Jeff Urbanchuk sits down with ACEC Board Chairman, Mitch Simpler, for the first in a series of quarterly interviews that we like to call the Chairman's Corner.
Host: 00:18 We are pleased to be joined by Mitch Simpler, ACC board chair, in what we hope will be the first of many appearances on our podcast as the chairman's report or the chairman's corner. Kind of figuring out what we're going to call it, but a on a quarterly basis hopefully we can get a Mitch on to talk about what's happening at ACEC and in the engineering industry. Mitch, welcome to the show and happy 4th of July week.
Mitch Simpler:00:55 Jeff, my pleasure to be here and the problem you're going to have in the future is not getting me on. It's getting me off.
Host:01:01 That's fine. I'd rather have more content than less. Um we were just kind of talking before we went on a that were coming off of a series of leadership orientations here at headquarters where we had staff from our member organizations who got some one on one time with the DC staff to learn more about the organization and what we can offer. And then of course, what they can offer us. And there seemed to be a good deal of positivity and energy coming after those meetings. What was your take?
Mitch Simpler:01:29 Well, my take was exactly the same thing. The energy was, was amazing. I've been to probably to at least a half a dozen of these orientations, uh, retreats as it were over the past half a dozen years or so. Clearly the energy level was significantly different and better. Um, and I attribute that certainly a lot of it to Linda and her team, which are just highly engaged and very engaging to the, to the participants. But probably the big difference was that it was not a monologue. It was a dialogue. The fundamental change that was made is that instead of lecturing in front of a room full of 50 people, Linda and her team broke it up into small groups of seven or eight and each of the group leaders from ACEC now had an opportunity to sit one on one with the various leadership, uh, people from the from the MOs. And they had a chance to have a dialogue. And that was really impressive to see how much the, the leaders were engaged in the process. And, uh, and the positive feedback that we got has been significant. And the clearly a home run for Linda and her team,
Host: 02:41 It was definitely a different dynamic sitting around with the table and just talking to everyone and just getting feedback. And especially in the media side, you know, talking about how people engage at the state level and, and how we can help them. And then of course the policy guys, then membership and all the different segments of ACEC Washington being able to interact was, was great and it did provide that back and forth and energy and it kind of goes into the idea of, of of what we have to offer and ACEC's strengths, um, you know, coming in as, as chairman, what do you see as ACEC's greatest strengths that we can leverage?
Mitch Simpler:03:21 Our strengths has been and will continue to be certainly in the DC area is our advocacy program. But one of the things that we've changed this year, um, and Steve Hall leads an amazing group of lobbyists and policymakers, but the big change was we've added another team member who was really part of our outward facing, uh, group. And that's, Mr Dave Bender, who was the exec out of Illinois. Dave comes with 20 years plus experience in dealing with members of Congress, uh, understands what makes them tick. And he may be a party of one at this point that does, but, but he certainly does. And I think his addition to the team has been absolutely a monumental and I think will significantly change not only how we are able to interface with, with Capitol Hill, but also, um, how they will view us. They being Capitol Hill will now look to ACEC because they will have a face literally, at their disposal. Um, and I think that we'll have again, a significant impact on what already is one of our greatest strengths, which is our advocacy programs.
Host:04:31 Yeah. Dave coming on the team has been a seamless transition. He's come on board and hit the ground running. And of course he's coming to us after a massive victory in Illinois. The governor, of course on Friday signed in the largest infrastructure investment in the state's history for about, 30 years. Um, they have not touched user fees and this the first time in 30 years they've actually taken a proactive step to invest. And that was largely due to Dave's hard work at the state level. And if, you know, the picture of the bill signing, there's some hard hats. And on those hard hats there was an ACEC logo at the bill signing so that shows that we had an impact. So that's, that's a really good point with Dave coming on board. Um, and the fact that it will help with the national footprint. Um, you know, you mentioned advocacy, that's still one of our main, focus points. And you know, we have the debate over infrastructure, you know, the work that's being done in Washington. But we have to think about beyond the beltway and how much does, our work here kind of translate to your world in New York, of course, in the private marketplace? And does it have that much penetration of people's attention elsewhere?
Mitch Simpler: 05:45 Well, so this kind of put it in a, in a bigger picture. So what ACEC is doing in, in the Metro area, particularly on Capitol Hill, is continuing beat the drum as to how important infrastructure is to the country, not just to ACEC and the members of ACEC, we implement the policies that get executed. The key is to get the policies executed in the first place and and we're there to remind all of the legislators at this is an important component to what makes our country great. And if we want to continue the growth that we're having, we need to invest in infrastructure. It doesn't just impact, um, you know, the, the horizontal and the, and the transportation people. It impacts all businesses at all levels. And so even though I am a private sector predominant proponent, because that's the business I'm in, my, my businesses, the people that I work for will all benefit by improved infrastructure, whether it's highways, bridges, tunnels, rails in a modal, transportation, sea ports, airports, all those things improve business.
Mitch Simpler:06:56And that's what we need to do as a country. We need to do as an industry and what ACEC needs to promote or certainly continue to promote how important all that infrastructure is. Um, and New York City is not exempt by any means. Then in fact, we have the same issues that the country has as a whole. New York City and all the metro areas have the same issues and that they have not been investing in infrastructure on a continuous basis. It has fallen behind. The disrepair is costing all of us time and money. So investment in our infrastructure will help everybody, private sector, public sector across the board. And uh, and so that message has gotten through loud and clear. Uh, not only is it loud and clear from the federal level and from ACEC national level, but at the local level, both the state MOs and then those states that have regional MOs, that message is being driven right down to the grassroots because it is that important. And, uh, and thank God ACEC is continuing to wave the flag as to how important it is for all of us in order for our businesses to succeed, for our country to be successful.
Host:08:03 Absolutely. And you did mention the fact that you come from predominantly from the private marketplace and I know that one of your, key focuses is broadening ACEC's membership. Of course, you know, we have a lot of focus on firms that do work in the public sector. Um, a lot of, you know, the work in advocacy has a direct impact on state DOT's, and agencies like that. But who do you think is underrepresented and, how can we bring them into the ACEC family?
Mitch Simpler: 08:36 Well, as I said at the last podcast, certainly, uh, my focus is to raise the awareness of what the private sector can do. And I say private sectors, it's anybody in the engineering industry outside of the horizontal transportation, Intermodal Transportation Industry, which ACC has done a spectacular job of bringing to our table. But, but as I said previously, that represents only 20% of the built environment in the u s the other 80% is the private sector. Um, what we hope to do, what certainly my mission is, is to raise the awareness of private sector firms and that ACEC exists and what can we do for them and as much as what we can do for them, can they do for us as an industry to help raise our overall voice. Um, and I've mentioned this previously that certainly in New York, Metro New York in particular has a very, very strong, upwards of 50% of our membership is private sector.
Mitch Simpler:09:39 Um, what we refer to as the vertical component. These are people that design buildings, hospitals, hotels, residential towers, um, and the university work institutional. Uh, hospitals and those, those kinds of of projects. Uh, and what is the value that we bring? Well, the fact is that we all have so much in common with all other engineering firms. ACEC becomes sort of the, the, the, uh, the common denominator for all of us to be able to communicate to network. Uh, in addition to the traditional value added, um, programs that ACEC brings to its members, whether it's access to the trust, uh, but the single biggest thing for the private sector is the networking component. And where firms can have an opportunity to meet, discuss, uh, joint ventures and combining team efforts, uh, to become, you know, a greater industry representative. And it has been hugely successful.
Mitch Simpler:10:41 Um, the other big thing that the private sector brings to the table is other means by which you can do project work, particularly doing lump sum. And I know lump sum and a lot of conversations with our traditional membership is like a dirty word. But the fact of the matter is that lump sum does now give you an opportunity to be more innovative, more ingenious, and, and, and come up with better, more efficient ways to bring a project to to bear and to the marketplace for your client and make money at the same time. It's a win win for all sides, but it's a different way to approach a project. What we hope the private sector can do is to bring that experience to the table so that both the public sector and the private sector can benefit.
Host:11:27 You've also mentioned, um, ACEC New York's success in becoming really the go-to organization for, uh, the city, uh, when looking at building codes and looking at new standards for construction in the city. Um, and how really the expertise of ACEC membership is brought to bear and is reflected in construction that the city. Do you find that in speaking to your peers and ACEC, do you see that as unique, or is that something that is, replicated or, or could it be a model for other MOs to follow?
Mitch Simpler: 12:07 It's certainly a model. Um, and, and if you, uh, go back and my sort of, my opening statement at the last pod conversation was, you know, what are my goals, my goal? And one of the reasons that we, we liked Linda and her team and, but Linda particularly when we brought her on board as our new CEO, was that one of our goals is to become the voice of the engineering industry. We've accomplished that in New York, in New York City in particular. The reason that the city comes to us is because they know that the members of ACEC are, singularly, the most knowledgeable and unbiased voices to provide technical expertise to the city. So the key example that we use is that the chairs of all of the major code committees, I'm chair of the Mechanical Committee, the structural, the fire alarm, the plumbing and fire protection, the elevator, all those committees are chaired by members of ACEC.
Mitch Simpler: 13:05 Why? Because the the city came to ACEC and said, who should we use to chair these committees? Um, and it's because of their experience over the past 20 plus years that the ACEC team brings the best, most experienced, uh, people to the table to provide what needs to be provided to get this, in this particular case, a code rewrite completed. It would certainly be my hope that we can take that model and share that with all of the MOs so that at the end of the day, ACEC does become the voice of the engineering industry. That would be the ultimate end game. And, and then what it does for the membership is give them, um, insight in terms of the mechanisms and the thought processes for why things get done the way they do, whether it's in government, uh, whether it's for code purposes and just industry leadership in general from a business perspective. Um, and I think it is a absolutely realistic and doable goal. Um, it is something that, that we know will work. And the key is to be able to take what was done in New York and model that and get that out to the mos so that we can use that as an exemplar of what can be done.
Host:14:23 And do you find there's a receptive audience among the MO executives to that kind of a message?
Mitch Simpler: 14:28 Oh, absolutely. And again, anecdotally, when we have conversations, we tell them this is the, this is what we do. And the Metro area, they said, boy, we would love to be able to do that. How do we do it? And the key is, and this is the beauty of the Federation of ACEC, is that we are able to share knowledge. Um, the NACE right, was just a national association executive, uh, directors for ACEC, the group of executive directors from all 51 MOs meet regularly. And the next focus is going to be what can we do in terms of best practices to be able to attract, the, the other, the non traditional, uh, ACEC firms and how do we leverage that to become a more vocal and respected member of our community so that the community then turns to ACEC as the voice of the industry and say, look, this is the issue. What do you think? Who Do you have on your, on your, on your Rolodex to be able to help us get to a solution? And that's, that's the place we want to be. And that's an enviable position to be sure. But something that is well within our reach.
Host: 15:41 And that goes right to Linda's idea that, you know, really it's not a question of being part of the conversation. It's to lead the conversation that we have the opportunity to do that. And it kind of goes back to the the leadership orientations that we've had, because we want to make sure that our membership, um, really takes advantage of all the tools that we have at our disposal between, um, the webinar educational series. Um, the advocacy of course, um, and just all of the different resources that are available to them to assist them in kind of developing themselves into being these, you know, being able to carry this message, uh, to their local governments, to, you know, their into their economies, uh, in their states.
Mitch Simpler:16:25 Right. And again, we'll go back to where we started this conversation. And that was the issue of the leadership orientation. The big difference was now each of the, the MO leadership had an opportunity to meet with the various department heads on firstly a one to one basis and the veil of, you know, who is really the right person to talk to and who's, you know, what's the, what's the right conversation to take place? They were able to do that on a one to one basis. And, and, and because of that, the, the, the, uh, relationships started to develop between ACEC national and the MOs literally at the first meeting. And as the day went on, it became abundantly clear that there was clearly dialogues happening, that there was the MO leadership was less inhibited to ask questions. And one of the things that we mentioned that certainly, and, and, and, and I, and Charlie G who is the incoming chair and, and Linda, we were floaters. We just popped literally butterflies hopping from table to table to purpose to which we thought originally was to sort of be catalyst to help the conversation get started. And I will tell you with no exception, we walked into the middle of very active conversations and it was really, really rewarding to see how everybody was engaged. And my hope is as a result of that, that the mos will feel less inhibited about reaching out to national for information to, uh, to make sure they're not repeating a mistake that's already been made and for fresh ideas. And that I think was all the the takeaways from this orientation, which was all really positive and that will be a benefit to both sides.
Host: 18:05 Absolutely. Um, I do want to kind of pivot to another issue, which is also another hot topic. Um, both Linda and, and for yourself and really for the industry in general. And that's the commoditization of engineering. Uh, which is something, you know, we talk about internally, our members of course, talk a lot about, um, whether, whether or not that's actually seen as much by policymakers on the Hill. That's an open question which we have to work on. But you know, if you were meeting with, you know, let's say the chairman of the Transportation Committee in the house, you know, how would you put, how would you encapsulate the danger of commoditization for them to understand and what it means for, for just, you know, the economy for public safety, for everything?
Mitch Simpler:18:51 Well, in the commoditization of professional services is probably singularly the one of the greatest threats to our industry. Because what it does, it does not reward innovation. Does not reward access and use of best available technology. It just lowers the quality of service and the performance and the product down to the lowest common denominator. Part of our job, our advocacy program is to educate not only the people on the Hill that make the decisions, but to raise the awareness of our own industry, of what we're doing to ourselves. We need to be sure that people understand that engineering is not a commodity in any way, shape or form. So treating professional services of engineering like a commodity is a huge mistake. Um, what we want to do is have them understand that we want, we want owners, we want, uh, uh, policymakers to appreciate that there are differences.
Mitch Simpler: 19:54 That's why QBS is so important because quality is a difference between firm to firm and we want them to pick the most qualified people. And what qualifies one firm over another? A, they're experienced certainly, but B, the way they do project works, how they approach it, what technology, what technology do they employ? Both internal for producing the documents but more employee. What technology do they employ in the actual design itself. If you want our infrastructure to proceed and a forward and upward way, you've got to, you've got to welcome technology, you've got to welcome innovation and commoditizing the fees is exactly the way not to do that. So part of our argument would be to explain to them, these are the types of differences that happen. This is why these differences exist and this is why you need to do QBS. And we are, we are, we are then the fact of the matter is we are the best people to have that conversation. Absolutely. I want to say the only people, but we're certainly the best.
Host:20:58 I mean, well you are. Yeah. I mean, the best thing is that the member firms who are engaged with ACEC are the, uh, they are the people who are creating the innovation, who are breaking new grounds as we see in the engineering excellence awards every year of new standards of doing things, new ways of approaching problems. And uh, it's that work demonstrates the importance of engineers as the thought leaders and as professionals. And not just as, um, you know, providers of a service that can be just boxed up and replicated. And the idea that you can just easily just say, oh, let's in-source the work completely ignores the diversity, the innovation and the creativity of consulting engineers.
Mitch Simpler: 21:53 Absolutely. Right. And by the way, I'll kind of circle back to what can, what can the private industry bring to the table for the, for the, for the more traditional ACEC member firms and the private sector, because we do work for lump sum, the vast majority of the time we are rewarded for being innovative, for being ingenious, for being efficient. And those techniques ultimately do work their way down the food chain and over into other aspects of the consulting industry. But by welcoming the private sector firms enter the faults sooner rather than later. That that technology transfer can happen a lot quicker. And I think, again, that would be hugely helpful for ACEC to act as that, I'll use that conduit to get that, uh, that, uh, education process in terms of getting the, what the private sector does every day into the hands of the people that do the more traditional transportation, horizontal work.
Host:22:57 Absolutely. Technology in general is an issue which is always out there, but you think that, um, ACEC could be doing more to position itself as a recognized voice on technology, um, both, you know, as its own subject, but then also to kind of reach some of the younger professionals coming up.
Mitch Simpler: 23:21 The answer is yes. Um, technology is the buzz word and will be for the next probably a hundred years. Technology today is changing at a rate faster than ever before in history. And, uh, and I'm getting to be sort of an older dog and I am absolutely amazed at how rapidly technology is changing. Um, and it's not limited just to engineering, not limited to infrastructure. It's across the board in every aspect of life. It's how we train our staff. I mean, that is incredible. Um, the amount of technology that's being literally showered on us every day. Uh, what is ACEC's role in my mind, our role is to be out there and we don't have to become the experts in the, and the, uh, technology market, but we'll, we need to do is be aware of what's happening and act as the, I'll call it the clearing house to make sure that the information regarding technology, where it's being used, how it's being used, where innovation is being, uh, taking advantage of the best available technology and get that information through ACEC out to the Mos and ultimately out to the member firms, not on how to use it, but to be aware of that this is where it exists and this is how it's being applied, that point the, the engineers need to be the engineers and determine whether or not that technology is appropriate for them and how can they best leverage it for their business or their client's business.
Mitch Simpler:24:53 But certainly ACEC's role is to be the clearing house to get that information flowing from those firms that are, that are on the, on the, oh, I'll call it the bleeding edge of technology for the firms that are on the, on the following edge so that everyone can learn and take advantage of the technology, uh, and the quickest possible way.
Host: 25:14 Absolutely. And that's again, kind of underscores the importance of ACEC membership both at the state level of course, because we can have a better pulse on what's happening closer to you. But then also the national level because we can serve as that clearing house and help get that best practice information spread as far and wide as possible. And that we can kind of hopefully, you know, a rising tide lifts all boats and more people take advantage of best practices, for these technologies, you know, technology and its implementation. Um, you're able to raise the prominence of the industry and, and, and show that it's not a commodity.
Mitch Simpler: 25:49 No, but you know, engineering in general, the general public looks to engineers as the people that are the innovative, creative problem solvers. And if ACC wants to be the voice of the industry, we have to be out there getting the information to our members before they go and just find it out through the more traditional, you know, read about it in the paper, read about it, the magazine. Um, we really need to be out there, sort of, you know, plowing and, and pushing the technology up at, back to our members as soon as it becomes available. At that point they become industry leaders. And I think that's something that we as an organization can be. We can be, thought of as our members, as the people that do help them become better businesses because we are availing them of whatever technology is, emerging and we need to do that. Uh, we've done it, we continued to do it. Um, and I think we can do it on a bigger scale going forward.
Host: 26:50 Very well put. Um, I guess that's, that kind of wraps up, um, you know, really what we have. I just wanted to see if you had anything else that you wanted to add at the end here. Um, really just kind of like your perspective as a board chair. Um, and of course we're getting ready, we're gearing up in October for our fall conference in Chicago. Um, you know, what do you see on the horizon? What are you excited about coming up in the next couple of months?
Mitch Simpler:27:18 Well, just in general, what I'm most excited about is this, the level of enthusiasm and the feedback that we're getting at both the grassroots level and up to the MOs. Uh, there's clearly a perception that ACEC is, I'll use my term lifting the veil, uh, that, that national is, uh, open from business and we are there to support all of our mos in any way that we can in any way that we, we are able to. And I think that message is getting through. Uh, and it's really exciting for me when I meet with our MOs, with MO leadership. And member firms, um, that, that perception is really getting down to the grassroots. And I think that's very exciting. Um, I, I am looking forward to, and I have a number of trips planned, the most recent will be next week I'm going to be down in the deep south and have an opportunity to meet with their leadership and, and to get their feedback. But certainly the reviews that I got at the leadership orientation, we had over 50 people at the, at the the one last week. It was all very positive and it's very exciting to see that people do recognize that the change in leadership at ACEC has been for the, for the better and they are looking forward to and moving this thing even and do a greater clarity and more transparency. And that's really what our goal is.
Host: 28:50 Well, we definitely have something to say. We've got great messengers to say it and we have the energy to really get the message out. So I think that we're well poised and energized to get this done. So I really appreciate your time again on a holiday week and look forward to doing this on a regular basis. Like I said, we want to try to get a regular quarterly show that is set up for you to come on and talk about really the issues that you care about and really appreciate you being part of the kickoff.
Mitch Simpler:29:23 Terrific. And it is my pleasure and I wish everybody a very happy, healthy, and safe 4th of July.