Conference call: Anthony Bartolomeo

President and CEO of Pennoni (Hot Firm #48 for 2016), a 1,250-person engineering firm based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

By Liisa Andreassen
Correspondent

“One recommendation for leadership in a firm is a better working knowledge in the financial operation of our business,” Bartolomeo says. “Business courses in understanding profit and loss statements, balance sheets, how staff utilization and multipliers affect the bottom line – all of these are important aspects that need to be interwoven into a management career path.”

Bartolomeo joined the firm in 1986 and has more than 40 years of experience in environmental engineering, coupled with broad experience in relationship development at the federal, state, and local government levels.

A CONVERSATION WITH ANTHONY BARTOLOMEO.

The Zweig Letter: The talent war in the A/E industry is here. What steps do you take to create the leadership pipeline needed to retain your top people and not lose them to other firms?

Anthony Bartolomeo: We live up to our tagline, “Partners for what’s Possible,” meaning we have a “yes” attitude when it comes to projects. We constantly adapt to our clients’ needs, as well as the needs of our changing environment. By doing that, we push and allow for new, exciting, and innovative technology and practices that keep our work top-notch and our employees on a growth path. We have also initiated a pretty aggressive staff training program.

TZL: The A/E market is great right now. What are you doing to cushion your firm in the event of a downturn?

AB: We’re tracking the market; we’re prepared for any changes. Our wide-range of services and diversely-skilled employees place us in markets from civil infrastructure and energy to sustainability and innovation. We literally build the world around us and never limit ourselves or place ourselves in a position of industry-limitations. We have a strategic growth initiative to constantly look outward for initiatives that we should look to enter in the ever-changing technological fields.

TZL: How do you deal with underperforming employees? What are your steps for removal after they have proven to be ineffective, or even counterproductive, to your firm?

AB: Always a challenge. We work with employees that may be underperforming and try to find ways to improve their skill sets and performance. Sometimes you still have to make the tough decisions. Luckily that is the rare exception.

TZL: In the event of failure, how does your firm react?

AB: We react as a team. We evaluate the situation from beginning to end and guide each other to a desirable and more productive outcome by recreating the steps we took to achieve success next time around. Following our communication roadmap and prioritizing debriefing, our employees come together and walk away with a positive, hopeful, and action-oriented plan.

TZL: Monthly happy hours and dog friendly offices. What do today’s CEOs need to know about today’s workforce?

AB: Today’s CEOs need to know that their employees are their best asset. And they do – that’s why we’re starting to see headlines with companies like Google and Facebook creating and encouraging brighter (and sometimes radical) company culture. They want their employees to feel appreciated and to be happy at work. We value our employees’ happiness and time away. As a result, we have summer hours; we’ve created a group called “Network” that empowers our junior staff to work on items such as employee retention and innovation; and we use “Workplace” to encourage internal collaboration on items from project updates to new babies and anniversaries along with other similar initiatives.

TZL: Firms that have principals and firm owners that lower their compensation and invest back into the firm perform better, grow quicker, and have higher valuations. How do you balance owner compensation with investment in the firm?

AB: Our founder, Chuck Pennoni, made the decision many years ago to transition ownership to an ESOP. Ours has been in place for close to 25 years and has been very successful. As an employee-owned firm all of our employees get to share in the company’s success.

TZL: How does marketing contribute to your success rate? Are you content with your marketing efforts, or do you think you should increase/decrease marketing?

AB: We are very proud of our marketing group. We pride ourselves on communication – internal and external – whether it be attending conferences, investing in community events, or simply relaying project and employee news to the public online and in publications. Our marketing efforts are a catalyst for our continued geographic and market/services expansions. We attract top talent and new clients with the help of our marketing and thought leadership efforts such as our digital newsletter, social media, strategic sponsorships, high-profile award wins, and more. Marketing should increase as a company grows, and since we are still growing, our marketing efforts will grow with us.

TZL: If there was one program, course, or degree program that you could take or recommend before becoming a principal or owner, what would it be?

AB: Whether a technical or non-technical employee, we’re all trained in our profession either through our degree or through experience. One recommendation for leadership in a firm is a better working knowledge in the financial operation of our business. Business courses in understanding profit and loss statements, balance sheets, how staff utilization, and multipliers affect the bottom line – all of these are important aspects that need to be interwoven into a management career path.

TZL: What’s the greatest challenge presented by growth?

AB: Having the ability to navigate change while fighting to attract and maintain the top talent. Growth, whether organically or through M&As, welcomes new employees, new personalities and often new ways of doing things. We constantly look to maintain the firm’s core ways of conducting business while adapting to change and advancements in technology in innovation. New employees have to feel that they are a part of your organization but it’s a two-way street. They also have to work to make sure they understand the culture and how they might best fit in. Those that make the effort will quickly succeed.

TZL: What is the role of entrepreneurship in your firm?

AB: As an ESOP, we’re all owners so that starts the entrepreneurial process. We also have an Innovation Team that allows employees who have an idea that they feel might improve our firm, internally or externally, to present those ideas. The team will work with them on the development of a business plan. We have recently developed two software initiatives that we’re using for project delivery in the energy and transportation sectors.

TZL: What’s your prediction for the next five years?

AB: Our middle-management team just developed our new five-year strategic plan. Of course, our firm takes pride in our ability to be nimble giving us the ability to change course as needed in the event of a shift in the economy.

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