun and enjoy what we’re doing. We do this because we want to.”

They also want to help others, too. The two men help support family members back home in the Middle East and India, as well as family in the States. They give generously to charitable organizations, involve themselves in mentorship programs and generally don’t allow their lives to orbit around a dollar sign.

“We really like what we do,” Rengarajan noted. “And what we really like are challenges. We get excited when there’s a challenging project. We thrive on it.”

Mized had run a small engineering company – LM Engineering – in Daytona Beach back in the 1980s. He also has a gift for simplifying complicated matters and technical jargon into layman’s terms, which is why, after teaching part-time at Daytona State College for four years, the school tried desperately to hire him as faculty.

But owning his own company was his dream.

Beyond that, however, owning a quality company that was creative and innovative, one that stood out from other engineering firms, was his goal.

Even as CDE grew, the challenge was to keep the same principles intact that were there when it was a smaller company.

Even now, Mized and Rengarajan can often be found in the field, working hands-on on projects, communicating directly with clients. Where other company heads tend to disappear after a contract is signed, Mized and Rengarajan choose to become even more visible and accessible.

“We worked hard to control the growth so that we could maintain the high level of quality,” Mized said. “If you get too big, things start slipping through the cracks and customer service can suffer.”

Even now, Mized and Rengarajan can often be found in the field, working hands-on on projects, communicating directly with clients. Where other company heads tend to disappear after a contract is signed, Mized and Rengarajan choose to become even more visible and accessible.

One of their clients who appreciated that was Michael Uren, an OBE from England. OBE means Order of the British Empire, one of the highest honors a citizen can receive. A brilliant and wealthy man, Uren was the founder and developer of Civil and Marine Ltd. In 2001, he wanted to build a slag grinding plant in Port Canaveral, and he needed an engineering firm.

Uren made the rounds along the Space Coast. When he came to CDE, he was immediately impressed by its office … by how simple and efficient it was.

“I’m not looking for a flashy office, because I’ll end up paying for it,” he declared.

NAS Jacksonville has a combination soccer/flag football field that is used for both tournament and non-tournament play. CDE was recently contracted to installed a synthetic turf field at Sea King Park. The field uses Field Turf’s Revolution® – A premium synthetic turf material often chosen by many collegiate and professional sporting organizations for their playing surfaces. The project involved the demolition of the existing natural field, permitting for drainage considerations, and installing the new field with the integrated drainage system. The new field is expected to provide a superior play surface with less impact to players than the existing field and also reduce cost for maintenance and irrigation. The marquee on the project is the incorporation of the NAS Jacksonville logo into the center field ring. (CDE image)

Immediately, Uren started asking questions of Mized, Rengarajan, Wasserman and the staff. No matter what their field of expertise was, Uren could converse with them in-depth, and he did.

“Basically, what he did was go around and conduct an oral interview with everyone,” Rengarajan recalled. “He was old school that way. He just quizzed everyone.”

Not only did Uren like what he saw, he liked what he heard. He was equally blown away with how efficient, professional and prompt the dossier of permitting was that CDE supplied him.

CDE got the contract, with Uren stating, “I don’t mind paying for the best technical knowledge.”

The project lasted four years, and after it was completed CDE continued to do consulting work for Uren.

Over the years, there have been many highlights for CDE, like playing a key role in their team getting the 8-year TESS contract, landing construction contracts with the Navy in Jacksonville, working with the Brevard County School Board and various colleges and universities, winning multiple awards and rave reviews along the way.

There have been other highlights, like playing a key role in their team getting the 8-year TESS contract, landing construction contracts with the Navy in Jacksonville, working with the Brevard County School Board and various colleges and universities, winning multiple awards and rave reviews along the way.

In fact, Mized and Rengarajan recall a time when a school board official stated, “If you want the mundane stuff, hire an engineering firm. But if you have something complex that you need done, hire CDE.”

Said Rengarajan, “We thrive on finding high quality solutions to problems.”

And they’re still finding them.

It’s been a while since Cape Design Engineering “turned the corner” and continued motoring down the road they’re on now. It’s been a journey, for sure. One that still continues.

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