After nearly 60 years in engineering, M. James Karpinski ("Karp") has retired. One of the founders of Karpinski Engineering (KE), he served for 20 years as a managing partner of the firm. He will continue to serve on KE's Board of Directors as Chairman Emeritus.
“Karp is someone that you enjoy being around,” said KE President Jim Cicero, PE, LEED AP. “He is the ultimate role model, and we will miss having him around.”
Karp had already been in the engineering business for 23 years when he and a business partner started Karpinski Engineering (then called Bacik Karpinski Associates). He wasn't happy with how the firms he had worked for were managed or served clients.
"I knew I could do it better," he said.
In June 1983, the firm opened with three employees in an office above a Dairy Queen in Chesterland, Ohio. By the end of the year, they had five fulltime employees and 87 projects on the books. Two years later, at the urging of some of their architectural clients, the firm moved its offices to Cleveland.
Today, Karpinski Engineering has more than 125 staff in five regional offices. Together, they produce hundreds of projects each year.
Karp served as a managing partner for the company’s first 20 years, retiring from executive leadership in 2003. In 2007, he was inducted into the Cleveland Engineering Society’s Hall of Fame, honoring his achievements in the field of engineering. For the past 10 years, he has served KE as an advisor, providing quality assurance, technical guidance, and mentoring.
“Karp has always believed in growth through technical excellence,” said Jim Cicero. “He has mentored so many of our engineers, sharing his knowledge and helping Karpinski Engineering produce great engineers to support our clients.”
Karp originally planned to become an architect. As a child, he would “crawl around every new house being built in [his] neighborhood.” In high school, he took classes in industrial arts and drafting. One teacher took him and other students on a tour of a nearby construction project.
Then, in college, he landed his first co-op at a local engineering firm. There, his supervisor pulled out a boiler room schematic.
“That was it,” Karp said. “I decided to design mechanical systems for buildings.”
For Karp, a career in engineering has offered “the excitement of never-ending change”: people advancing, challenging new projects, and new technologies.
The most rewarding part? "Working with very talented people – employees, clients, and contractors – to bring ideas to reality."
In the course of his career, Karp has helped bring thousands of ideas to reality. Of all of them, he considers the Ohio Aerospace Institute (OAI) building in Cleveland to be his most significant project.
The Institute’s 70,000 SF aerospace research building, completed in 1992, features soaring window walls and atrium-like interiors. Working with those architectural features, he and his colleagues needed to design an HVAC system that would keep the building comfortable year-round. System features include bidirectional return air (it works with the high-volume space by allowing the return air to move in one direction during the winter and the opposite during the summer) and diffusers that wash the glass walls with air (to handle the perimeter heating and cooling).
“It works,” Karp said.
And more than works, with a level of energy efficiency that captured the attention of OAI leadership.
It was, Karp said, "a challenge and a unique building."
Right: The Ohio Aerospace Institute building. Photo courtesy of Richard Fleischman + Partners Architects
In the firm’s early days, Karp was inspired by Cleveland’s established engineering firms. He hoped to build a company that would last.
Looking back, Karp says he considers his greatest accomplishment “starting from nothing but the desire to have my own company, and building it with the help of many good people to the point it could be inherited by the next generation.”
Along the way, Karp has helped develop that next generation. He has guided staff as they have grown and become leaders of Karpinski Engineering.
For all that Karp has invested in the firm, he leads with a light touch, preferring to give suggestions rather than orders.
“In order for people to grow, you have to let them do their own thing and make their own mistakes,” he said.
Principal Ken Borah, PE, describes Karp’s leadership style as “hands-off, let the players play.”
“Karp coaches,” he said, “And what a coach! The best!”
The firm’s partners consistently describe Karp as leading by example. They cite his technical expertise, steady support, and personal integrity.
“It didn’t matter what engineering discipline you were,” said Principal Brian David, PE. “If you modeled your career using his ethics, character, and technical savvy as guides, you were on the right track.”
Principal Rocco Gallo, LEED AP, described Karp as “humble and considerate.”
“I don’t think he would ever delegate work that he himself would not do,” he said.
Though Karp is retiring, he plans to continue supporting the firm that bears his name.
He is a member of Karpinski Engineering’s Board of Directors, serving as Chairman Emeritus. He also anticipates providing the occasional project technical review.
At the same time, he has an idea for a new career.
“I want to sell boats,” he said. “I’ve been boating all my life, and I know about all kinds of boats. I’m investigating.”
For the rest of the Karpinski Engineering team, their responsibility is to carry Karp’s legacy forward, says Principal Frank Eisenhower, PE.
“The foundation and culture of Karpinski Engineering is built on Karp’s shoulders,” he said. “It has everything to do with the way Karp treats people and the respect that he gives.”
"Karp is all about fixing the problem and taking care of our clients. That's truly the legacy of Jim Karpinski and it's our responsibility to continue that on.”
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Karpinski Engineering designs environments that inspire. We partner with organizations and design professionals to develop spaces for healing, learning, business, and discovery. We provide mechanical, electrical, plumbing, technology, and civil engineering design services, along with an array of specialty services. Karpinski Engineering is also the creator of kBIM Template and Library, a package of standardized Revit tools created to make the MEPT engineering design process more efficient. Headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, Karpinski Engineering employs more than 125 people in three states. Learn more at www.karpinskieng.com.