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CEO on the Go: Charlie Head

Published Wednesday Oct 28, 2015

Author ERIKA COHEN up, Charlie Head wanted to write for National Geographic magazine and travel the world. Head achieved the second part of his dream, though in a seemingly less glamorous career as an environmental engineer helping industrial clients evaluate and create plans to remediate potential building sites. 

Head is someone who likes to be on the move, whether it’s traveling or exercising. Head is an avid hiker and skier and runs daily to keep in shape and relieve stress. His running partner is also his business partner, and the topic of their discussions sets the pace. “We use it as a way to think about business issues we’re dealing with or just to catch up on personal things,” Head says of the daily runs of about three miles, which are never timed or measured. “It’s been a nice way to take a break and a different way to think that I find pretty productive … If we are dealing with a particular issue that requires thought I sometimes find our pace slows.” He adds that if they were focused on a goal of speed or distance, that would distract from the discussion they are having. “I think if we were driving ourselves to achieve certain thresholds, it would rob us of that,” he says. 

Head and three others started the engineering consulting company 22 years ago. For the first 12 years, Head was traveling all the time to such destinations as Brazil, France, England, Italy, India and his favorite place, North Central China (an autonomous region near the Mongolian border). “It was the remotest place I’ve ever been,” Head says of China, adding “There are very few places I don’t like to go.”

He says he likes meeting new people and experiencing countries in a way you can’t as a tourist. “You are working right alongside them. You get to see more of how they are in their everyday lives and I find that to be really fun.” 

Head says he and the other founders did not set out to build a firm with 120 employees and five other offices in the Northeast and Ohio. But as they grew, he worked hard to ensure its success into the next generation. “A lot of people who found companies have a difficult time passing it on, and it often leads to stunted growth or capacity,” or can, in some cases, lead to its demise, he says. To prevent that, Head took over as president and CEO 10 years ago. Then nine months ago, he passed the title of president to a younger leader, Barret Cole. “I don’t have any plan to retire soon but when the day comes, I want to know it’s in good hands.”

The company has long provided environmental and geotechnical services to the industrial, solid waste and development markets, but its newest market—energy—is also its fastest growing. Sanborn Head works on design, permitting and construction management for solar projects and natural gas, which Head says is a natural segue from its work in solid waste where it helped clients harvest gas from landfills.

When he’s not at work, Head’s time is spent outdoors. Just as he is proud of the company he built and is in the process of passing on to the next generation, he has done the same with his love of the outdoors to his adult children. His oldest daughter is an avid hiker and skier, his middle daughter is a white water rafting guide and on the ski patrol in Colorado and his son spent five years on the Appalachian Mountain Club trail crew. “It’s a legacy of the mountains that I’m very proud of.”

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