President and CEO of Bala Consulting Engineers (King of Prussia, PA), a multi-disciplined design firm with an environment designed for relationships to thrive and careers to flourish.
By Liisa Andreassen
As president and CEO of Bala, Anastasio directs the company’s development, diversification, and growth strategies. With almost 40 years of engineering and firm leadership experience, he has developed solutions for engineering and operational challenges alike. He’s one of Bala’s founders and oversees the entire enterprise with a focus on strategic development and growth.
“Consistent quality certainly helps build trust, but we also see project difficulties as an opportunity to build trust,” Anastasio says. “Confronting challenges head-on and giving them priority assures a client that you have their best interests in mind all the time, not just when things are going well.”
A conversation with Michael Anastasio.
The Zweig Letter: The firm was founded in 1982. What are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen (i.e., new technology, globalization, etc.)?
Michael Anastasio: As someone who has spent all of his career in the engineering industry, I’ve experienced a tremendous evolution with some significant inflection points. Technology has been the primary disruptor and has led to a globalization of the industry. I hate to date myself, but I did start in this profession before word processing and electronic calculating. Let us skip over those minor steps and look at computational automation in the form of programs like CADD, REVIT, BIM, and a host of other design-based programs such as energy modeling, short circuit analysis, and RAM. Clearly, the key inflection points were CADD and BIM – both highly dependent and transcendent of the internet. I leave out REVIT because it’s merely the bridge from CADD to BIM. These two platforms have and will continue to have the greatest impact on the AEC industry.
When you look at the industry pre-CADD it looks totally archaic. To discuss it today with our “next-geners” is like talking about the Roman legions. The post-CADD era not only changed the way we produced building documents, it opened an era of productivity that vastly reduced project development time and improved collaborative communications between the owner, architect, and contractor.
Now we are in the genesis of the BIM era. This era will usher in digital transformation and again dramatically transform the AEC industry with productivity developments that will dwarf the post CADD era and challenge all of the AEC industry mores of the past. BIM offers the opportunity to create an intelligent digital building that can be optimized before it’s even built. The future benefit to property management is immeasurable. BIM has the potential to be the biggest disruption the AEC industry has ever experienced.
The AEC industry was poised for a major disruption prior to COVID-19 and we believe the health crisis will accelerate the disruption. To best prepare the firm, we’re adopting numerous research initiatives focused on digital transformation – specifically areas such as digital twins and regenerative design.
TZL: How has COVID-19 impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting/working remotely?
MA: Fortunately, we were already set up for remote working before the COVID-19 outbreak as many of our staff travel and work regularly between our regional offices. The basic infrastructure was in place. The initial policy changes were essentially focused on managing an entire workforce remotely. We are a true collaborative culture and the work from home environment changed everything – how we communicated, how often we communicated, establishing new forums for communication, and establishing guidelines for the home office. None of the policy changes were earth shattering – just common sense. For instance, to be fully present in a meeting you need your camera on. Do not attend a Teams or Zoom meeting while driving on the highway. Make sure you are properly illuminated and in a private space when on a Teams call. Dress properly for virtual presentations.
The larger question is how our policies on telecommuting will change post COVID. While we have not made any firm policy decisions yet, we anticipate that occasional work from home will be embraced more commonly than it was in the past. However, we are a collaborative culture and collaboration works best in person. Personal family health and safety issues will drive the conversation for the foreseeable future and will influence future policy on working remotely in the long-term as well.
TZL: Trust is crucial. How do you earn the trust of your clients?
MA: It takes a constant commitment to integrity and effective, timely communications. Consistent quality certainly helps build trust, but we also see project difficulties as an opportunity to build trust. Confronting challenges head-on and giving them priority assures a client that you have their best interests in mind all the time, not just when things are going well.
TZL: Your bio says you’re involved with the Engineering Entrepreneurship Program at your alma mater, Villanova University. What is your role there? Tell me a little about your experiences with this program.
MA: Entrepreneurship programs are gaining popularity in many colleges across the country. Villanova started theirs about 10 years ago and it’s prospering as a cross curriculum initiative that combines students from engineering, business, and arts and science.
I serve on the Alumnae Advisory Board and speak regularly with classes in the program. Most participants are inspired by Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, but the university is responding to a call from businesses for graduates with more entrepreneurial or intrapreneurial mindsets.
While I enjoy helping students with their projects and sharing my experiences with them, I most enjoy the valuable time with this emerging generation of engineers to help me understand how they think and feel as members of our society.
TZL: Your bio also states that you’ve participated in International Service projects in Panama. Can you give me an example or two of projects you’ve worked on and the end result?
MA: Bala is not directly involved in this program, but the firm does support my passion for Villanova’s In-Service program. Villanova invited me to accompany a student/faculty “In-Service” team on a spring break mission to Wacucu, Panama. Once there, we worked with Father Wally Kasuboski, spending a week working on several projects for his Capuchin Mission.
Father Wally, as he is affectionately known, has been there for more than 23 years working on several projects to promote health and safety for the residents of the region. His most noteworthy project is the construction, maintenance, and management of a 7,500-square-mile water system which he and his small mission personally envisioned and constructed with the help of his partnership with Villanova and Aqua America. He has also built schools, dams, bridges, and other infrastructure to foster social development of the region.
On my last visit just before the COVID outbreak, we worked with a team of students, professors, and alumni, trekking through the jungle, and installing air valves on the main pipeline from the Canasus Water Dam. These valves relieved the air in the system and increased the waterflow considerably to help meet the current demand. We also assisted in building foundations for a school expansion project. This was an opportunity to roll up our sleeves and work in the field without any OSHA requirements – a true gut-wrenching experience.
TZL: Are you using the R&D tax credit? If so, how is it working for your firm? If not, why not?
MA: Yes. We started our IDEATION initiative over a year ago which engages our entire staff in thought leadership and research that we openly share with the community on our website. Initially, our efforts were laser-focused on sustainability, but COVID offered an opportunity to engage our staff in primary research on the virus and its effect on the built environment. This led us to publish numerous whitepapers, addressing all types of building environments from offices and life care to laboratories, research facilities, and educational facilities. By engaging members of our staff across the enterprise, we offered them a chance to overcome the helplessness we all experienced during the shutdown and, instead, feel like a part of the solution. Research has now become part of our DNA and we openly share it on our website as a conscious decision to help our society.
TZL: How are you balancing investment in the next generation – which is at an all-time high – with rewards for tenured staff? This has always been a challenge but seems heightened as investments in development have increased.
MA: The future of our industry is in the hands of our emerging leaders and some of them have not graduated college yet. We have a robust internship program that has produced many young professionals who we develop and support beyond technical skill training. The company offers numerous career training opportunities and invests heavily in internal and external programs.
Our tenured staff provide experience and mentorship that is essential to developing our young talent and future leaders. These experienced tenured staff are key elements of our internal development programs.
TZL: Is change management a topic regularly addressed by the leadership at your firm? If so, elaborate.
MA: I often say that nothing is as constant as change and nothing is accelerating faster than the rate of change. The landscape is changing so fast that it is incumbent on us to constantly reimagine who we need to be in the future as the future is constantly upon us. Forward thinking management is in our DNA and we believe that is what most distinguishes Bala from our competition.
TZL: Ownership transition can be tricky, to say the least. What’s the key to ensuring a smooth passing of the baton? What’s the biggest pitfall to avoid?
MA: When you figure it out, please tell me. We started working on this five years ago in anticipation of my own retirement along with a few others right behind me. There are so many moving parts besides the financial aspects. My advice is to start earlier than you think is necessary by identifying your future leaders before they even know they are future leaders and cultivate from within. Most firms we have acquired did not address succession early enough and consequently the owners needed an exit strategy. Start early and share your ideas, your vision, and your finances by bringing in young partners that strongly align with your culture.
TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
MA: I firmly believe that you learn more from your failures than your successes. My best lessons came the hard way and I would say the biggest lesson learned was failing to address issues that make you feel most uncomfortable. Seek out those areas and spend most of your time in discomfort and eventually you will be comfortable there. You may not enjoy it, but you will become more comfortable facing difficulties and addressing them. This is a part of your job that you cannot delegate.