Sean Goldwasser, Vice President and Chief Operations Officer for Black & Veatch's Water Business in North America, joined the podcast to discuss how the firm is adapting to the challenges of conducting business in the age of COVID-19.

Transcript:

Host:
Welcome to another edition of Engineering Influence, a podcast by the American Council of Engineering Companies. And we're coming to you today with another part of our ongoing series that really focuses in on the big new story of the, of the day that we're all living through, which is the coronavirus pandemic and specifically how the industry, the engineering industry, is dealing with this really unforeseen and unprecedented challenge. And today I'm very pleased to be joined by Shawn Goldwasser. He is the Vice President and Chief Operations Officer for Black and Veatch's water business in North America. And Sean really brings some good perspectives from the industry as far as how Black and Veatch has adapted the main concerns that they have related to the coronavirus pandemic, both internally from a business standpoint and external also from a client side. And Sean, I really appreciate you coming on the show to provide your perspectives here. I guess first off, let's just talk about, you know, how are things where, where are you working now and, and, and kinda how is the, how's the environment that you've adapted to.

Sean:
Jeff, thank you for the opportunity. Yeah. So, so like a lot of people today I'm working from my house. I've got a family of four, a college student and a high school student, and we're all sharing bandwidth and they're doing their home studies. And as I'm doing work from home and, and it's, it's a good problem to have, I'll put it this way. So Kansas City both on the Kansas and Missouri side, it's been relatively mild here. We don't have the same size of populations that you're talking about. And some of those coastal areas we still do have international travel covers, but again, not to the same level you'd expect to see in California or New York, that type of thing. So the actual number of cases that have happened here have been quite a lot fewer if for no other reason than just because the population is smaller as well. I would say that people in the community at large seems to be dealing with it with relative calm but with the same concern and uncertainty you see everywhere.

Host:
Absolutely. And how's your firm dealing with the the change to remote work and and how are you dealing with the work still with the clients on sites?

Sean:
Yeah, so that's actually been as much as you can say some things like this is success, right? I think for our discussions today I'm going to be positive because think having a positive attitude is important. But I also want to make sure we say there's a lot of people that are going to become, if they haven't already become seriously ill and some people are easily going to lose their lives over this. So I don't want any of my positive attitude to trivialize the very nature of what this is. But I think having a positive attitude and looking at the bright side and what opportunities are as important for this. We've been looking at our response to this essentially unprecedented event in sort of a three part approach because you've got to break it apart into something that you can get your arms around. You know, first and foremost we're looking at, well what do we need to do to best ensure the safety of our professionals?

Sean:
That includes effectively people and their families, right? Cause if professionals get ill, families get ill. That whole thing unwinds the same thing extends very quickly to our clients. So we moved to a work from home model very quickly. You know, once you've got that basic safety issue, reasonably taken care of, not perfected, but regionally taken care of, then we're talking about, well how do we adapt now that people are in their homes, can we continue to function and how's that gonna work? So what technology are we employing as a business to allow the nature of the work that we do that is usually in normal traditional office spaces and in client spaces. How does that work in a, in a world where face to face contact isn't prudent. And then once we've gotten that stabilized into a functional level, then we start talking more nearness about what does that mean to the longer term business here in the mirror, the mid and long term of opportunities and, and to make sure that the clients continue to get their needs met. That's the important part as well.

Host:
Absolutely. And especially in your sector, which is so critical because it is essentially critical infrastructure and an essential role dealing with water, water pipe, you know, water networks ensuring that people have continual, uninterrupted access to clean water. That we're dealing with water management properly. I mean these are things which are, they need to be stepped up. Not this is when you put the pedal on the gas instead of slowing down.

Sean:
Equally true when it comes to power, telecommunications and oil and gas, other aspects of the businesses that we serve in terms of critical given infrastructure just as true.

Host:
Absolutely. I mean this is, this is really where the value of what you do comes into play because people relying on those public services to stay active and open. I mean I, for one when I went into the grocery store and I noticed all the water, you know, flying off the shelves and my mind was like, well, you know, this is the water systems are staying on. But then the thought crossed my mind, what would happen - God help us - What would happen if there was some lapse or breakdown in our critical infrastructure, like our power, like our water systems and what would that mean for communities and for regions and being able to pivot to a work from home model, a remote, you know, socially distant model while still enabling the clients that you have in the water space and in, in the public infrastructure space to get their job done. That an in such a short time. I think that's the most amazing thing that you're able to pivot so quickly is, is really impressive. And, and, and must be, you might be you know, writing, writing the manual as you, as you live it.

Sean:
Yeah. I'm, I'm afraid to get too cocky with that because the universe has a way of humbling people that get that way. You know, it, it hasn't been perfect, but it's been pretty good. I will tell you we have, we didn't, we didn't make up how to respond to this overnight. Right. There were things that we had in place. Not, I wouldn't say that we anticipated this kind of an event cause we didn't. But from a business practice standpoint, we engage in something called business continuity planning where we're really more looking at what happens if the professionals can't in the Kansas City office couldn't come to work because there was a fire in the building that day. But what if there was an earthquake in Los Angeles and the professionals couldn't get into that office. And that day our business continuity plans talk about how are we going to respond if that happens.

Sean:
We weren't really thinking about it from the standpoint of everybody in every office globally needs to work remotely. But as it's happened, as it happens, the things that, that we had put in place to mitigate these risks have served us very well in terms of remote working tools and network connectivity. We use a lot of video conferencing. We used it before on people's individual machines. Well that actually serves, there's no substitute for face to face contact, but it served us very well. So when I look at things like things, again, things that we didn't anticipate to be used in this, but our, our strategic plan talks about working in new ways, being rapidly evolving and highly innovative. We were really thinking about that from the standpoint of business disruption and how businesses changing evolve over time. When I look to what this has resulted in the need for us to do, those things are just as equally important as we respond to this crisis as opposed to just changes in business.

Host:
Yeah, absolutely. And I, I think the the important lesson there is regardless of the size of the firm doing that business continuity planning doing that crisis management exercise and having a plan in place and being able to have something to rely on in cases like this is so critically important. And out of curiosity, how, I mean, how, if you, if, if you can go into detail on this, I'm not sure, but you know, how, how frequently does Black and Veatch reassess over time It's continuity plan in, your experience, you know, is it the kind of thing which was done on an annual basis, biannual or sooner so you can keep, you know, keep that fresh.

Sean:
Yeah, there are aspects of it that I probably shouldn't share with you or couldn't share with you, but this is a fair question to ask. And it so happens that I am responsible for this business continuity process within the water business anyway. And we look at it yearly, every year and we look at what did we say last year and what would our response be given the tools, systems, practices and demands we have in front of us. And if the event happened this year, what would be different? Our offices changed. Our needs changed. Digital risks can change. So it doesn't, once you have something in place, it doesn't take a lot to update it and it's proven to be pretty important to us.

Host:
Yeah. I guess the main lesson is to get something in place and then just don't put it on a shelf but, but keep it out and refresh it once in a while so that you can quickly pivot and move to a, you know, put it in action. So that, that's really important for I think at all executives understand the importance of that. So I mean, from an internal perspective, it seems that you had a plan in place, you're able to act on it from the external side, the client facing side. How has this impacted or, or created opportunities potentially to apply your expertise into areas related to really the situation right now with the, with the pandemic, not just healthcare of course, because this is widespread. There are many other areas where, where you know, agencies and, and, and utilities and public sector clients need help.

Sean:
Yeah. I would say there's probably a, what comes to mind anyway as a sort of a two part answer to your question, there's the ability to work with your clients, which are our long-term business partners. These are entities and people that we've worked with for a long time on these critical human infrastructure issues. Their needs are changing as well. What's coming at them is coming at them very quickly, both in terms of real technical and delivery challenges and the public perception issues. We're working with a lot of water entities that are having to go out while having to not having to choosing to go out and be very public saying, don't worry, your water system is not at risk. This is not a waterborne illness. It doesn't represent a risk of disruption of service. There is no real risk of that, but the public procedure to be when it becomes a problem for those clients, so working with them to help understand what that means to how the communicate it is useful. We've been sharing some of our tools and practices with them because we are pretty good at working remotely because we travel. A lot of our business people travel across different sectors. Our clients don't always have that same structure. So their ability to work remotely and be dispersed is different than ours is. We've talked a little bit with some of the clients about how to adapt in near term and being remote because not all of them have the IT systems in place to do this kind of thing.

Host:
Oh no, I was just going to save that. That, you know, that kind of goes to the idea that we always say if, of course a normal times of you know, engineer's and their client, that relationship, it's that trusted advisor relationship. It's not always just you know, the direct day to day of either designing or maintaining or acting in support of a utility and making sure that things work on time. It's also providing that leadership, that experience and best practices to help their clients understand and approach problems with solutions. So that's, I think that's a good example of that.

Sean:
And those who had been a lot of our initial conversations, not all by any means, but a lot of our initial conversations with clients talking about, well, what, what has this crisis to you as an, as an, as a client, as a different business? What does that done? What new challenges is it causing you to have to face, you know, in some cases we're going to have solutions to that. In some cases we're going to help you work for your solutions to that. Some of those are relatively simple. Some of them are not.
Host:
In certain circumstances like this. And I think you put it very well that it's managing perception and it's helping the clients understand the best way to communicate something that you're fighting. The idea that PR perception becomes reality and people might react incorrectly in crisis situations. Largely have you seen an impact from you helping your clients communicate the fact that you know, things are gonna happen. You know, things are still going up. You turn the tap water is still going to happen. You don't have to worry. That doesn't involve water. You know, has that seen success in your mind?

Sean:
I think so. I think most of our clients were reasonably well along the way to solving those issues. I don't know that that was the most pressing issue facing them. I think for most of our clients, the more pressing issues are how do they maintain business continuity. The issue of public perception is real. It very much is real, but it probably was not as much of a threat to their business as the disruption of not being able to work in the same way as they were used to working with working under I think is probably a bigger threat. Absolutely. And then some instances, you know, if you're, if those clients is, supply chains are disrupted, that kind of thing. That's, that's a much more, that's a much more serious challenge. You know, and it's causing some, some new things altogether. Some new things that's not very specific, but we, we talk about one of the things as an example.

Sean:
I mean there's, some of this is run of the mill and some of his brother mundane, but some of it's actually a little bit sort of potentially pretty exciting. You know, one of the things you keep hearing about is the testing, right? We talk about testing, well we, the news talks about testing for this virus and the number of test kits that are available and the duration of time it takes to get results. One of the things that public entities across world, not just the U S are looking at is how do we know when we've peaked? Right? That's a key question here. How do you know when you've peaked? And if you, if the metric for that is the number of tests you can run, but the test kits are limited and the analytical capacity is limited. Is there a different way of doing it?

Sean:
But one of the things we were already working on is a business and still in an experimental stage where essentially data analytic side of sensors and I'm not a technology expert in this kind of thing, but we were looking at sensors that could be put in wastewater streams to test for certain pathogens. And with the idea being, could you test for the presence and concentration of pathogens in a wastewater stream? And when we apply that kind of concept today, what if we were able to take that same technology, apply those sensors to wastewater streams and be able to track the presence and quantity or relative presence of this pathogen, COVID-19, the virus in a wastewater stream that would eliminate the need for the public health agencies to have to go test every single person to then go know what, what is the path? Are we peaked on a curve or not, because at least use that wastewater stream data to say has a given location peaked? It wouldn't tell you anything about individuals, but it might help you make good public health decisions at a city or state level. That's still in development. You know, we're not looking - I don't think it's realistic we'll say, we'll roll that out tomorrow. It's not that kind of thing, but it's a real technology. So as we were already working on that we've converted to see, can we apply it to this?

Host:
That's a, that's a great example of the use of and the importance of data. And it's not just the collection of the data, but it's, it's just the interpretation and how can you apply different technologies that are being developed to different challenges. And that would be, you know, I could, I could immediately see how useful that would be for a governor or for, you know, FEMA or the CDC to get a better regional or, or scatter a map of, of potential concentrations of a pathogen. Not just COVID-19, but anything. If you're able to use those sensors and leverage that data in a way where you can assist policy makers making decisions it's a perfect example of applying a technology to a different problem, and adapting it to meet it.

Sean:
Yeah. Other examples like that where we're sort of looking at things that we were already trying to put in place. Things were already exploring, you know, something else we were trying to do. I was telling you earlier about the, the company focused on being rapidly evolving and looking at that from a different way of being a disruptor in the business. We've got something we call our incubator and we use that as a way to try to draw out new ideas, whether they're directly connected to our core businesses or whether there potentially somehow tangential to that. And using that to find partners that are, again, not necessarily part of our normal supply chain to see could they come up with something clever and interesting that disrupts a given business that comes up with a new idea. We've got some press releases out now actually that are reflective of this. Trying to find, are there other partners that have ideas about how, some idea that they have that could improve our, our society's ability to deal with this virus.

Host:
Yeah. I see that front and center on your website with the ignite X code 19 response accelerator as, as,

Sean:
And our growth accelerator. We can put money into that and find ways to collaborate.

Host:
Absolutely. And that's, that's, that's the power of just, you know, getting, I, it's great to see because a firm like yours can can play that pivotal role of connecting someone with a good idea and turning that into action. And it's a good example of the private sector innovation kind of, you know, playing a large role into responding to situations like this because you can move quicker. And you can present solutions faster than, you know, let's say the government would be able to and you'll be able to provide the government the solution that they might've been looking for and not even knowing that they actually needed. So that, that is great.

Sean:
One of the other things we're looking to do here is to see how we can in a more traditional sense probably, but how we can be a part of helping mitigate one of the potential real risks that we're facing from a healthcare industry and standpoint. And that is you see the news for New York city and none of this is critical of New York city that are facing a huge wave of numbers coming at them. But you see the news stories that have a hospitals and emergency rooms jammed with people and people lined up in hallways. They're just absolutely being overwhelmed with the number of cases coming in. Both have terms of COVID potential COVID-19 patients plus our normal load of people that are just sick for other reasons. Somebody breaks their arm, that kind of thing. You know what, what we find, I think we're seeing is that the healthcare systems understandably, are not set up.

Sean:
The physical infrastructure is not set up to deal with the numbers of people you have to triage to make that work. And also you have a secondary risk when you put that many people in proximity, even ones that are coming in for a different reason may end up becoming infected due to the proximity of the people. So is there a way to look at creating these modular temporary hospital setups? We were looking at that right now. Modular, rapid modular health system where we could go essentially augment existing health systems, hospitals and put a, you want to think of it like a treatment diagram, a flow diagram, put a module for additional physical infrastructure to allow for triage ahead of the hospital emergency room to alleviate some of that difficulty. That's something that we're working with some of our private partners and potentially in government agencies with to see if there's an opportunity there to go provide that assistance because we have the infrastructure experience, building experience and process and technology experience to help in those arenas.

Host:
And that's, that's something which is going to be I think, increasingly important, not just in this circumstance but in, in as, especially from the policy side in Washington, we start talking a lot more about resilience in term of in terms of essentially everything, social infrastructure, physical infrastructure, responding to potential disasters, manmade or natural and having that capability to assist you know, public health in responding quickly it could help change the way that we respond to future disasters which is of critical importance.

Sean:
And I think your point about responding quickly really is one of the key pieces. Any of these entities could decide that they need additional triaged capacity ahead of a given medical facility, but normal practices would take years to get that put in place. We don't have years to get that put in place. You know, if this is going to be effective and mitigate the risks to people in a system that could easily become overwhelmed with patients, it's going to have to be done quickly.

Host:
It's going to be interesting coming out of this and, and kind of looking ahead in the crystal ball about how Congress and policymakers are going to be looking at this. I mean there's talk of course about the committee that's already been drawn up, but the relevant agencies that deal with our industry, especially in the House side with Transportation and Infrastructure, they have jurisdiction also over FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers. It's going to be interesting to see how they, how this opens their eyes to these different aspects of the need to move quickly, to move rapidly. And what kind of systems are in place or could be in place and to create the flexibility for companies like yours to be able to partner with agencies to really get these things from the testing phase or, or the drawing board into rapid implementation. And that'll be something that I'm sure we'll be looking at from ACEC National's perspective. And of course, you know, regionally from the state level and local. So that's, that's a really important thing. Is there anything else that you are kind of working on right now that could potentially be applied to this or any other kind of situation of national concern?

Sean:
I think the thing comes to mind for me at the moment in response to that question probably has more to do with the longer term implications of what this pandemic is going to teach us all about how position, how to prepare, how to be able to respond to something that you didn't see coming. Because again, certainly there are people that have been warning globally about this type of a pandemic, but that's been going on for a long time. What is the opportunity for us as a business but for society at large and for our clients as well to look at, okay, what can we learn from this and what would we put in place to allow us to be flexible and responsive and resilient? That resilience discussion is probably one that I think will play very strongly. It will be very important for our clients in the future and for us as well as a business. Right? Absolutely. A lot of what we did, it hasn't been perfect, but it's, it's served us pretty well and having the ability to arrange yourself in a way that provides resilience is probably going to be increasingly important and better understood moving forward.

Host:
Yeah, I mean today's emergency is tomorrow's kind of manual for best practice too. So the work that's being done now, like I said, it might not be perfect, but it's working can be the testbed for a future response, which is know critically important for everyone. From the public sector, you know, policy side down to the people who are going to be receiving the the care where there's going to be, you know, health care or, or disaster recovery or, or what have you.

Sean:
And even if we take it outside the realm of public health and just think back to the providers of infrastructure, you know, the, the power generation, the telecommunication providers, water providers, all that kind of thing. The, the cost of providing resiliency measures for yourself and you can do it upfront before there's a crisis can be quite a lot less expensive than dealing with the crisis where it prevents you from operating.

Host:
Right. Yeah, absolutely.

Sean:
We'll see an improved understanding of that and then increased willingness to spend reasonable amounts of money to achieve better resilience.

Host:
Absolutely. And, and, and knowing the past work that was done in previous, previous legislation on the Hill moving towards that the pre-disaster mitigation work you can lower the cost. It's always cheaper if you can do it on the front end than if you're forced to do it on the back end and if the engineering industry and firms like yours can get in on that conversation at the start, help shape that policy work, it can lower the burden for taxpayers and speed up the process. And it's that focus on pre disaster mitigation, which is so important.

Sean:
I agree. Very much agree.

Host:
Well, Sean I really do appreciate you coming on the show. I think that your perspectives both the firm-wide from Black and Veatch and then also individually from your position in the firm in the public public sector side and the water side is critically important for, for our audience and for our members to hear. I would say enjoy a nice weekend coming up. I hope you can get outside a little bit. I, it's a, it's a daunting challenge these days with, with separation - social distancing.

Sean:
Yup. Well we'll, we'll find a way, right? There's way to do that. Able to get outside enough to stretch our legs and keep our bodies. Well, I appreciate the ability to talk to you today and your listeners on this podcast. I think it's an important discussion to be having at the level of our industry and I think there are meaningful things we can learn from this and take forward to make it to improve society in general at large.

Host:
Absolutely. Absolutely. I think there is a, there is a, there is a very bright silver lining in the storm cloud. And I think that together industry-wide, we can learn and we can improve from this and, and come out stronger for it. And, and the work that you guys are doing at Black and Veatch is definitely helping to make that a reality. Keep us apprised of any new developments. We'd love to have you back on but thank you so much.

Sean:
Very welcome, Jeff. Thank you. Thank you.

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