C+S January 2020 Vol. 6 Issue 1 (web)

Bill McConnell: Education has no Finish Line

Lifelong Learner is Engineering the Effort to Make Vertex a Billion-Dollar Business by 2030 By Richard Massey

It’s kind of difficult to describe Bill McConnell. The co-founder and CEO of The Vertex Companies, Inc. is certainly an engineer and an entrepreneur. Simple enough. But if you take everything else into ac- count – the stack of licensures and academic degrees, the refined global outlook, and the talent for conceiving, and then implementing, robust and varied growth strategies – McConnell defies easy definitions. Born on the East Coast but a happy transplant living out West, McConnell is comfortable discussing risk profiles and forensics, or algorithms and derivatives, or oil prices and construction costs. You’ll receive great answers if you ask a few questions, so Civil + Structural Engineer took the opportunity to do just that. A Conversation with Bill McConnell Civil + Structural Engineer: Take us back to 1995. Why did you and your co-founders start the firm? What nugget of wisdom has remained with you from that time? Bill McConnell: I grew up in an entrepreneurial household in Mas- sachusetts and I knew from the time I was in college, if not high school, that I wanted to start an engineering and construction company. My father’s advice to me was simple – success comes to those that work hard and work in the right direction. In other words, have a great strat- egy and then outwork your competition. I’ve tried my best to follow this advice my entire career. Sometimes great wisdom comes from its simplicity. When I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineer- ing in 1992, the environmental sector was booming. Around 1994, I spoke with a friend of mine, Jeff Picard, and his boss, Jim O’Brien, that worked for a national environmental engineering company, about this booming marketplace. Jeff and Jim expressed a similar desire to open a business, and because environmental services were complimentary to design engineering and construction services, we started to develop a plan to incorporate a full-service AEC firm. C+S: The buy-back from Tetra Tech was a critical moment in the his- tory of the firm. Tell us about it. Bill: Vertex experienced significant growth through its first five years of operations. This growth attracted the interest of several large AEC firms. In 2001, Tetra Tech, Inc. acquired Vertex. At that time, as re- mains the case today, Tetra Tech was a perennial top design firm in the country. It was an honor to work for the likes of Dr. Li-San Hwang, the founder and then CEO of Tetra Tech, and Dan Batrack, the current

The Pier 6 Brooklyn Bridge Apartments. Vertex provided structural engineering design. Photo: ODA New York

CEO of Tetra Tech. I liken my experience there to earning an MBA on how to successfully run a billion-dollar business. Between 2000 and 2005, Vertex expanded its forensic claims offerings that service the insurance and legal industries. At that time, forensics did not fit within any of Tetra Tech’s core service groups, so a strategy divergence developed, which prompted the management buyout of Vertex from Tetra Tech. This buyout created a win-win for both parties, and Vertex continues to work with Tetra Tech on certain projects today. C+S: A well-known architecture firm in Boston recently surprised a lot of people by closing its doors for good. Why do firms, even ones with brand names, fail and go away? Bill: Typical A&E design fees, like typical constructor fees, are thin when measured against the risk profiles for such services. Accordingly, taking your eye off the risk management ball, even for a short period, can be catastrophic. Moreover, firms that lack growth over time often realize profit margin erosion due to labor escalation that outpaces rate increases. Properly managing risk while focusing on growth is a bal- ancing act that separates sustainable firms from non-sustainable firms. C+S: You have extensive experience as an expert witness in construc- tion disputes, particularly for cost and/or standard of care opinions. Is there a “typical” mistake or pattern that you have seen in these cases? Bill: Yes. The majority of disputes that I am involved with have com- mon themes. In terms of construction defect litigation, the disputes typically involve building envelope design and/or construction, and civil design and/or construction, that allegedly is not in compliance with applicable building codes, manufacturer’s recommendations, and/or industry standard publications. Designers and constructors that design and/or build to these requirements, and document adherence, can avoid disputes. In terms of construction/design disputes that involve contract claims, the trend over the past few years is a significant increase in schedule and quality issues caused by the shortage of skilled construction work- ers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of construction workers in 2019 remains less than what it was in 2006, de- spite the significant rise in put-in-place construction spending between the two periods. This workforce shortage has caused most construction


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