Pennoni’s 20-Year President and CEO Hands Reins to Successor
By Richard Massey
In his 20 years as President and CEO of Pennoni, Tony Bartolomeo has just about seen it all. Three recessions, ideas that worked and ideas that didn’t, heart-wrenching decisions and, above all, plenty of rewarding wins. Having been with the EPA for 11 years, in 1986 Bartolomeo joined Pennoni, where he established a one-man environmental practice. He became the go-to guy for the remediation of hazardous industrial sites, bridging the divide between government regulation and private land development. Based on the East Coast, once a manufacturing super hub, there was plenty of work to do. The environmental division expanded and became central to the firm. Over time, Bartolomeo familiarized himself with an array of Pennoni’s service lines, staff, geographies, and clients. He said he never had the role of President and CEO in his sights. But in 1999, when firm founder Chuck Pennoni asked him to become just that, how could he refuse? During his tenure, Pennoni has been a profitable firm that, through organic growth and acquisitions, has more than 1,200 employees with offices up and down the Eastern Seaboard. As he heads into retirement, Bartolomeo knows Pennoni is in good hands. David DeLizza, the firm’s former COO and a 40-year member of the company, took the reins in July. As the leadership transition winds down, Bartolomeo can look back on the last three decades and feel good about what he sees – his role in the firm’s commitment to reputation, profit, growth, and community service.
“I’m proud of being associated with Pennoni since 1986,” he said.
A Conversation with Tony Bartolomeo
Civil + Structural Engineer: You’ve spent 33 years of your career at one firm. There must have been more than a few ups and downs. What kept you at Pennoni all that time?
Tony Bartolomeo: The values of Honesty, Integrity, and Service which frame all decisions made by Pennoni’s leadership team and permeate throughout our firm has created an environment where our colleagues flourish as professionals and as individuals.
C+S: David DeLizza, the incoming president and CEO, is an accomplished engineer and executive in his own right, and has been with Pennoni since 1979. But even with stability, leadership transition is tricky. What steps did you and the Board take – and over what timeframe – to prepare for this moment?
TB: My initial discussion with our Board regarding my plans occurred in the fall of last year, and once fully developed it was announced to our staff in February of this year. This schedule allowed for an open and transparent process to select my successor and the time to transition smoothly.
Dave was selected to be the President and CEO of Pennoni, assuming the role on July 1. He has been on the Executive Team for nearly 20 years, over which time we have worked closely together on operational and development issues, so the internal role of the President and CEO are quite clearly and thoroughly understood by Dave. For the past several months, Dave and I have been assessing the positions I hold in a number of organizations external to Pennoni to determine to whom and when these engagements should be transitioned.
C+S: You were president and CEO before, during, and after the Great Recession. With talk of another economic downturn in the air, what advice can you give to AEC leaders as they prepare for changing times?
TB: Since I have been with Pennoni, three recessions have occurred. The first was in 1990-1991 and was precipitated by the savings and loan crises. The second occurred in 2001 with the boom/bust in the dotcom industry and was exacerbated by the attacks of September 11th. The third and most recent one was the “Great Recession” attributed to the subprime mortgage crises, which lasted from December of 2007 to June of 2009, and had a global impact. During each of these downturns, we were able to sustain profitable performance at Pennoni, mainly because of our base of public sector and private sector clients, and the diversity of services we provide.
In preparing for changing times, several analyses could inform firms’ leadership regarding potential mitigating measures that could be considered as economic conditions evolve. One is to perform a stress test on backlog to determine how much is under contract and liquid, for example, versus based on task order contracts which may not reach the anticipated level of effort forecasted by management. A routine exercise most firms perform is balancing staff to backlog to ensure that commitments to clients will be met and the financial integrity of the firm is assured.
Another measure to evaluate is the balance across sectors of a firm’s client base. Invariably in an economic downturn, private sector activities generally contract, and opportunities may arise in the public sector. At Pennoni, it seems that we have been close to a 50-50 public/private mix over the years, but that ratio has ranged to near 60-40 (or vice versa) depending if our economy was in a growing or contracting cycle.
A final consideration should be to assess initiatives that have been undertaken to determine if there is value in sustaining them through a downturn. Such initiatives could include service offerings, geographic locations, or technology investments that have been made but have not yet reached the level of performance projected.
C+S: As the long-time president and CEO of a large and important firm, you have an in-depth understanding of leadership. If you could boil all of it down into a few sentences, what would you say to a young engineer with an eye on the C-suite?
TB: I would advise a young engineer to take on assignments with energy and enthusiasm and make it your objective to perform well and treat every project as an opportunity to learn and expand your skills and capabilities. If you are associated with a good organization, your performance will not go unnoticed, and you will be offered positions with greater responsibilities which will advance your professional career and personal development.
C+S: Let’s talk about cross-pollination. During your tenure with the World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia, what did your experience as an engineer bring to that agency, and what did that agency bring to your work as an executive and engineer?
TB: Engineering is mostly about identifying problems and developing solutions through sound and rational thinking. Most organizations have ambitions and goals, but at times get bogged down in trying to determine the impediments to achieving their mission, and how to overcome them. Strategies which are incorporated into engineering analysis, such as data-driven decision making, and risk-based prioritization, can contribute strongly to deliberations of any organization on how to best use and optimize their resources to achieve the organization’s mission.
When I first became engaged with the World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia (WTCGP), I was intrigued at the time with the vision of the World Trade Centers Association (the global organization of which WTCGP is a member) – “Peace and prosperity through trade.” It made sense that if folks and businesses of different countries had mutually beneficial business dealings with each other, peaceful and stable relationships would best serve the sustainability of such benefits. As Chair of the WTCGP, I had the opportunity to attend several conferences and general assemblies where my exposure to people from around the globe enlightened me regarding the subtle yet profound impact of culture in conducting international business. That appreciation of the importance of culture has enriched my experiences in working with colleagues, clients, and communities here in the United States.
C+S: Pennoni seems synonymous with Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania. As president and CEO, how did you honor the relationship between the firm and both its public and private clients at the state and local level?
TB: From the founding of our firm by Chuck Pennoni in 1966, a major emphasis has been placed on community service; in fact, it is one of the three values that guide our priorities and decisions, the others being honesty and integrity. One of my major responsibilities over the years has been to engage with civic, business, and professional communities and strive to have a positive impact on the missions of each. The opportunities to do so included education and workforce development programs in both the City of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; the American Society of Civil Engineers; and the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. All these organizations contribute to the creation of opportunities in our communities via education and economic development and have in common the notion of inclusive prosperity.
C+S: Judging by your resume and experience, community involvement is very important to you. What did you get out of giving back?
TB: I grew as a person, more than professionally, from my involvement, getting much more than I gave. Understanding conditions that are impediments to individuals’ progress in their education, work opportunities, or life challenges, and determining how the organizations in which I was involved could help overcome such impediments for the people, and then implementing solutions, was quite rewarding.
C+S: Looking at your entire body of work, what stands out as your greatest achievement, whether it be as an engineer or as an executive?
TB: I would say that deciding to choose significance above success, which is probably the most valuable lesson I learned over the years from Chuck Pennoni, observing what he did and not just what he said.
C+S: You were only the third president and CEO in the firm’s history. Go back to that first year or two. What was the biggest misstep you made, and how did you respond? On the other hand, what was your biggest “win” in the early years?
TB: I became President in 1999, and two years later the 2001 recession occurred. I should have had a phased plan of action to adjust to the economic slowdown versus having to abruptly reduce 10 percent of our staff. Lesson was learned: We dealt with the Great Recession much more adroitly, deliberately, and successfully.
C+S: Your wheelhouse is environmental engineering. What strides has the industry made during your career, and what still needs to be done? How did your background and expertise influence Pennoni’s environmental services?
TB: Over the years, it seems as though cooperation, if not a partnering approach to addressing environmental issues, has become more prominent in our communities. Industries have realized that environmental stewardship makes good business sense; governments have adopted policies that incentivize beneficial projects such as energy conservation and storm water runoff reduction; and the general public has a greater appreciation of the value of open space and its impact on the health and vibrancy of people in their communities.
My experience at the Environmental Protection Agency gave me a solid appreciation for the advantages of cooperation versus confrontation in dealing with the regulated communities, be they state and local governments or industries. Certainly, all parties were aware of the enforcement powers of the federal government when it came to compliance with environmental laws and regulations; however, the path to resolution of matters was generally timelier and less costly through successful negotiation than litigation.
When I arrived at Pennoni in 1986, it was a time of heightened sensitivity to environmental issues, especially as they related to hazardous waste disposal and site contamination issues. Specifically in our land developments practice, the liability associated with cleanup costs and time delays often would place the successful development of projects in jeopardy. Our ability to serve the best interest of our clients by assessing risks, developing mitigation plans, and conducting effective negotiations with the government agencies, thus avoiding litigation, often led to the beneficial redevelopment of abandoned industrial sites. It was professionally gratifying to be relied upon by clients as trusted advisors and a member of their development team.
C+S: Backlog. Work-in-progress. Utilization. Fees. Profitability. Staffing. Technology. Differentiation. Value versus commoditization. Recruiting. Culture. Growth – and on and on. A CEO must monitor an endless list of metrics and indicators. What did you focus on to make sure Pennoni was always moving in the right direction?
TB: It is said that what gets measured gets managed. Our leadership team focuses on a few common metrics, such as utilization, multiplier, and cash flow to ensure that the baseline performance of our operations is sound. In addition, we look to sustain our success by investing in initiatives in technologies and geographic areas which hold promise for our future growth of services and market expansion. At times, such initiatives are measured more subjectively than established groups in our firm; their secondary and tertiary benefits are assessed, and the level of effort and investment needed to sustain them is evaluated.
However, our standing corporate goals of enjoying an excellent professional reputation, and achieving profitable growth, are paramount priorities for us.
C+S: Team building. What’s the secret to putting the right people in the right places?
TB: I guess the first step is learning the strengths of the members of the team and understanding the best position within the firm for them to have a positive impact. The next is to know the difference between patience and tolerance. It is said that you get what you tolerate. That does not serve the organization, nor the individual whose performance is being tolerated, quite well. And it does not necessarily mean termination of employment; if the person is committed to the firm’s success and has skills and attributes that could benefit the firm, the objective of the leaders should be to ensure the right fit.
C+S: As president and CEO, what’s the most difficult decision you ever had to make, and why did you have to make it?
TB: It was probably when we had to reduce our staff by 10 percent during the recession of 2001. It is difficult to let folks go who relied on our firm to support themselves and their families, but the financial integrity and long-term sustainability of our firm and the livelihoods of the other 90 percent of our colleagues depended on such a tough decision being made.
C+S: Looking at retirement, what are your plans?
TB: Goal: Do what I enjoy doing, with whom I want, and when I want. This applies equally to my professional and personal endeavors. Nice work if you can get it.
The Bartolomeo File
- Spouse of 42 years is Sandi; 4 children and 4 grandchildren.
- Last books read: “The Second World Wars”, by Victor Davis Hanson; “The Great Gatsby”, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
- Music: Sinatra, Jimmy Buffett, Motown, Beatles, Billy Joel and Hawaiian – have playlists of each that are hours long.
- Food: Italian, Greek, French, and Indian.
- Travel: Island time…Hawaii, St. John, and throw in the North Carolina Outer Banks.
- Hobbies: reading, grilling, and walking in the park.
Richard Massey is managing editor of Zweig Group publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.