Lily Bembenek looks back on 50 years at A. O. Smith

Lily Bembenek today

A. O. Smith’s longest-serving employee almost didn’t work for the company in the first place.

It was spring 1968, and Lily (Chow) Bembenek was about to finish her associate’s degree in secretarial science. Her parents owned a small laundry business near the sprawling A. O. Smith Milwaukee Works on the city’s north side, and next store to them was a barber shop where company executives would come to have their hair cut. 

One of those executives was the company president, Urban Kuechle, and he had watched Bembenek grow up.  Knowing she was about to graduate, Kuechle told her to come and see him about a job at A. O. Smith.

Bembenek knew A. O. Smith well, especially the seven-story Research Building which was the focal point of the 150-acre complex. “That tall building always looked so impressive to me,” she remembers.  She entered the Art Deco building with the ornate lobby and proceeded to the fourth floor where the executives had their offices. 

Kuechle’s secretary, Bernice Ruppert, also impressed the young woman.  “She was very friendly and very professional.  I told myself I wanted to be like her someday.”

Lily Bembenek 1968After meeting with Kuechle and the personnel department, they made her a job offer as a filing clerk. “I came in, they showed me my office with a big steel desk mounded with paper.  I thought to myself, ‘I hate filing.’” Bembenek turned down the job. Two months later, another position opened as a clerk typist.  On June 17, 1968, Bembenek Chow began her career at A. O. Smith.

Her first position was in the quality control (QC) department working for Tom Toeppner.  A. O. Smith was a much different company in those days.  The senior leaders and managers were all men and were all addressed as “Mr.” They all wore dark suits, white shirts, and ties. All of them drove American cars—mostly from General Motors, as A. O. Smith was a major supplier to the automotive industry at the time.

While in QC, she also worked with the internal patent team and was given additional responsibilities supporting the mergers and acquisitions department. Her new boss, Donald Brooks, was just completing the major purchase of the Armor Elevator Company.  The Armor acquisition did not work out for the best, and Brooks left the company soon thereafter. 

By this time, Bembenek had moved to the public relations department under the leadership of the colorful Jack Birchhill.  Bembenek had found her home in PR:  “I loved the exposure to the communications, the internal audiences, the external audiences, the media.”

Lily Bembenek and teamAt the time, the PR department was hard at work preparing for the company’s 100th anniversary celebration. Bembenek and the team helped coordinate multiple events at A. O. Smith’s locations around the company including a major event for families and the public in Milwaukee. “The 100th anniversary was a great event, it was celebrated by all of the employees,” she comments.

Some of the work was not nearly as enjoyable. Bembenek remembers when A. O. Smith announced it was hiring 150 factory workers during the depth of the 1983 recession.  More than 15,000 unemployed people showed up to apply, creating a national media firestorm.  “I had three telephone lines, and they were constantly ringing.  My desk was covered with pink paper; I kept taking messages for Jack since he was the company spokesman.”

Birchhill  died tragically of lung cancer in 1986, and Bembenek acquired a new boss, Ed O’Connor, who at the time was vice president-human resources. O’Connor had come up through the automotive organization and was not familiar with public relations. Bembenek and the team had the job of bringing him up to speed on how internal and external communications worked at A. O. Smith. Interestingly, he was the first executive who insisted she call him by his first name.

O’Connor remained in the role until his retirement in 2004 when Bembenek’s current manager, Mark Petrarca, took the human resources and public affairs role.

When asked who of the many people she’s met stand out in her memory, Bembenek doesn’t hesitate:  “L. B. Smith.  Mr. Smith was so down to earth; he just made you feel comfortable when he talked to you.”  Bembenek, Controller-International Tom Bartell, and Vice President-Investor Relations Pat Ackerman are the last employees who worked with Ted Smith, who retired in 1984.

Bembenek has witnessed many changes over a half century.  The biggest change, she says, was when the company exited the automotive industry in 1997.  “Automotive was a part of my life for 30 years, I never thought the family would approve of us leaving.  I marvel at how well the transition was done; it turned out to be the right decision.”

Bembenek also credits herself with introducing A. O. Smith to the China market.  In 1992, she was flying back to Milwaukee from Hong Kong after a vacation in China with two co-workers.  On the plane back, she sat next to a businesswoman who was doing business in China.  She was convinced the Chinese wanted appliances, most notably water heaters, and she gave her card to Bembenek.

Bembenek dutifully sent the card to Bruce Smith, who was executive vice president-sales and marketing for the former Water Products Company.  Smith acknowledged he received the card, but didn’t comment about what he did with it.  Three years later, A. O. Smith announced it was entering the China market and starting a joint venture to make water heaters.  Was that Bembenek’s doing?  The records are inconclusive.

A. O. Smith and its people have made a tremendous impact on Lily Bembenek.  The company helped her earn a college degree; her brother worked 33 years with A. O. Smith (and Tower Automotive) and she met her future husband at A. O. Smith.

Her career has come full circle.  Today, she not only supports Petrarca, but also the corporate development team who focus on acquisitions.  And, much like Bernice Ruppert, she is the assistant to the president of A. O. Smith, Kevin Wheeler.