Embodying UL’s Mission: An Inside Look at the 50-Year Career of “Mr. Safety”
Consumer Safety Director and UL Spokesperson John Drengenberg started his career testing radios and televisions, starred in Hollywood with the Muppets and maintains his passion for UL’s mission to the present day.
John Drengenberg entered UL’s Chicago office as an employee for the first time on Feb. 15, 1966.
Recruited from the University of Wisconsin-Madison after completing his electrical engineering degree, Drengenberg initially thought he would spend “a year or two, at most,” with the company, as he expected that the job of testing various products would allow him to identify his true engineering passions. But as it turned out, UL’s mission of “safety first” became his passion – and five decades later, he remains committed to UL’s goal to help consumers stay safe and live better through safer products.
“When I initially interviewed with UL on campus, I was intrigued by all the products that they tested,” Drengenberg stated. “I knew I studied electronic circuit design in school, and the job would also give me the opportunity to see which product categories I wanted to work on.”
Located close to the lake on Ohio Street, the five-story building where Drengenberg would spend his first 12 years at UL is dwarfed in size by today’s sprawling Northbrook headquarters. But that building, which has since been torn down and replaced with condos, was a hub of activity as young engineers came up with new and creative ways to test products for fire and electrical hazards.
When he started his career, protests against the Vietnam War and other political unrest was helping to raise consciousness about many issues. Drengenberg found it personally fulfilling to be part of a company which was founded on social responsibility and saw in his role that he was making a small contribution towards a better world through writing standards and testing consumer products such as hair dryers, televisions and other household appliances.
During one of Drengenberg’s first projects testing a clock radio, the device failed UL’s impact test and, therefore, was at a risk of causing a hazard. The result of the test showed it was necessary to add a reinforcement to the bottom of the radio, in the event a consumer dropped the product. It wasn’t until months later, when Drengenberg was in a department store and saw the clock radio on its shelf with the reinforcement part that ultimately helped the radio pass the test, that he fully understood the impact he could have by working at UL.
“My role at UL has certainly evolved over the years,” Drengenberg said. “But the mission and messaging of consumer safety remains the same. This is a testament to how important the company’s work is for the everyday end-user.”
For many people outside of UL, Drengenberg is the face of the company and its mission to keep consumers safe. As the company’s most prominent spokesperson, Drengenberg has shared a behind-the-scenes look into UL’s mission through more than 2,400 media interviews on every major network, including the programs, Good Morning America, the TODAY Show and the Fox Report. He also regularly contributes to the UL consumer safety website www.safebee.com.
While he never had the expectation of taking on a media spokesperson role, his career as an engineer prepared him well for standing in front of the camera and talking about technical issues.
“Having worked as an engineer in UL’s electronics department and major appliances group, I was able to speak easily about the safety concerns and provide consumer tips for many products,” Drengenberg noted. “And as interview subjects expanded to bulletproof glass, or smart meters, I spoke with onsite engineers regarding the standards that have been developed and relayed their messages to the public.”
Drengenberg remembers his first interview during the 1983 holiday season: a two-minute radio spot that he reluctantly agreed to participate in after his fellow engineering colleague had to decline due to other commitments. At the time, he could have never anticipated that this interview would open the door to a second career with UL, and one that has now kept him on his toes for more than 30 years.
“My first interview covered holiday safety tips, including candles and watering your Christmas tree,” Drengenberg said. “Surprisingly, I’ve continued these holiday safety briefs every year since then, evolving the messaging to include topics such as LED lights, pre-lit artificial Christmas tree safety standards, indoor air quality, and now, transaction and cybersecurity.”
Taking on the role of UL “brand ambassador” has come with some unique challenges and opportunities for Drengenberg. He’s polished his ad lib skills with reporters who veer off topic, expanded his horizons when it comes to safety testing methodologies, and has learned the importance of tailoring the message to your audience, whether it be for Martha Stewart or fans of the Muppets.
“Out of all the interviews I have had, from filming a segment in the rain in Portland for outdoor power tool safety to filming at Santa’s House in Washington, D.C. — to this day, the most memorable interview I have been a part of was my holiday safety segment with the Muppets,” Drengenberg exclaimed.
Flown out to Hollywood, and dressed as famous Muppet Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Drengenberg stood alongside Kermit the Frog and Beeker to deliver consumer holiday safety tips that would resonate with viewers of all ages.
“When I arrived onsite, the producer noted my uncanny resemblance to Dr. Honeydew, saying he was bald and wore glasses, and I was bald and wore glasses,” Drengenberg laughed. “They dressed me like the doctor for the segment.”
Whether on camera, or behind-the-scenes in the labs, where he’s tested and written standards for everything from toasters to garage doors operators, to his role as a UL executive, John Drengenberg has remained the personal embodiment of UL’s mission for 50 years.
In that time, he has been a part of significant historic industry changes that affected not only UL, but also changed manufacturing and safety certification as a whole.
“Looking back at testing and manufacturer product line inspections in many of our clients’ overseas production facilities in the late 60s and early 70s, it was safe to say that we were just at the tip of the iceberg of the consumer products revolution,” Drengenberg said.
“The globalization of the company and the integration of digital technology have been the two most striking changes I’ve seen during my tenure at UL. While the continuity of safety testing has remained steadfast in our day-to-day activities, the capacity to which the company has grown since I’ve started, as well as the ability to communicate with manufacturers and even co-workers overseas, has been the biggest contribution to UL’s business as a whole.”
To say Drengenberg’s work for UL has been multi-faceted is an understatement. He’s had the opportunity to lead multiple career paths over the past five decades and has embraced every challenge and request that has come his way. From an antique car enthusiast and HAM radio operator, to the days of writing standards and managing testing groups for electronics products and home appliances, to his unlikely broadcast career that led to the distinction as PR News’ Spokesman of the Year, and to the go-to resource for tours of UL’s campus and lab facilities, John has always put the company’s safety mission first.
“Measuring the impact this company has on a global scale is intangible,” Drengenberg said. “We know that we help save lives and prevent injuries, and I believe that anyone that works for this company, whether in the C-suite, as an engineer or on our dedicated maintenance crew — all UL employees have an important role in carrying out the company’s mission.”
With 50 years of history at the company, there is no person better suited to hold the title of “Mr. Safety.”
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