Indispensable: Benjamin Cornelius

Sep 27, 2020

Partner at LERA Consulting Structural Engineers (New York, NY), a firm that has created innovative, yet constructible and economical structural designs since 1923.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

Cornelius has been with LERA since 1994. He leads the firm’s Investigations and Expert Witness Practice and is an experienced expert witness. He has conducted more than 30 forensic investigations in North America, Europe, and Asia in disputes totaling more than $700 million.

“Trust is something you build over time,” Cornelius says. “We build trust by answering clients’ calls at any time, by taking steps to make sure they know their needs are at the top of our list of priorities, and by consistently delivering reliable and useful information on time.”

A conversation with Benjamin Cornelius.

The Zweig Letter: How has your role changed since you first started working with LERA? What’s been the most significant change for you as a LERA leader?

Benjamin Cornelius: I joined the firm right after college and had the good fortune to work for structural engineers at the top of our profession on projects around the world. From those individuals and experiences, I learned what great design is and how it can be achieved, as well as how to manage others in serving clients. Now I offer those learning experiences to new generations, while continuing my own growth with the benefit of the fresh perspective that new engineers offer.

I have come to appreciate the great energy, creativity, and value that our younger generations of engineers bring to the profession, and I have enjoyed discovering how their different perspectives and enthusiasm for new tools can be focused to help our clients achieve and often surpass their goals.

One of the greatest changes has been how much more transparent we have become with respect to how we operate the firm. That has been very important for us in retaining key people and inspiring them to grow into our next generation of leaders.

TZL: How far into the future are you able to reliably predict your workload and cashflow?

BC: From my perspective, global uncertainty has generally shortened the visible horizon on what comes next, but I have also grown more confident that clients appreciate our focus on high-quality service and will continue to seek us out and give us repeat assignments.

TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?

BC: They are the reason I do what I do and why I am able to do it.

TZL: Trust is crucial. How do you earn the trust of your clients?

BC: Trust is something you build over time. We build trust by answering clients’ calls at any time, by taking steps to make sure they know their needs are at the top of our list of priorities, and by consistently delivering reliable and useful information on time.

TZL: Artificial intelligence and machine learning are potential disruptors across all industries. Is your firm exploring how to incorporate these technologies into providing improved services for clients?

BC: Yes. Our work, both design and forensic, is about matching known patterns of behavior – be they behaviors of materials, assemblies, or humans – with conditions that are desired or exist at a project site. For example, a developer may try to maximize the amount of usable space he can build on a site with a height restriction and soil contamination. A computer program might synthesize those two criteria and find floor framing configurations that may have a higher unit cost, but are shallow and light enough to minimize the height per story and the degree to which we need to disturb the contaminated soil. The key is knowing with clarity and precision what is most valuable and then using computational tools to find it. In a forensic investigation, we might write or use software to recognize certain failure patterns that suggest the origin of a collapse or to highlight anomalies in project records that help the investigator winnow the list of likely causes. We have a research and development group that is very adept at figuring out what we as designers and investigators value and at building custom software to seek it out.

TZL: Where would you like to see LERA in five years?

BC: I would like to see us continue to grow as a group of a dozen or so complimentary and collaborative studios, each practicing at the top of its sector; and I would like to see us continue to do meaningful, high-quality work and serve clients in ways that make us indispensable. In addition, I would like LERA to be better known for the breadth of our work. We have long been known for being at the forefront of tall building design, but our expertise is so much broader. We’re also acknowledged as one of the leading engineering firms in the world for projects that include great civic and public projects, cultural facilities, healthcare buildings and laboratories, and forensic investigations.

TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?

BC: I try to lead by example, work hard alongside my team, show them respect and help them see opportunities to grow and bring unique value to our work. As an approach, it has its challenges, but I think it has contributed to the development of a motivated, high-performing team and excellent service to our clients.

TZL: How are you balancing investment in the next generation – which is at an all-time high – with rewards for tenured staff? This has always been a challenge, but seems heightened as investments in development have increased.

BC: I value the fresh approaches and energy that our younger staff bring to their work, and I value the hard-won experience and intuition of our veterans. A firm like LERA thrives when we have people with a number of different perspectives and strengths, but similar values, working together to accomplish a clear mission. I think it’s important to establish reward systems that recognize everything that we need to function at our best.

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

BC: That struggle is a natural and necessary part of doing something important and well. If it seems easy, we probably haven’t gone far enough to think about how a design problem can or should be solved or, in the case of a forensic investigation, why something bad happened.

TZL: With extensive experience in structural design and forensic investigations around the world, what do you consider one of your greatest professional achievements? Why?

BC: The thing that I am most proud of, professionally, is the growing body of work that my team and I have done together and the growing list of strong client relationships that we have built in the course of that work. LERA has a culture in which we all take very seriously our commitment to excellent care of clients. On design projects, that means we bring ideas that create new opportunities and work to develop clear, reliable designs for elegant, constructible, and economical structures. On forensic projects, that means we draw from our extensive experience as designers to bring clarity to the issues that cause problems on construction projects and provide reliable opinions and advice.

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

BC: We are taking steps to transfer ownership of a portion of the company to members of our senior staff. We think that personal investment in the firm by a larger group of our team members will help us retain key people and enable the firm to continue delivering the high-quality service for which LERA is known as the company grows. It is our expectation that investors will be motivated and empowered. And it is this kind of commitment that will be essential to continuing to deliver the high-quality service LERA is known for as the company grows.

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