Beyond the Business Card
December 28, 2009

By Julie Nakashima
Appeared in California Real Estate Journal

TITLE: Senior vice president, member of the board, managing director of the Western Region and chief strategy officer.

COMPANY: Syska Hennessy Group

EXPERTISE: Consulting, engineering, construction

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in communications, California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo.

INDUSTRY ACTIVITIES: Past president and board member, Westside Urban Forum; Leonardo Award, Society for Marketing Professional Services.

For more than 20 years, Ann Banning-Wright has been inspiring "thought leadership" for Syska Hennessy Group, a global consulting, engineering, technology and construction company. She also serves as managing director of the 160-person Los Angeles office.

Syska Hennessy's diverse portfolio of projects spans the gamut from aquariums, airports and convention centers to hospitals and university buildings, and from corporate and government office buildings to critical facilities such as data centers. But according to Banning-Wright, the company's most active market right now are projects in which a highly integrated team is needed. Whether it's a competition for a courthouse or a highly complex tenant improvement project, she said, communication among project team members needs to be much more sophisticated, integrated and collaborative than ever before.

Before joining Syska Hennessy, Banning-Wright helped to recruit senior executives for presidential appointments to high-level jobs during the Reagan administration.

You served as associate director of presidential personnel at the White House. Is that a partisan position?

It is a political position. However, my role was to find people for the administration, typically presidential appointments that required Senate confirmation, but for extremely technical positions - as an example, the head of NASA or the head of acquisitions for the Defense Department. These weren't your run-of-the-mill buddies that you could hire. These were highly skilled, technical positions.

How does that background help you in your present-day job?

It probably helps me the most because I had to be a real quick study about the wants of the administration in terms of their needs for the position, and how we might fulfill those needs. It required a lot of listening and a lot of quick study so we could make sure our client, in this case the administration, was happy with the result we provided.

In every job that I've had, I've been a liaison between highly, highly technical people and having to customize an approach between these highly technical people and the clients. I would have to say I've done that for multiple companies and it is exactly what I do today.

What made you want to get into this field?

When I was asked to join Syska, it was to help turn around and build the Los Angeles office some 20 years ago. What excited me was that we could redefine this office in a way that best met the needs of the clients. So it was less about the actual engineering and more about tailoring our offerings to be more distinctive and more valuable to the owners and how we would do that. That's what I have a ball doing.

You also spearheaded a national initiative for Syska Hennessy called "Evolving the Role of the Engineer." How has the engineer's role changed?

What [engineers] love the most is when something is technical and challenging. What's happened over time is that the whole built environment has become much more technical, not just with technology but also more sophisticated in terms of high-performance, sustainable buildings. Because buildings have gotten so much more technical, the engineer has become more pertinent in the design, and we're loving that. So we're trying to step up and say, "Let us help you make these giant decisions about your buildings." It has positioned us as a key member of the design team, but also what that means for operating the building [afterward].

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

Because I'm a planner and because I ask a lot of questions and observe a lot of trends, it is sometimes hard when I can see what the industry wants to quickly translate that into an offering of the firm.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

I think not needing sleep. There is so much to learn and so much to do.

What do you see as the biggest pitfall for your industry today?

That we don't collaborate and look at different ways to do things. We have this business called real estate, and we've been doing it pretty much the same way for years and years and years.

What is in the trunk of your car?

My earthquake preparedness kit, my canvas bags for going to the market and probably some gym clothes that really shouldn't be there.

What is one thing people should prepare for before doing business with you?

I love to engage with people about their company and what they're doing to stay ahead and what makes them distinctive to them. That's a really fun conversation that people aren't prepared for.

If you could relive one day in your life, what would it be?

Certainly my wedding day and the day we had our son, and maybe my first day at the White House.

What keeps you awake at night?

As you can probably tell, I like to stay ahead and I feel very responsible to my firm for making sure we're in the right spot that we need to be. I sometimes describe it to my colleagues as I feel like I'm being chased. Are we right where we need to be? Are we doing what we need to do? Are we out there ahead enough? That keeps me awake.

If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing?

I'd be running a nonprofit - some nonprofit that deals with people and their potential, and helping them reach it.

What's the best business advice you've ever gotten?

My mom taught me once that you need to always assume that people like you, even when you're not getting any feedback that would suggest they like you. Meeting new people is so easy, doing a presentation is so easy, talking to strangers is so easy, because in your head you're assuming people like you. It's made such a huge difference in my life. I really feel for people who didn't get that message early enough in life to live it.