'Clients look to us to lead them'
June 01, 2007
Appeared in Building Design & Construction
Ann Banning-Wright, LEED AP, serves as a senior vice president, member of the board, and chief strategy officer of Syska Hennessy Group, as well as managing director of the 160-plus-person office in Los Angeles. A member of the firm's Management Advisory Council, she spearheaded a national initiative called Evolving the Role of the Engineer. Prior to joining Syska Hennessy, Banning-Wright was associate director of presidential personnel at the White House under President Reagan. She holds a bachelor's degree from California Polytechnic State University.
BD+C: Why did you commission your study, “Evolving the Role of the Engineer”?
Ann Banning-Wright: We interviewed 30 visionaries to find out what clients want from us that they're not getting. We found out that clients don't feel well equipped to make technical decisions on projects and they look to us to lead them through this maze.
That's what led us to set up national teams, mostly on highly technical projects where we can make a difference: data centers, critical facilities, hospitals, labs, broadcast facilities, aviation, even aquariums.
Another client said, “It's not enough that you know my business—you have to understand the business that I'm in.” So to do hospitals, we have to know how health insurance works, where hospitals make their money, how they are dealing with the nursing shortage, and so on.
BD+C: As chief strategist, what are the goals for Syska Hennessy Group?
ABW: We're always looking at new markets, such as the Southeast—Charlotte, Jacksonville, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston—to balance our portfolio. The model is to have local experts as well as national experts participate on the team. For a hospital project in Ohio, we can bring in experts from New York or Atlanta, so it's a much broader approach. It's great to have  offices across the nation, but if I'm doing an airport in L.A., I may bring in expertise from all around the country.
For data centers and critical facilities, we have a very integrated national team, and this has been incredibly successful for us, and fueled our growth in the Southeast. With these kinds of facilities, you cannot think about MEP as being the sole contributor to uptime. You have to think about how the facility will be operated, how people within the operations are trained. For example, we've used industrial psychologists to determine how well facilities people can respond in emergencies.
BD+C: But Syska does more than engineering, doesn't it?
ABW: We've been doing facilities management for a long time, and construction for about 10 years. We have a huge program with the Army Corps of Engineers and commercial work as well, doing highly technical spaces: operating rooms, laboratories, and data centers—the highly technical buildings.
BD+C: You're also doing commissioning.
ABW: Yes, we have national commissioning practice, and it's growing all the time. There's such a huge demand [from owners] to make sure that their systems are right and working as designed. You can't believe the number of times we find systems just aren't holding up. There's also the commissioning for LEED projects.
What's interesting about commissioning is that it gets operational considerations into the design. It extends your relationship with clients, and it gets them to think differently about design and to think about operations.
BD+C: What's your strategy on the people side?
ABW: There is an industry shortage of technical people. Compounding that, our industry has four generations working together—Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen X'ers, and Millenniums—and they have conflicting beliefs with regard to the tempo of the company, the responsibility they're given, and how they want to get rewarded and promoted. As a firm, you have to cater to all of them.
In my office, we're looking hard at giving responsibility to people in the Gen X group way earlier than when Traditionalists and even Baby Boomers got it. The Millenniums will have 10 careers in their lifetimes—not jobs, careers! They want instant performance feedback all the time. At the other end of the age spectrum, we are using a number of former retirees to review specs and standards.
BD+C: Any acquisitions in the mix?
ABW: Five years ago we brought in VBKE [Van Buuren Kimper Engineering] and Ericson Lighting Design in San Diego, and last year we did the Caretsky [and Associates Consulting Engineers] acquisition in New York with a branch office in Houston to strengthen our national healthcare practice. We're looking at what can bring value to our clients.
BD+C: What does the road ahead look like to you?
ABW: This is a terrific time to take advantage of this great economy and do the things you need to do to differentiate your firm for when the market slows down. If you're not looking at how to stay ahead in a good market, you're going to be toast in a bad market.