President of Campos Engineering (Dallas, TX), an MEP engineering, testing, adjusting and balancing, and commissioning firm.
By Liisa Andreassen
Casagrande started with Campos Engineering in 1997 as a field technician. From there, his career rapidly evolved into project and division management. As a registered engineer, NEBB certified TAB and BSC professional, he helped to develop the firm’s technical process for commissioning and testing, adjusting and balancing services. Now, as the firm’s president, his focus is on the advancement of Campos’ services, growing into key markets, developing corporate strategies, and leading its management training programs. Casagrade is also a member of Zweig Group’s 2022 ElevateHER cohort. ElevateHER was founded by Zweig Group as part of its commitment to embrace, promote, and ensure equal opportunities for everyone in the AEC industry regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.
“I place great value on my personal family and try to emulate that same sense of care toward my work family,” Casagrande says. “I try to develop a personal relationship with each and every member of my work family. We laugh together and cry together. We take care of our work family and I think that is a sincere benefit of a blended work/home family paradigm.”
A conversation with Tony Casagrande.
The Zweig Letter: During your various positions within the firm, what knowledge/skills did you learn that you feel are most valuable in your current position?
Tony Casagrande: I started as an intern and worked my way up. I’m happy this was my path because I learned many non-engineering skills. For example, I learned to:
- Use things, love people. We are in a people business and people are the greatest tool in the universe; however, people don’t want to be twisted like a screwdriver. If you sincerely love your people and demonstrate that every day, they’ll do great things for the company.
- Get out of my comfort zone and do things I don’t like to do. I learned early that connecting with influential clients, selling the firm, and solving our client’s problems would propel me ahead. I ended up being right.
- Find the best in people and ignore their faults. Get to know people, find out what they do well and put them in positions where they’ll succeed. Any faults will become irrelevant.
TZL: The Campos website states that you and your leadership team have been prepping for the next phase of what’s to come for the firm. Can you give me some insight as to the exciting plans ahead?
TC: We believe the AEC industry is due for a massive disruption that may make many of our current jobs obsolete. All engineering is applied math and science which means that AI should be able to do our job in an instant with far fewer mistakes and more repeatable outcomes. Technology is advancing so quickly. In my lifetime, I think buildings could be designed to a construction drawing level using programs like the ones you use to fit and buy a new car.
To secure our future, we’re developing technology that can be applied to solving building owners’ problems after construction. Using the Internet of Things concept, we’re providing solutions to owners about not only what needs to be maintained, but when it needs to be maintained and how to maintain it. We also provide real time failure analysis so that critical systems can be relied upon. We see this market to exist well beyond the advent of functional AI and are planning to thrive when it happens.
TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?
TC: We earn our clients’ trust by:
- Taking risks. In this context, it means to challenge yourself to do things for your clients, that you may not be comfortable doing. By risking your own limits, you show the client how important they are and set yourself apart as someone to be trusted.
- Making and keeping promises. You will surely build a reputation for being unreliable if you miss too many promises.
- Delivering consistent and reliable performance. There’s no such thing as a do-over.
TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there an overlap?
TC: I believe there’s a significant overlap. I place great value on my personal family and try to emulate that same sense of care toward my work family. I try to develop a personal relationship with each and every member of my work family. We laugh together and cry together. We take care of our work family and I think that is a sincere benefit of a blended work/home family paradigm.
TZL: Campos seems to be leading the way in technology in building solutions in Texas and beyond. Can you give me an example or two of how you are doing this?
TC: To truly innovate, you must invest time, money, and brain power. We’ve reviewed business processes, accounting, and fee forecasting and have found better ways to do it faster and more accurately. We’ve created quicker and more detailed reports, invented apps for facility assessments and client relationship management, and we’ve looked for ways to eliminate waste and rework. As the innovative spirit took hold, we polled the team to find out other areas of needed action. We got some great ideas that we ended up building like a self-balancing system for air distribution and custom-sized flow measurement devices. We figured out how to make instruments for hundreds of dollars that we were previously buying for thousands. Innovation became a self-propagating organism within the company, and it’s changed the firm’s direction.
TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
TC: When I was a younger manager, I struggled to understand that no matter how hard I tried to explain, how much I tried to convince, or how strongly I felt about something, there’s no way to get everyone to agree with you. This was hard for me because I thought that getting people to think like you was the definition of a great leader. I was wrong. With the help of some great mentors, a lot of outside counsel, and hours of knee time at church, I finally figured out that people don’t need to think like me to get things done. In fact, when people are more empowered to think on their own, they feel more vested. I learned a powerful tool in leadership when I learned to help others take ownership of great ideas.
TZL: What’s a recent customized MEP solution that you’re particularly proud of and why?
TC: Recently, we were asked to help a healthcare client address an ongoing issue in their operating rooms. There were control failures with the humidifiers in the air handling units. During our evaluation, we discovered control valve failures, existing humidifiers that were oversized, and the use of direct injected steam from the central plant which released boiler chemicals into the supply air stream. Campos customized a solution that involved resizing the humidifiers to prevent relative humidity over-runs in the operating rooms, and also selected “clean steam” humidifiers using plant steam as the heat source. This eliminated the boiler steam from the plant from introducing chemicals into the air being supplied to the ORs.
TZL: What benefits does your firm offer that your people get most excited about?
TC: We survey our team annually to get feedback on all of our major initiatives and strategies. Historically, there are two benefits that always get high marks. The first is our 9-80 flexible schedule and the second is our PTO program. The 9-80 flexible schedule works to provide every other Friday as an optional workday for the entire team. If projects are going out on time and things are going smoothly, most of our team takes the day off to spend time with their families or relaxing. If there are challenges that can’t be taken care of during the normal schedule, those Fridays can be used to catch up when the office is quiet.
Post-COVID, we learned that many of our team were burned out and didn’t use their vacation or sick time effectively to reset and relax. There was a perception that this time should be accrued as a sort of bank account that ultimately was never spent. It was a vicious cycle. To address this, we revamped our PTO policy to increase the total amount of time available and to increase the flexibility to use the time. Instead of accruing PTO over the year, PTO is allocated on February 1 and every teammate receives four weeks of PTO; teammates with five years of service receive five weeks; teammates with 10 years receive six weeks. This pool is replenished each February 1, so they never lose any PTO.
TZL: Ownership transition can be tricky, to say the least. What’s the key to ensuring a smooth passing of the baton? What’s the biggest pitfall to avoid?
TC: Don’t wait until you’re 65 to start transitioning ownership. Make it part of your regular strategic planning. When you review key metrics, discipline yourself to look at what would happen if you were to die, leave, or retire. If you can’t put your finger on exact folks to run the company with a clear set of expectations and necessary skills and a funding mechanism to make it all work, then you’re going to have a bad time.
After my business partner and I bought the firm from the founder in 2020, we immediately began an intentional program to identify and train future firm owners. We also scheduled a target date for our retirement so that there was an end zone. Finally, we put into place a funding mechanism so the future shareholders could actually afford to buy us out. With this strategy in place, if something unfortunate were to happen to one of us before we retire, the firm will be fine. If we can make it to the target retirement date, everyone will win and the firm will be in great hands.
TZL: Being proactive in recruitment is important to Campos. What’s the process like?
TC: We try to recruit 100 percent of our team from local colleges and universities to create a never-ending supply of great teammates. We attend career fairs and generally hire 10 interns each summer and sometimes over winter break. The goal is to get students familiar with what MEP engineering, commissioning, and test and balance are since most engineering programs don’t focus much on what we do. Interns who succeed are invited back the next summer or winter and our hope is that by the end of their degree program, they come to work for us. We get top notch candidates who know our culture and have six months’ experience. It’s fantastic.
TZL: How many years of experience or large enough book of business is enough to become a principal in your firm? Are you naming principals in their 20s or 30s?
TC: We have a program with a clearly defined set of desired behaviors rather than experience or book of work. We look for people who can meet the desired behaviors with a consistent track record of delivering on key metrics like quality, selling, competency, training and mentoring others, reputation in the industry and in the firm, and solving problems. We focus on traits like honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness. We believe this approach garners a wider pool of candidates to include non-technical folks too. This is important because it means a high performer in marketing could be in the C-suite someday. It levels the playing field and makes for a better leadership team.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility?
TC: To love and care for my team.