By the time he was in kindergarten, Rich Bekesh knew he wanted to draw buildings when he grew up. By high school, he had won two home-design contests that earned him $1,200 in prize money.
"That was a big deal," Bekesh said, "because it was the first time I ever got paid for my work."
The 41-year-old New Port Richey native has had plenty of paid work since then.
Spring Engineering, his architectural and engineering firm in Holiday, recently turned 20 years old. In that time, the company has handled thousands of projects in 23 states.
On the 30-employee firm's resume are projects ranging from Pizza Hut/KFC restaurants to car dealerships to extended-stay hotels to Pasco fire stations and the J.B. Starkey Park Environmental Center.
There is nothing flashy about Spring Engineering, located in an easy-to-miss office building on U.S. 19. The firm does not spend money on marketing, brochures or a Web site. Wining and dining clients, in Bekesh's view, could likely mean lunch at Bob Evans.
Bekesh himself has a modest background. One of three children, he grew up in a two-bedroom home on what is now Marine Parkway. His mother was a school cafeteria worker. His father sold insurance.
The first in his family to go to college, the 1984 Gulf High School graduate got his architectural engineering degree from the University of Southern Mississippi, which he attended on an ROTC scholarship.
While in college, he married his girlfriend since junior high school, Laura. After graduation, the pair planned to move to Hawaii, where the U.S. Army had assigned Bekesh. Next, they thought, maybe a European base.
"The Army career path was pretty exciting," he said.
But in his senior year of college, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Bekesh wanted to return home to be closer to her, and the Army allowed him to go home and serve eight years in a St. Petersburg-based reserve unit.
Four days after graduation, he was already back home working for a new firm called Spring Engineering. The company was unusual: It combined architectural and engineering services. Most independent firms are one or the other.
Developers were unfamiliar with emerging regulations, he said, and permitting issues were getting lost in translation between architects and engineers. Spring was "a one-stop shopping," he said.
Bekesh took a job with the firm, and less than two years later, he bought out the previous owners. With a lot of long hours and aggressive networking, he picked up a number of local projects.
He also used to his advantage his prematurely grey hair, which apparently gave some clients the impression they were dealing with a seasoned engineer, not a kid just out of college.
Then came his big break: Florida-based Don Olson Tire, which would eventually become Tires Plus.
Spring developed the prototype for the Tires Plus locations and helped then-president Larry Morgan take the company nationwide, scouting real estate, and handling the zoning and planning applications in hundreds of locations.
"Rich is a student of what he does," said Morgan. "He always comes prepared. Nobody can catch him on a technicality."
Bekesh said he and his staff must learn a lot of information about particular businesses as a matter of survival.
A fast-food restaurant, for instance, has strict requirements for where the chicken is breaded, how it gets in the box, the distance between work spaces.
"It's a science," said Bekesh. "They don't want us designing unless we understand how the dough ferments."
Bekesh said he shares the frustrations of his clients over what they see as heavy regulations. But he said getting projects going in Pasco is not too bad.
"People come in and say it's so difficult," he said. "It's not for us. I grew up here. Their staff knows us, and we know them."
Bekesh declined to say how much his firm makes each year. But he points out it pays engineers salaries - some in the six figures - plus full benefits. And Bekesh and his family enjoy the fruits of a prosperous business: They live in a Tarpon Springs home that Pinellas County assesses for $1.5-million.
"Rich is a self-made man," said Morgan, "there's no doubt about it."
Outside of Spring Engineering, Bekesh has dabbled in a few developments of his own. His latest: He owns a gated subdivision in Clay County, N.C.
Bekesh isn't working the long hours or traveling to government meetings around the country the way he used to. His theme had always been "fast and furious," he said, but things started changing about a decade ago.
He and his wife had their first child, Nathan, now 9. They later added 7-year-old Matthew and 5-year-old Emily. "If I'd had children in the initial 10 years," he said, "I would've never seen them."
He hopes that one or all of his children will want to one day take over Spring Engineering. It's a little early to say whether that will happen. But his oldest son has developed a hobby that might come in handy if he does get into the business: designing Web sites.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.