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Wounds of layoff remain fresh for Bentley Systems' CEO

Losing a job and collecting unemployment stays with you no matter how successful you become.

That was clear as Greg Bentley recounted his “adventures in entrepreneurialism” before a small audience at the University City Science Center Wednesday morning.

He’s the CEO of Bentley Systems Inc., an Exton software company that was started in 1984 by his younger brothers, Keith and Barry, and was housed at the West Philadelphia business incubator in 1986.

Still privately held, Bentley Systems has become a leader in software used to design, engineer, build and operate roads, bridges, water systems and other infrastructure. Last year, its revenues were $450 million, down about 10 percent from the year before.

With good reason, the Science Center holds up Bentley Systems as an example of what can emerge from humble beginnings in a business incubator. The company located there because it needed access to a VAX minicomputer, Greg Bentley said. That was some seriously expensive hardware that the start-up could afford only on a time-share basis using one owned by an engineering company based at the Science Center.

But Bentley Systems remained in West Philadelphia only for little more than a year. It would be easy to blame the much-maligned city wage tax (and it was a factor). The bigger headache, Greg Bentley said, was the parking lot closed at 7 p.m. in those days. Not good for programmers working all hours of the night.

Today, Bentley Systems employs 2,800 people all over the world, including about 1,000 in the United States. It turned 25 in 2009, but as Bentley said, there was no celebrating during such a financially challenging year.

While the company continued to make targeted acquisitions and added 350 people to its ranks, it also had to lay off about 100 people. You would think that the CEO of a large company would be inured to the realities of job loss given the brutal nature of business.

But as Greg Bentley, now 54, described being laid off from his first job at a consulting firm in 1983, he choked up and stood silently at the podium for several long seconds. He had a wife, a child and a starter home at the time, and he had to file for unemployment.

He told me later that he didn’t collect that check for $200 or so for very long, but the memory surfaced last year as he had to make job cuts in his own organization.

As the nation waits for the job market to heal, there will be some like Greg Bentley, who decided to start his own company. “I wouldn’t have started a business if I hadn’t been laid off,” he said.

In 1983, he and two colleagues started Devon Systems International Inc., a developer of currency-options trading software. He used his Sears credit card to buy an IBM PC that Cristobal Conde and Dave Ehret used to write code. To fund the business, Bentley got a consulting job that took him to New York every day.

The product was a success, and Devon Systems was bought by SunGard Data Systems Inc. in 1987 for $40 million.

In 1991, Greg Bentley joined his four brothers at Bentley Systems, which had 35 employees at the time, to head up business development. His brothers are all engineers, while he’s all business. But the pell-mell fashion in which Bentley Systems grew and evolved led all of them to realize in the late ’90s that there “would come a day when we would not make payroll,” he said.

It was a little shocking to hear him say that management didn’t know how many employees it had. Named CEO in 2000, Greg Bentley had nightly “crisis meetings” to get a handle on the workforce, accounts receivable and other financial issues. “It wasn’t fun, but it was necessary,” he said.

Those crisis meetings convinced him to shoulder the responsibility for approving all personnel changes. Until last year, the changes had primarily been new hires.

That unguarded moment in front of a couple of dozen strangers Wednesday showed Greg Bentley felt the weight of those layoffs because he’s never forgotten his own.

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Kristen Fitch

Senior Director, Marketing