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Top 100: Top Private CEO of the Year: From skyscrapers to single-family, Michael Bennett finds ‘fun’ at work

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Michael’s management tips

Be clear about your firm’s purpose.

“It’s super important to be really clear about your firm’s mission and purpose, purpose especially. Hire people in your firm that share your values because then you’re all pushing in the same direction for the same thing.”

Share praise with others.

“Hire people that you trust, and empower them to do what they do. Be sure that you share the praise with them when things go well. It’s really those people who’ve done the work. It hasn’t been you that did all the work.”

Respect your clients.

“Treat them like you’d want to be treated. In our firm, we try to be highly collaborative.”

Evolve as a company.

“I see a lot of people that learn how they think it works, and that may be how it worked 20 years ago, but that’s not how it works today. I think you have to recognize the fact that the world is continually evolving, and you have to do the same with your firm.”


Sundance Square Plaza. West Seventh. The Trinity River East Campus of Tarrant County College.

It’s not hard to spot the work of architecture firm Bennett Benner Partners around Fort Worth, and the portfolio keeps getting bigger with the construction of downtown Fort Worth’s newest skyscraper, Frost Tower, and the coming renovation of the Fort Worth Stockyards horse and mule barns.

The firm’s boss man – principal and CEO Michael Bennett – has a schedule loaded with board meetings, city meetings and other project-related activities lined up one after another. A couple of times a month, though, he gets a break from architecture work and plays bass guitar alongside Texas Christian University guitar professor Chip Christ at Lili’s Bistro on Magnolia Avenue.

But for Bennett, there’s no difference between “work” time and “me” time, he said. Whether it’s playing the bass or planning a skyscraper, Bennett said, he has “fun.”

“What I do for a living is also my hobby in a way, because it’s something I really enjoy doing,” he said. “If I work at night or early morning on the weekend on project-related stuff, I really enjoy that, so it’s not like it’s not ‘me’ time.”

Being an architect wasn’t Bennett’s lifelong dream, though. In fact, when he was studying for his undergraduate degree at TCU, he majored in a field that had nothing to do with architecture – music theory and composition.

Bennett studied bass and trombone and said his parents would ask him what type of career he would have with a music degree. After he graduated in 1978, he found himself asking the same question. He considered going back to school to get a master’s degree in music, but when he bumped into an old high school friend who had just completed an architecture degree, the idea of becoming an architect suddenly piqued his interest.

“I’d taken some drafting classes in high school and I thought, ‘You know, I really enjoyed that. Maybe that’s something I should think about,’ ” Bennett said.

He decided to attend the University of Texas at Arlington and earn his master’s degree in architecture. After graduating in 1983, he got his start as an intern for Dallas architecture firm HOK and later opened HOK’s office in Berlin (HOK would later consolidate all of its European offices in London). He later worked at the firms of Callison International and Hart Howerton before landing at the Fort Worth firm of Gideon Toal, now known as Bennett Benner Partners. He took over as CEO of Gideon Toal in 2008, just in time for the Great Recession, which Bennett calls “the biggest challenge of my whole career.”

It wasn’t easy being the company’s newly minted CEO and having to cut staff due to the recession, Bennett said. The company used to have about 60 employees and has about 40 today.

“We came out of it more careful about how quickly we hire people,” he said. “Having to lay people off was the worst thing that I’ve ever had to do in my professional career.”

The company would undergo more changes in the following years. In 2011, Gideon Toal changed its name to Bennett Benner Pettit – “Bennett” for Michael Bennett, “Benner” for principal, president and COO Bruce Benner and “Pettit” for then-principal and economic development director David Pettit. After Pettit left the firm in 2013, the firm changed its name again to Bennett Benner Partners.

Though the firm has changed its staff, its leadership and its name, Bennett Benner Partners has remained the go-to architecture firm in Fort Worth, building on its reputation for handling large projects with care and attention to detail.

One of those projects was Sundance Square Plaza, which the company completed three years ago. Sundance Square President and CEO Johnny Campbell said the plaza was a complicated project and people questioned whether it would open by its target date, Nov. 1, 2013. But Bennett Benner Partners exceeded expectations and was able to finish the project on time, Campbell said.

He said Bennett’s “collaborative personality” is part of the reason Fort Worth government officials and business leaders have trusted the company with large projects like Sundance Square Plaza.

“It is unusual for talented architects,” Campbell said. “Usually there are personalities that are involved and lots of dynamics. I imagine every organization has its own personality and dynamics. Michael just seems to be one of these people who can adapt and work effectively in most any environment.”

Bennett, a relatively mild-mannered and soft spoken person, is quick to turn attention away from himself and credit his team for the company’s success.

“There’s a team of 40 people or so, including Bruce Benner, that are super important to being able to do that,” he said. “It’s not one guy doing any of these projects.”

It’s not just large projects that Bennett Benner Partners gets involved with. Bennett said he’s proud of his company’s smaller projects, too, like the renovation of the Magnolia | May Building on West Magnolia Avenue, home to businesses such as the Thai restaurant Spice on Fort Worth’s Southside.

Paul Paine, president of Near Southside Inc., said Bennett took care in making sure the building matched the environment of Magnolia Avenue and the Near Southside.

“When you think about somebody that you want to work with, like you have a question about a project or something, Michael Bennett would be at the top of my list every time,” Paine said.

Of all the projects Bennett Benner Partners has worked on, Bennett said he doesn’t have a favorite.

“You love all your kids the same,” he said. “I feel that way about my projects. There’s not any that I would say is a favorite above another one. The next one is my favorite.”

One of Bennett’s next projects is the highly anticipated – and controversial – renovation of the Fort Worth Stockyards horse and mule barns. Bennett said the trick to handling a project like the Stockyards is simply to talk to people. The nonprofit historic preservation group Historic Fort Worth Inc., for example, was one of the groups Bennett Benner Partners consulted for the mule barn project.

“You have to go sit down and talk to people and listen to them,” Bennett said. “It’s amazing what that does. Generally speaking, that is a forgotten art.”

No matter the project, whether it’s the Stockyards, a skyscraper or a single-family home, Bennett said, the most fulfilling aspects of his job are seeing renderings become reality and even more important, seeing people enjoy the buildings he helps develop.

“The thing I like about architecture is you have an opportunity, in your work and what you do every day, to make a difference, to make a place a better place,” he said. “The lives of the people that are in your buildings or see your buildings, you have a chance to make that better.”

Bennett, 59, and his wife Melissa Mitchell have three children: Sophie, 20; Shelby, 19; and Sam, 16.

Notable projects

• Westlake Academy (completed in 2003)

• Museum of Living Art (MOLA) at Fort Worth Zoo (completed in 2009)

• Rogers Road Pavilion – The Woodshed Smokehouse (completed in 2011)

• Erma Lowe Hall – Texas Christian University (completed in 2011)

• Sundance Square, with David M. Schwarz Architects Inc. (completed in 2013)

• Fort Worth Botanic Garden – Rose Garden Improvements (completed in 2014)

• Le Cep Restaurant (completed in 2014)

• Grassland Ranch House (completed in 2015)

• Texas Wesleyan Rosedale Renaissance (completed in 2015)

• Presbyterian Night Shelter – The Morris Foundation Women & Children’s Center (completed in 2016)

• Eyeworks – University and West Seventh Street (completed in 2016)

• Historic Stockyards Horse and Mule Barns (in progress)

• Frost Tower (in progress)

Community involvement

• Arts Council of Fort Worth – board member

• College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington – Advisory Council

• Community Design Center Fort Worth – board president (August 2015 – August 2017)

• City of Fort Worth Master Thoroughfare Plan Task Force – board chairman (Oct. 21, 2014 – June 30, 2016)

• Cultural District Alliance Fort Worth – Advisory Board

• Downtown Fort Worth Inc. – board member

• Fort Worth Opera – Advisory Board

• Fort Worth Sister Cities International – board chairman

• Fort Worth South Inc. – board and Development Committee

• Real Estate Council of Greater Fort Worth – board chairman

• Salvation Army – DFW Advisory Board

• Tarrant County College District Vision Team

• Texas Christian University College of Fine Arts International Board of Visitors

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