Remembering Don Mohr
In 1969 when AeroMetric first opened its doors, founder Don Mohr realized his dream of owning his own business. A very driven and hardworking man, Don accomplished this goal before even turning 40. Don possessed personal qualities that rivaled his business skills, making him not only a desirable business partner and boss, but also a great friend, husband, father and grandfather. For these reasons, it is with great sadness that I write this tribute to AeroMetric’s founder, Don Mohr. Don passed away on Christmas Day 2012, leaving behind fond memories and a lasting legacy.
Don was born and raised in Plymouth, Wisconsin, just 15 miles west of the current AeroMetric headquarters. Although he left Sheboygan County to attend the University of Wisconsin and began his career elsewhere, he maintained strong ties to his home town and surrounding area where he later returned with his family to begin the most exciting chapter of his career, starting his own survey and mapping business. Don began his career as a surveyor with the US Forest Service, and later spent 10 years at Chicago Aerial Survey where he started as a survey manager and quickly rose through the ranks to become general manager.
Starting your own business is a daunting task, but Don was driven and surrounded himself with knowledgeable, passionate people. He knew when he founded the firm as Aero-Metric Engineering, Inc., that it would be a success. Don handpicked three men to join his team and begin the company, including myself; I was placed in charge of surveying, production, and drafting; Andrew Piscitello served as the chief photogrammetrist; and George Jihlavec ran the photo lab. Shortly thereafter Robert Johanning, RLS joined the team as our survey coordinator, and Allan Depies became our chief financial officer.
As a small company, each of us had to wear many hats. Our first project came through while Don was on the road drumming up business. Although it was a small project of about one square mile in Adell, WI, we jumped right in. I organized the ground control tasks, George made the diapositives, and Andy did the mapping. Prior to joining AeroMetric, each of us had been in management and supervisor roles, so it was an empowering experience for us to go back to being the production team for the sake of building a solid foundation for the company. Don encouraged our team by telling us that the future firm would benefit from our hard work and dedication.
AeroMetric was more than just a 9:00 to 5:00 for Don. His dedication to the company extended into nearly every aspect of his life and the life of his family. There were times when family vacations had to be rescheduled due to unpredictable changes in a project such as the weather or flying conditions. In the late fall everyone on the staff and all of our family members knew that as long as there was no snow on the ground, the work days would be long. Everyone, including Don’s wife Marlene and their children, were invested in the success of the business and were willing to do whatever was needed to ensure a continuous flow of work.
A Culture Oriented to the Client
Serving as the CEO of the company gave Don the freedom to realize his personal vision of a successful professional mapping company, starting with putting the client’s needs front and center. He was always very focused on doing what was best for the client and on building relationships that fostered repeat business. He understood that providing excellent service, competitive pricing, and top-notch quality were key strategies to growing a sustainable enterprise. This philosophy has been ingrained into the company culture to the extent that peers in the profession have always recognized AeroMetric as standing out from the crowd because of its strong client relationships and stellar reputation.
Building a Loyal Staff
In addition to a solid foundation of client-oriented service, Don also believed that it was important to treat his staff well. On the first Christmas, after the company had been open only a few months, the partners all pitched in to give each employee the gift of a $100 bill. This act has had a lasting impression on AeroMetric staff members, including me. I have held onto that original $100 bill for all these years. Don made sure that his staff always felt valued and appreciated because he wanted us to be happy to come to work and enjoy our time at AeroMetric.
The company has grown to nearly 300 employees today; and, although the days of gifting $100 bills are now in the past, encouraging employee satisfaction has continued to be a company priority. This is reflected in our very low turnover rate. More than 85 of our current employees have been with the company for over 20 years. The stability of our staff has proven to be an asset to AeroMetric and our clients, providing a reliable source of experienced professionals with strong ties to our clients and a deep knowledge of their needs.
Don was recognized in the profession as a visionary and was quick to detect trends in the market early on. A natural leader, he could communicate his vision to the team clearly, enabling us to rally around his ambitious goals and turn them into a reality.
One example of his vision was pioneering the use of color aerial photography. Don believed that color would be the future of the profession, so he decided early on that it would be a worthwhile investment to build a color photo lab. AeroMetric was the first to introduce color photogrammetry to the market, and was the exclusive producer of color aerial photography for nearly 15 years. During that time, if you saw a color aerial photograph, you knew it was AeroMetric’s work.
Don’s ideas were often ahead of his time, which is evident even in the way he handled the discharge that resulted from film processing. He had the used chemicals and byproducts from the photo lab processed to extract the embedded silver. Not one to miss a great opportunity to think out of the box, Don had that silver melted into bars, which he used to give to employees in recognition of above-and-beyond contributions and achievements within the firm. At the time Don began this practice, it was not mandatory to handle photo processing byproducts in this manner, and many competitors were simply dumping them into the sewer. Although there are now laws in place that regulate these procedures, Don’s forward thinking nature and concern for the environment allowed him to do this before anyone else.
Don’s visionary reach extended far beyond AeroMetric’s doors and into the development of the entire photogrammetry profession. He was a founding member of the Legislative Council on Photogrammetry (LCP). LCP is known today as MAPPS, one of the strongest professional organizations in the US, sitting equally amongst architecture and engineering organizations on the Council of Federal Procurement for Architect-Engineer Services.
During his career at AeroMetric, Don maintained the reputation of being one of the most competitive businessmen in the profession. One project of note that illustrates this was a large request for proposals taking place overseas. AeroMetric did not win the contract, but rather than taking the loss as a defeat, Don used it as an opportunity to research our competitors and really dig deep into what factors contributed to the unfavorable outcome for AeroMetric. Thanks to this effort, we were able to gain valuable insight on areas where AeroMetric could improve on future proposals. One of Don’s unsurpassed strengths as a businessman and leader was to use every experience as a chance for growth and future advancement.
After serving as AeroMetric’s CEO for 21 years, Don decided to step down, thus allowing me to move into the role. He retired to Elkhart Lake, WI which is about 25 minutes away from the office and that enabled him to be available whenever we needed him. Don based his decision to retire on his sense that the next era of photogrammetry was on the horizon, and in 1990 he was proved correct yet again as the digital age was about to explode. He knew the time was right for the company to make a transition in leadership to support these coming changes. Whenever I was faced with a particularly complex decision I would look to Don for advice, and he was always available to provide his insight. Don also forged a relationship with my successor and current CEO, Pat Olson. Pat recently characterized Don’s continued contributions to AeroMetric, saying that “I cherished my business discussions with Don. If I had a problem, he was always there to turn to even though he had retired ten years before I became part of the company. My wife and I got to know Don and Marlene well and even today, prior to his illness, I would still talk to him about the business. Don really cared about AeroMetric, and his example will continue to be an invaluable source of inspiration to the firm for years to come.”
Don’s professionalism was well known and he was looked upon as a mentor to many who were up-and-coming in the profession. AeroMetric’s current CTO, Terry Keating, fondly recalls his interactions with Don over the years, “I had known Don ever since I was a student at UW Madison in 1970. I later worked with him as a software developer, and again during MAPPS meetings beginning in 1982. He was an absolutely up-front, honorable businessman, colleague, and professional. Don's ethics flowed to the rest of AeroMetric and because of that, I joined the firm in 2007.”
The legacy that Don has left on the profession is truly immeasurable. His generosity with his time for others even after retirement emphasized his ongoing commitment to the success of AeroMetric and the advancement of the geospatial profession. Through his work at AeroMetric and with the LCP, he has left a profound influence on an entire generation of photogrammetrists and the profession as a whole. He was a truly remarkable man, one that played as hard as he worked, he enjoyed life to the fullest. He will be missed.