Engineering excellence: Sean Bluni

Apr 25, 2021

CEO of Hardesty & Hanover (New York, NY), a world renowned full-service engineering firm with more than 130 years of experience.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

Bluni is responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of the firm, including engineering management, information systems, and human resources. He’s leading this 134-year-old business into the future of design and construction in the areas of major bridges, highways, expressways, and heavy movable structures.

“Hardesty & Hanover’s culture very much remains based on our core values of engineering excellence and professionalism, which were established and practiced by our founders,” Bluni says. “And our drive to improve the nation’s infrastructure by solving the most challenging engineering problems has been an enduring part of our mission for more than a century.”

A conversation with Sean Bluni.

The Zweig Letter: You’ve been with Hardesty & Hanover for 30 years? What’s the most significant change you’ve seen during this time (i.e., AI, policies, globalization)?

Sean Bluni: I started with Hardesty & Hanover as a summer intern in 1990 and began my full-time career with the company in 1992 after graduate school. Since this time, I’ve seen numerous changes in the industry and at H&H, driven largely by technological advances that have facilitated and improved communication and information sharing, as well as analysis and design methods. These advances have enabled more rapid innovation, increased project delivery speed, brought a global marketplace, and led to many other changes in how we all do our jobs every day.

Of all the changes I’ve seen, one of the most impactful to our business is the rise of alternate procurement methods, including design-build, CMGC, and P3s, especially for most large transportation projects. Using these methods has shifted the relationship between contractors and design professionals, increased the need for consultants to provide owners representative/program manager services, broadened the legal issues the engineering community needs to manage, and altered conventional project risk allocation.

A tremendously positive change worth noting is the dramatically increased number of women in our industry, including within the highest positions at consulting firms, owner agencies, professional societies, and industry forums. This rising prominence of women, in my opinion, has been as important to the recent success of our industry and H&H as any other factor and is vital to our future.

TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”

SB: It depends on how things are going. Ideally, I’d like to spend the majority of my time, say 80 percent “on the business,” focusing on our strategic plan (driving growth, building business, firm improvement, and high-level initiatives), our clients, and ownership transition. When our operation runs well, and there are no major operational matters to deal with, I can hit this target. However, matters such as performance issues (firm, group, or individual), work slowdowns, resource issues, claims/legal issues, and the like are a distraction from my target work breakdown and result in spending a much higher percentage of my time “in the business.” Because of such issues, I’d estimate that overall, my time spent working “on the business” rather than “in the business” is 60/40 rather than my target of 80/20. During the pandemic, this ratio has been more like 20/80, unfortunately.

TZL: Hardesty & Hanover has been around for more than 130 years. Is there still a culture that is adhered to that resembles the firm’s founding mission? Please provide an example or two.

SB: Hardesty & Hanover’s culture very much remains based on our core values of engineering excellence and professionalism, which were established and practiced by our founders. And our drive to improve the nation’s infrastructure by solving the most challenging engineering problems has been an enduring part of our mission for more than a century. Our culture is pervasive throughout our company, and we take proactive measures to hand our values down from generation to generation. In fact, we have identified maintaining our 130-year-old culture and core values as we aggressively grow as one of our biggest challenges and a fundamental component of our strategic plan.

Our enduring engineering and client-first culture leads to a collaborative environment throughout our company, whereby we draw on our best resources without internal barriers between offices and groups. There are many recent examples of this in our project work. On one project this year, we performed a major emergency inspection and rehabilitation design for one of our primary New York City clients. Knowing how critical it was to our client, we took on this task at risk, with no budget in place and with high uncertainty as to when funding would be allocated given COVID-related financial impacts on the client’s program. Given the highly-accelerated schedule, we engaged some of our strongest technical resources and inspection personnel from multiple offices. We worked around the clock to complete the inspection and deliver the design on time and to the high satisfaction of our client.

A further example is our recent design of a highly complex and highly unique bascule bridge in Canada. Given the extreme complexities of the design, we engaged our most skilled technical experts from a half dozen offices in various capacities to ensure this movable bridge design’s quality and functionality.

TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?

SB: Staff retention has been critical to our success through the decades and remains a focal point of our strategic plan. We intend that every hire we make, whether right out of school or more experienced, spend the remainder of their career with H&H. In fact, one of our four core values is to “build long-term relationships” – this applies as much internally as externally. To achieve this, we focus on creating a work environment that is positive, team-oriented, friendly, and conducive to career development. We consider training, mentoring, and collaborating in an “open door” environment to be essential. And we are committed to creating and offering leadership training and opportunities at all levels. By committing to supporting our employees both professionally and personally, we’ve gotten a commitment back from them to go the extra mile for the company.

In addition to creating the right work environment, it’s also critical to our employee retention goals that we continue to win and deliver interesting and challenging projects and provide opportunities for developing engineers to work on a variety of assignments and for a variety of managers. And finally, we are committed to continually expanding our ownership and giving opportunities to those high-achieving employees showing dedication to the company to be part of our ownership team.

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?

SB: Ownership transition is a priority focus. In fact, we’ve expanded the number of firm owners by a factor of 10 in the past eight years for this very reason. One thing that we’ve done to ensure the proper transition is to develop a detailed five- and 10-year ownership plan that is updated every year. This plan identifies potential owners as well as intended overall and individual ownership levels that will achieve our ownership transition goals. We also look forward and plan for funding ownership retirements through retained earnings phased buyouts. Some other elements of our ownership transition plan include facilitating and subsidizing ownership purchases of new owners, limiting the maximum ownership any one individual can hold (we’re at 10 percent), and requiring the sale of ownership at a certain age. The biggest pitfall to avoid is not planning for ownership transition well before high-level owners are ready to retire. This situation almost always leads to selling the firm.

TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?

SB: I’ve certainly had my share of lessons learned the hard way. I think something valuable that I’ve learned is the importance of putting the right people in the right position for success. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and aligning responsibilities with strengths is crucial, especially at the highest positions. Roles and responsibilities need to be based on capabilities and willingness to do what it takes for success, and not based on tenure, emotions, personal friendships, or the like. And, not everyone can be trained to do any job well.

Having the wrong individual in a leadership or other key role only creates more work for others, typically for those who already have too much on their shoulders and puts pressure up and down the organization. And I’ve learned that a “team-first” attitude and strong people skills are crucial for our leadership team.

Addressing high-level performance issues isn’t easy, and they don’t go away on their own, so the best way to do it is to address it head-on as soon as you are aware of the problem.

TZL: How do you think Hardesty & Hanover has shaped global engineering? What’s been its greatest impact?

SB: H&H has been home to some of the most impactful bridge engineering pioneers in the country and the world. We’ve been on the forefront of complex highway and rail bridge design innovation throughout our history, which has produced landmark and record-setting bridges, many of which are more than 100 years old and still in service today. Examples of such landmark structures include the South Halstead Street Bridge in Chicago (first modern vertical lift bridge, built in 1894), the Arroyo Seco Bridge in Pasadena (first major reinforced concrete bridge in the U.S., built in 1913), the Goethals Bridge and Outerbridge Crossing (the Port Authority of NY/NJ’s first major bridges, built in the late 1920s), the Lewiston – Queenston Bridge in Niagara Falls (longest steel arch bridge at the time of construction in 1962), the Roslyn Viaduct Bridge on Long Island (New York state’s first segmental bridge, constructed in 2010), and the dual-use (highway and rail) Sarah Long Bridge in Maine (first vertical lift bridge in the U.S. to utilize post-tensioned segmental concrete towers, completed in 2018) to name a few.

One specialty area within bridge engineering where H&H has substantially impacted the engineering world is movable bridges. For well over a century, we’ve been the world’s leader in movable bridge engineering and have pioneered designs for every major type of movable bridge. The numerous bridge engineering patents held by H&H through the decades includes important movable bridge patents such as the Hanover Skew Bascule Design. With more than 30 movable bridge replacement designs in the U.S. and internationally and well over 100 movable bridge rehabilitations in the past five years alone, H&H possesses more expertise and contributes more to the movable bridge engineering community than any other firm in the world.

TZL: Research shows that PMs are overworked, understaffed and that many firms do not have formal training programs for PMs. What is your firm doing to support its PMs?

SB: Project managers certainly have a lot on their plate, and sometimes too much. Our approach to addressing this is twofold. We’ve established a dedicated PM Support Team and are actively training and developing deputy PMs and new PMs to take off some of the load. Our PM Support Team is led by our COO and CFO and includes resource managers and operations personnel. Collectively, they support our PMs by helping to assess project status, inputting required information into our project management system, tracking budgets, assessing resource needs and providing staff, working with our accounting department to submit change orders and other activities that lighten the burden on our PMs while helping them be more successful.

We also have a formal PM training program consisting of both internal and external instructors, including classroom type lessons, roundtable discussions, and group workshops. Our training program starts with a basic introductory PM bootcamp training program and progresses to higher levels of PM education. Depending on training completed and actual project experience, our PMs are classified following a three-level system that we use to assign PMs and deputy PMs to projects. Increased experience, demonstrated success, and completion of further training is required for a PM to advance to higher levels within our PM classification system. By continually developing more qualified PMs and deputy PMs in concert with providing them with a support team, we are better able to manage the workload of our PMs, even as we continue to grow our firm aggressively.

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