Colorado Springs Utilities CEO Aram Benyamin has always been a man on a mission — with big goals and in a hurry to reach them.
When he arrived in the United States from Lebanon as a 19-year-old in 1977, he’d left a civil war that had been raging for more than two years. Within a month of landing in Los Angeles, he was accepted into the engineering program at California State University, where he sped through the degree.
Benyamin had a job offer in hand from the city of Los Angeles months before his graduation, and the recruiter encouraged him to take a week off after his finals.
“I said, ‘This is not the time for me to take off. I want to start work,’” he recalled. “So I had a weekend between my final exam and my Monday report.
“Coming as an immigrant, going through engineering school in less than three and a half years, I’d been doing nothing but running to get the degree and looking forward for a job. Jumping from the last day in school to a career, it was a scary moment. I had no clue what I was getting into my first day — but it’s been nothing but blessings from Day 1.
“I think it was the mindset that I had. … You have to fight, in a good way. You have to fight and not let things stop you from going forward — whether it’s the language barrier, or it’s a culture barrier, or new country, new setting, new vision of what to do or what not to do, trying to go through doors, tribulations as you adjust your personality.
“I was 22 years old when I first got into the job market; I was a young engineer, the world was unlimited potential. It was scary to get in and get all these realities surrounding you — [being told] what you cannot do. And I wasn’t going to sit down and take that.”
Over the following decades, Benyamin worked his way up to become senior assistant general manager at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the nation’s largest municipal utility. He also earned an MBA from University of La Verne and a master’s in public administration from California State University, Northridge.
Benyamin joined CSU in 2015 and was appointed CEO in September 2018 — and he’s still in a hurry to do the things people tell him can’t be done.
Where did your drive come from?
It’s a combination of many things. It’s the upbringing; I had no desire to waste a minute. I was just ready to go to school and finish — very, very focused on studies. I practically lived on campus because I was taking 16, 17, 18 units every quarter. I had no choice at that time, because of all these things — coming from Lebanon with the civil war and all the things that were going on there. Part of it was fear, part of it was fear of failure, part of it was upbringing, part of it was motivation. It was many, many of these things.
What’s your proudest achievement?
When I look back at my career, I see some of the major policy implementation [in Los Angeles] that was extremely painful and very hard to do — but from a rallying of stakeholders and bringing people together, I see that as a very proud moment. When people tell me that something cannot be done, that’s a huge sign for me to get those things done and be proud of it. This was one of those moments. People told me, ‘You can’t get L.A. off coal or [carbon fuel] or the fossil fuel economy that fast.’ And I said, ‘We can do it; we will do it, and we will put a plan together to do it.’ Before I left L.A., the entire plan was put in place. It’s been almost four years now since I’ve left and I look back and the policies and the plans that I put together are still rolling forward, they’re being implemented.
What was a pivotal moment in your career?
The realization of how much you don’t know. When I graduated from engineering school I thought the world revolved around technical know-how and skills. Very quickly I found out that that itself is a very, very limited skill set. You could be very good technically, but the entire world around what happens in organizations is the politics and the policy and the execution — everything that I had no clue that I should be either aware of or trained in. That was a realization that hit me pretty hard, because I thought ‘I’ve arrived’ when I became an engineer and I was very good at the technical side. I found out that I [was] not even close to the beginning of the line.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I’m very aware of the front-line employees. I’ve been a field engineer for many decades and I understand the effort and the focus and the struggles that the front-line employees go through. … The other thing I always tell the employees is we are a publicly-owned utility, so the people of the city own us. I think the humility and the honor that somebody has as a public servant is such a huge responsibility that I don’t take it lightly. … It anchors you to something that is very important. You are the holder of the trust of the entire city.
Tell us about the best advice you’ve received.
I had a boss, David Freeman, who is extremely resilient. So one day I asked him: ‘What’s the secret of life that you can give me?’ He said, ‘I look at life as: Today is the beginning of the rest of my life. I don’t hold grudges, I don’t look back. I don’t look at negative stuff that will bring me down. Get over what has happened in the past. Learn from it, but look at life as the beginning of the rest of your life, and live it the way you want to live it.’ And I always thought about that for many years and it’s probably the best advice that I could give anybody. … We’re all full of faults, all of us. Don’t dwell on setbacks that long. Dwell enough to learn but don’t let it bring you down. Pick yourself up and move forward — the rest of your life is a blank sheet of paper.
Join the Colorado Springs Business Journal, iHeartRadio, UCCS and Amnet for the 2019 COS CEO Leadership Lessons with Aram Benyamin, 4:30-6:30 p.m., July 11, at The Warehouse, 25 W. Cimarron St. A portion of the proceeds go to the 2019 Give! Campaign. Sponsors also include the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and EDC and Stockman Kast Ryan + Co.