Global footprint: A new video by The Daily Telegraph about Thornton Tomasetti’s growing London office.
by ROB McMANAMY | April 7, 2017
What is it about The Bronx and BuiltWorlds summit keynotes?
Last spring at our CEO Tech Forum, Bronx, NY, native and thought leader Peter Diamandis inspired our audience with grand visions of “exponential technologies” that would soon disrupt our daily lives at work and at home. This spring, Bronx native Tom Scarangello, PE, chairman and CEO of engineering giant Thornton Tomasetti, will take the stage as our closing keynote May 5 at BuiltWorlds Summit 2017. His topic? “Collaboration to accelerate innovation.”
As a Bronx native, myself, I decided to ask Tom what makes folks like us so insightful, forward-thinking, and optimistic. He can only speak for himself, of course, but what follows is a glimpse into an exhilarating and joyful life as an engineer who seems unusually devoted to the big picture. For someone who has been at the same firm for 38 years, it would be easy to become jaded, cynical, and married to routine. But Scarangello has yet to turn 60, and the long ago intern-turned-CEO remains hungry for new ideas that will help his company succeed and improve our industry. Here’s what he had to share.
Tom, thanks for agreeing to chat here, and for speaking at our upcoming Summit. It strikes me that by being at one company for nearly four decades now, you really have a unique perspective on the changes our industry has undergone. Just your firm alone has grown twenty-fold, from 60 people to more than 1,200. What would you say is the biggest change that you’ve seen since those early days?
Since 1979, when I started with Thornton Tomasetti [then named Lev Zetlin Associates], I would say the biggest change is the process of project delivery. Project teams then used to work in series, with each design discipline working more or less in isolation. Today, we have tools that allow true collaboration, and they let the entire project team share the model and work in parallel. What hasn’t changed is what makes a great project and a great project team. For instance, the AIA principles of integrated project delivery (IPD) aren’t really new. What’s new is the environment that allows us to implement them today.
From Lev Zetlin to Charlie Thornton and Richard Tomasetti, you have had some incredible mentors throughout your career. Charlie, of course, famously founded the ACE Mentor program. What is it about Thornton Tomasetti that makes it so focused on the next generation?
Our leaders have always been committed to building a robust pipeline of rising young leaders. We need this for several reasons: Thornton Tomasetti is privately held, with 15 percent of staff being shareholders. So, one of our core values is “challenging people to grow.” Others include “driving innovation” and “building an enduring organization that makes lasting contributions.” All of these depend on our focus on building for the future.
Field of Dreams: A BIM model of the new Yankee Stadium, Scarangello’s dream project, which opened in 2009.From the firm’s earliest use of BIM in the 1990s, it has seemed committed to staying ahead of the technology curve. Now you are even funding new tech, creating your own new products and putting them on the open market. Can you talk for a moment about launching an incubator, CORE Studio, in 2013, and then an accelerator, TTWiiN, a year ago?
Well, first, I would go back further with your examples. Our firm was founded on the idea that innovation is woven into everything we do. Lev Zetlin Associates was a just boutique operation when Philip Johnson selected us to work on pavilions at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. But in that work, our use of curvilinear post-tensioned concrete then would be just as innovative today.
CORE is our R&D incubator that combines CORE studio and CORE science. It enables us to collaborate with project teams and other firms to drive change and innovation across the industry. Projects in CORE are wide-ranging and cover topics including performance-based fire design, 3-D photogrammetry, earthquake protection, vibration monitoring, probabilistic characterization of 3-D printing, and soil-structure interaction. Research projects are solicited firm-wide. Then, candidate projects are reviewed by an R&D oversight committee, which selects which will be funded to support their development. At present, CORE is supporting close to 100 projects.
TTWiiN, on the other hand, is our technology accelerator. When our intellectual property [IP] needs a structured maturation process to reach its full potential, it moves to TTWiiN, which is an independent company focused on preparing IP for commercialization. Currently, TTWiiN has already stood up five products for commercialization, and they are all “open for business.”
- World-beaters: Thornton Tomasetti engineered both the record-setting Petronas Towers (left) and the ongoing Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia, which aims to become the world’s tallest in 2020.
What are you most excited about for the next five to ten years, or beyond?
In September 2014, the Harvard Business Review published a study that listed the construction industry dead last in its speed to innovation. We’re even slower to innovate than utilities and the mining industries. So, from there, it can only get better. But it’s a huge challenge. Still, think about it: if you were a bright young engineering graduate today, and you had a job offer from Google or Apple or [a company] in the construction industry, where would you go? So, the most exciting challenge we have now is to turn that around, to make our industry more competitive. And I am happy to say it’s already happening.
Have you had a favorite project in your career? I know you have worked all over the world, but I also saw that you told The New York Times that one local project really stood out.
Well, yes. We were the engineer of record for the new Yankee Stadium [in 2009]. That was a special project for me, since I grew up in the Bronx and have been a life-long Yankees fan. But that being said, for me, what has really been the most rewarding is the lifelong friendships I have made with the colleagues whom I have worked with on so many projects. My most rewarding challenge today is to work with our current leaders to ensure Thornton Tomasetti is an enduring, resilient, and innovative leader for decades to come. That’s my passion.
Tom, thanks again for your time. We look forward to hearing more from you at our Summit.
You’re most welcome. I certainly look forward to that, too. In fact, I hear the Yankees are in town.
NOTE: Scarangello will speak at the Summit on Friday, May 5. For ticket information, click here.