Tough Engineering Classes Forged These CEOs

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Grace Merritt

5 min read

Was there something in the water in Castleman?

Joking aside, the School of Engineering’s main classroom building produced an unusual number of CEOs from chemical engineering in the early ’80s.

At least three have become leaders of industry. Two are CEOs and one is a managing partner in a large law firm. That’s a relatively large percentage of their graduating class.

Why so many?

Well, Mark Vergnano ’80, Frank Bergonzi ’83, and Michael Cantor ’80, ’83 JD say it was the combination of UConn’s top-notch engineering professors, a rigorous course load, and the discipline to handle it.

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“What led to my success was the opportunity to take a lot of different types of engineering courses: physical, chemical, organic, thermodynamics, and civil. And you’ve got to be proficient in math. It was a great foundation for a lot of the things that go into running a business,” said Bergonzi, CEO & President of Azelis Americas.

The three leaders remember the chemical engineering curriculum being so difficult that their entering class of 100 whittled down to 34 by the time they graduated.

Bergonzi remembers the first day in his chemistry class in a big hall full of students.

“The professor said, ‘Look to your left. Look to your right. One of you won’t be here in a year,'” he said.
They got through the four years by forming study groups, spending a lot of time in the library, and dedicating themselves to studying.

“Engineering to me is a discipline about discipline. It’s about logic, and running a business is very logical,” said Vergnano, President and CEO of The Chemours Co., a global chemistry company.

Cantor, who went into law after graduating and now heads the intellectual property law firm Cantor Colburn LLP, agreed.

“I had to learn how to be a disciplined problem-solver. That skill set—discipline and problem-solving—is transferable,” said Cantor, who went into patent law and helped grow his Hartford-based firm from half a dozen attorneys to more than 100 today.

Bergonzi joined Union Carbide in Danbury, Conn. after graduating and became a regional manager at age 28. He said his decision to get into management early and hold a series of management jobs and positions in various companies gave him the experience he needed to become a CEO.

The three leaders have something else in common. They each married UConn grads. Vergnano and Bergonzi met their wives in college. Cantor met his wife, Shari, a CPA, who is today the mayor of West Hartford, Conn., shortly after graduating when they were both working in Hartford.

“There is no question in our minds that we are who we are because of UConn,” Cantor said of himself and his wife. “Socio-economic diversity at UConn was a really important part of that. Everybody felt that they could do as well as their peers at Ivy League schools. There was a hunger to achieve in their respective fields.”

All three leaders are pleased with how far the Engineering School has evolved since their days in the 80s when slide rules were just being replaced by calculators and students still programmed in Fortran.

The school, which just celebrated its 100th anniversary, has greatly expanded its faculty and undergraduate enrollment. It just opened a $62 million engineering and science building and is a key player in the new Connecticut Technology Park under construction in Storrs.

“I could not be prouder of UConn Engineering,” Cantor said. “It’s becoming a global powerhouse.”

The Path to CEO

Here’s a closer look at the path each took.

photo of Mark Vergnano '80

Mark Vergnano

President and CEO, the Chemours Co.

Vergnano landed a job at DuPont after graduating and quickly became interested in the business side of the operation. He enrolled in an evening program at Virginia Commonwealth University to earn his MBA. He built his resume by taking various manufacturing, technology, sales, and marketing assignments at DuPont around the United States and Switzerland, running progressively more complex business units.

When DuPont decided to spin off Chemours as a start-up in 2015, he jumped at the chance to run it. Chemours has more than 7,000 employees and generates $6 billion in revenues.

He and his wife, Betsy (Reddington) Vergnano ’81 (CLAS), live in West Chester, Pa., and have two adult daughters.

photo of Frank Bergonzi '83

Frank P. Bergonzi Jr.

CEO & President of Azelis Americas

Upon graduating, Bergonzi took a job in chemical sales at Union Carbide in Danbury, Conn., and became a regional manager there five years later. He steadily worked his way up through the ranks by taking a series of important positions at other Fortune 100 companies, eventually becoming President and CEO of KODA Distribution Group in 2012. In 2015, KODA was acquired by Azelis Americas, a chemical distribution company based in Stamford, Conn., and Bergonzi became CEO and President.

Bergonzi lives in Westport, Conn., with his wife, Mary-Lisa (Shukis) Bergonzi ’84 (ENG), also a chemical engineering major, and they have three adult children. When he’s not working, he likes to go boating and perform occasionally as lead singer in a Bruce Springsteen tribute band.

photo of Michael Cantor '80, '83 JD

Michael A. Cantor

Co-Managing Partner, Cantor Colburn LLP

When he was still at UConn, Cantor befriended some grad students in chemical engineering who told him about the field of intellectual property law. After graduating, Cantor decided to enroll in law school and specialize in patent law, using his expertise in chemical and materials engineering. He then joined a small patent law firm where he worked for Dave Fishman ’61 JD, who became his mentor. Cantor eventually became co-managing partner of the firm together with a colleague, Phil Colburn. They built the firm into the fastest growing patent law firm in the country. Cantor is also an Adjunct Professor at UConn Law. He is on the advisory boards of the schools of law and engineering, and he was inducted into UConn Engineering’s Hall of Fame.

Cantor and his wife, Shari (Granow) ’81 (BUS), live in West Hartford, Conn. and have four adult sons, two of whom are UConn grads. Besides being the Mayor of West Hartford, Shari is also a UConn Trustee. Outside of work, he enjoys spending time with his family at their summer house on Cape Cod.

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