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One-on-one with Mike Mechenbier

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Mike Mechenbier has always appreciated a stiff challenge.

Transforming what was essentially a dumping ground outside of Belen into a pecan orchard seems a little nuts, but he did it anyway.

Repairing a collapsed, 6-foot-wide sewer line that serves most of Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights is probably even more complicated than it sounds and yet Mechenbier and his crew once pulled that off, too.

“I love jobs like that, that nobody can figure out,” he says.

THE BASICS: Born Mike Mechenbier on April 3, 1953, in Albuquerque; bachelor’s in business management from New Mexico State University; married to Kathy since Aug. 4, 1979; adult daughters Jessica Richardson, Abby Eden, Katie Mechenbier and Emily Mechenbier; Jack Russel terrier named Hoss.
POSITION: Owner of Sundance Mechanical and Utility Corp. and a ranch, farm and feed lot; board member for El Ranchito de los Niños; board member for New Mexico Bank & Trust.
WHAT YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Mechenbier is completely computer illiterate, having given up on them as a college student in the 1970s. He says the punched-card programming of yore was so frustrating that he decided to abandon computers forever.
“I swore if my employment depended on a computer, I would find something else to do,” he says.
That means he doesn’t surf the Internet or know how to check email. He says he once “caught hell” from his assistant for unplugging her computer in a misguided attempt to shut it down.
Mechenbier says he hates the impersonal nature of the digital age and won’t even use his cellphone to send text messages because he thinks it prevents a true connection.
“I love being around people, talking to people, and that’s one thing that’s truly missing in today’s world,” he says. “People would rather text or email than hear somebody’s voice.”

Mechenbier — a jack-of-many-trades who ranches, farms and owns Sundance Mechanical & Utility Corp. — has been testing the bounds of his ingenuity since childhood.

Just ask his old high school teachers.

A teenage Mechenbier was once expelled from St. Pius (though later readmitted) for what he describes as “mischievous reasons.” His offenses included super-gluing locker locks throughout campus and — oh yeah — putting a teacher’s car on the school’s roof.

“Her car broke down, and we thought it would be funny if she came the next day and it was all the way on top of the gym. It took us all night to do it, but it was sitting on top of the gym like a bell tower,” Mechenbier recalls, adding that the process involved the clever deployment of some nearby telephone poles.

Mechenbier has since applied the same ambitious spirit to projects with much more meaning. For example, he and his wife started an orphanage in Tomé in 2000.

To hear Mechenbier tell it, the idea for El Ranchito de los Niños struck him one night “after one too many beers.” At the time, Sundance was offering financial assistance to struggling families through various programs and organizations, but Mechenbier felt the mission had drifted. He started thinking out loud about starting an orphanage. He wanted to give children from difficult situations the food, shelter and education they needed while also offering the comfort of a rural environment full of animals.

“So many of these kids come and they’re so damaged, they can’t even bond to a person, but they can bond to an animal, and take care of an animal and become responsible,” says Mechenbier, who has his own canine shadow, Hoss, with him at all times, whether in his office at Sundance or at board meetings for New Mexico Bank & Trust.

There are now 11 residents at El Ranchito. While nuns run the show at the ranch-style house, “Big Mike” — as he’s known to the kids — has always been a big hit there.

“I have kids hanging off me from one end to the other,” he says of his visits. “It’s pretty gratifying (to see) that they can finally heal and start trusting again.”

Mechenbier will tell you he’s led an all-around gratifying life, both personally and professionally.

Sundance — started as something of a side project — grew larger than he ever imagined, and it now employs about 100 people.

Mechenbier runs the company while remaining a prolific presence in agriculture, his true passion. His expansive 4 Daughters ranching operations — named for his all-female offspring — remains his professional pride and joy, and he is now one of the nation’s top 100 private landowners according to Land Report magazine.

Mechenbier likes to attribute his success to family and the people he’s worked with through the years. After all, he says, he never really had much of a blueprint for himself.

“It wasn’t a big plan. It just all kind of happened,” he says. “The indefinite future for me is probably three days out. … My dad used to always say, ‘You can’t think and worry at the same time.’ If you want to do a whole lot of planning, you’ll be sitting there worrying and you’ll miss out on a lot.”

That is not to say that Mechenbier didn’t have some sense of what he wanted to do. His rural South Valley upbringing clearly set the tone for his entire life. The son of a rancher/farmer/plumber father, he’s always loved tending the land and dreamed of a career that allowed him to be outdoors and wear Levi’s every day. He assumed that would involve taking over his father’s Estancia ranch, though his dad fell ill and the family sold the land before Mechenbier had the chance.

He and Kathy started instead with a small Albuquerque farm, but were quickly forced to diversify when a pig disease wreaked havoc on that operation. Mechenbier started Sundance hoping that it would keep him afloat for a few years. That was 1979.

Asked if the company has exceeded his expectations, Mechenbier doesn’t hesitate.

“My whole life has,” he says.

Q: How did your childhood influence your career path?

A: I think of the two greatest gifts I was given as a child — or three — one was my faith, second was my work ethic and the third was my education. And a good wife along the way didn’t hurt either.

Q: Do you have any career regrets?

A: No. I think what I love about my life the most is I have the opportunity to go out in the morning and help Jose irrigate for a couple hours … that afternoon be at a bank board meeting in the same pair of Levi’s, and then the following day be in the governor’s office. I have absolutely no regrets about my life. I’ve been extremely blessed for having great daughters to great employees, great friends. Life’s good.

Q: What’s it like to have four daughters?

A: I asked God when I was a young man to surround me with women. This wasn’t what I had in mind — a wife, four daughters, the nuns at the children’s home. (laughs) You better watch what you wish for. I have to say all my daughters are very involved, they’re not girly-girls. They’re very attractive young women, but they’re all involved in some form or fashion on the agricultural end of it, which I’m very proud of.

Q: What’s your favorite meal?

A: Probably a ribeye steak, but you know really one of my most favorite things? My grandmother was an immigrant from Germany and we ate a lot of German food growing up. Some of those dishes, most people think they’re extremely bland but I love them. Potato dumplings. It’s grated potatoes and they have no seasoning. When we were little, my mom and my grandmother would put a cruton or bread crumb in two or three of them, and whoever got those bread crumbs, that would bring them luck.

Q: What do you do to relax?

A: I don’t know if I do. (Laughs) I’ll relax sitting on a tractor or going to the ranch. A good beer and a cigar don’t hurt anything either.

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