CEO of EDiS (Wilmington, DE), a fifth generation family-owned firm that has been thriving in the same region for more than a century.
By Sara Parkman
DiSabatino has been with EDiS since 1987. Since then, he has worked in multiple areas of the company including cost estimating, accounting and systems development, business development, project management, and operations management. He has been a co-founder of financial institutions, served in advisory roles for multi-national corporations, and is well versed in translating business strategy into facility design and construction. As CEO, DiSabatino’s No. 1 priority is making sure the people in his care are safe, happy, and fulfilled.
A conversation with Brian DiSabatino.
The Zweig Letter: EDiS has been thriving in the same region for more than a century. What would you say has contributed to this longevity and success?
Brian DiSabatino: There has been a century-long tradition that our contribution is more important than our self. When our founder Ernesto DiSabatino (notice the EDiS in his name?) came to America he quickly took a central role in the community to improve the quality of life for his fellow immigrants through the dignity of construction. As a result, historic landmarks were left in his wake and families thrived. Today we remain equally focused on building in a manner that honors this tradition, leaves a legacy of great buildings, and focuses on the importance of the person. We are blessed that this approach has helped sustain us since 1908.
TZL: What are the three to four key business performance indicators that you watch most carefully? Do you share that information with your staff?
BD: The first and most important indicator is the health of the persons in my care. Aside from their safety, our No. 1 priority, we have an obligation to make sure each person is finding our workplace a place to be fulfilled and are willing to treat each other and our customers with the same care. Profit and growth flow through this indicator or get bound up by its lack. We measure this indicator in surveys and through personal interaction. Secondly, our commitment to consistency and process. We measure our key processes to make sure they are being followed and adjust them to keep them relevant. Most profit and growth loss can be traced to a degradation of these processes. Third is the combination of margin and net profit, relative to the market. If we can keep our margins and profit healthier than the market, it is an indicator that we are being relevant to our customers, good stewards of our finances, and lifting each other as people.
TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”
BD: As CEO, the most difficult shift was making the transition to work “on the business.” This required me to improve my clarity of vision, clarity of instruction, hire the best and brightest, and trust them. Therefore, the vast majority of my time is spent on working “on the business,” but allows me the opportunity to dive down and get involved in details and the team needs me. My role is to make sure I am spotting issues with the market or the organization that will propel us or put us at risk, in the future. Ultimately, I’ve got to resolve these issues in advance of our arrival.
TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?
BD: Work and family are intertwined for me. As a business owner and now as CEO it is hard to have the kind of separation that others enjoy. As it is our responsibility to care for our own kin, we also bear the responsibility of all families within the organization. Therefore, our jobs are 24/7, 365 days a year. That issue can create an incredible burden on the family and must be balanced by purposeful separation from the business during family time. I can’t claim that I’ve succeeded in this category but can claim that I have been blessed with three very supportive children.
TZL: You co-founded a charity, 22in22, with your oldest son. Can you tell us a little bit about the charity and what it means to you?
BD: When my son came to me and wanted to serve his country, I quickly learned about the sacrifice of our military and their families. On average, 22 veterans and active duty military are lost to suicide every day. Together, we were acquainted with the epidemic of veteran suicide and decided to take a leadership role to help stop it. We found by establishing the 22in22 brand we could teach people about the 22 per day statistic while giving them a way to help. Suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of a national movement and in the midst of amazing volunteers who we now call family.
TZL: Artificial intelligence and machine learning are potential disruptors across all industries. Is your firm exploring how to incorporate these technologies into providing improved services for clients?
BD: I don’t like the word disruptor; I prefer accelerator. It is more focused on the positive. For 75 percent of my career I was frustrated that we could not move the needle on production and value to the customer fast enough. So, when two things occurred, we jumped on them. First was the environmental movement. I believe LEED and other environmental topics facilitated the concept of radical change that would follow with AI. Environmentalism taught the industry how to accept a 90-degree turn in approach. We have leapt into AI, making a complete commitment to using BIM, FIM (facility information management), and augmented reality to build better buildings, lower costs, and create a safer environment on our jobsites. We plan to lead.
TZL: What, if anything, are you doing to protect your firm from a potential economic slowdown in the future?
BD: We can’t prevent the eventual downturn, so it is our job to build better buildings and relationships with our customers so that we can weather the storm better than others.
TZL: You were VP Strategy & Marketing at EDiS for more than a decade. What’s the most valuable piece of marketing advice you can give your peers?
BD: As marketers it is important to understand the need for authenticity, empathy, connection, and the anchor. The marketer must only promote what they are, not what they wish they were. New and current listeners (customers, employees, curious bystanders) are wired to detect authenticity and crave honesty in an environment of distractions. The listener needs not only to know you understand them and can match your message to their situation, but needs you to communicate in a manner they can understand very quickly. Their minds are very busy. They need you to connect with them as people, not as buyers, knowing that you will care about them after the sale. And the message must sink in and be retained, even if repetition is required, or it will be substituted with other messages.
TZL: It is often said that people leave managers, not companies. What are you doing to ensure that your line leadership are great people managers?
BD: First, I need to demonstrate this myself. The organization can’t deliver on a philosophy inconsistent with one that I practice. So, my hope is that I deliver empathy, care, compassion, and vision to my direct reports. This doesn’t mean that I can’t drive high standards, quite the opposite. When you surround yourself with the right people and demonstrate that you are sincere in caring for them, they can reach new limits. We overtly discuss leadership topics in our organization, celebrate great examples, and address inconsistencies.
TZL: How are you balancing investment in the next generation – which is at an all-time high – with rewards for tenured staff?
BD: This has always been a challenge but seems heightened as investments in development have increased. Tenured staff need to see the next generation as the reward, these two topics should not compete with each other. The wisdom and energy of the next generation is quite exciting and new to the industry.
TZL: EDiS is a fifth-generation family-owned company. What did you learn growing up in the business?
BD: EDiS is bigger than me as an individual. As an owner of a company, often one can think that the company belongs to them. Our situation is different. We are the stewards of a tradition and brand that was created and cared for by our predecessors. We have an obligation to these folks to think long-term and make decisions that honor their contributions and inspire others into the future.
TZL: How do you handle a long-term principal who is resting on his or her laurels? What effect does a low performing, entitled principal or department head have on firm morale?
BD: This is one of the hardest topics to deal with, but the most important. A non-performer at the lower levels of an organization chart can be inconsequential, but a non-performing leader can be a cancer and needs to be dealt with. Friendships, fear of consequences, and fear of failure to resolve often cause paralysis. But not dealing with this issue is negligence on the part of the CEO and unfortunately comes with the territory. That being said, we should not ignore the fact that many times the situation can improve, and we often lose sight of the positive impacts of improvement or, regrettably, separation. But leaving non-performance in place is not acceptable.
TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
BD: The biggest struggle I had (and probably have) is the notion that everyone knows what is on my mind, sees the vision, buys in, and is working in sync. The idea of leadership through osmosis is a common fault and needs to be avoided. This pitfall puts a lot of emphasis of leadership through relationship building because as a leader, we must connect one-on-one with others to ensure the collaboration, vision, buy-in, and execution are working.
TZL: Research shows that PMs are overworked, understaffed, and that many firms do not have formal training programs for PMs. What is your firm doing to support its PMs?
BD: This was a blind spot of ours, years ago. When we began to see the stress and lose talented people because of it, we implemented a few changes. First, we better staffed our projects. This meant losing some because of price, but they ended up being projects that would not have appreciated the value we added anyway. Secondly, we hired a robust group of project engineers who could lighten the load of our senior staff while learning their way into the PM ranks. Lastly, we adjusted our work environment to focus on personal health, wellness, and fulfillment in new ways.
TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?
BD: We don’t just keep the door wide-open; we make a conscious effort to recruit from a diverse pool. Recognizing that this is difficult, we have spent a significant amount of time extolling the virtues of our industry in schools where kids from disadvantaged backgrounds need role models.
TZL: You co-founded the town of Whitehall, Delaware. How did this come about? What was your vision for the town?
BD: We were approached by a philanthropic foundation that owned a significant amount of land. Wanting to convert the asset into cash, they knew they had a responsibility not to let it fall into the hands of careless developers. We established a vision that would hopefully change real estate patterns and sprawl by laying the groundwork to create a new “place.” We thoughtfully studied and emulated the planning models of historic towns in Delaware, the United States, and around the world, places that people visit and adore. Our vision is to create a vibrant, resilient, and charming place by paying homage to the person and connecting people with each other and their surroundings.