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A conversation with Nick DeNichilo

This interview with Nick DeNichilo, President and CEO of Mott MacDonald in North America, appeared in The Zweig Letter, a newsletter for architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry. We thank author Liisa Andreassen and The Zweig Letter for permission to reprint it.

Mott MacDonald is a global management, engineering and development cosultancy adding value for public and private clients on agenda-setting projects worldwide. Mott MacDonald is one of the world’s largest employee-owned companies. It offers several formal programs to support an environment of continuous learning that helps to nurture staff at each stage of their professional career, and to ensure the emergence of strong leaders into the future

“I enjoy conducting town hall webinars with all our staff in attendance,” DeNichilo says. “That’s even more important during these unprecedented times. Despite all our technology and ability to communicate digitally, there is no substitute for connecting with each other on a personal basis, even if it’s across remote working platforms.”

The Zweig Letter: Sustainability is important to Mott MacDonald. How do you ensure that the company remains a leader in the field when it comes to sustainability?

Nick DeNichilo: As a company, Mott MacDonald is committed to help achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Our purpose is to improve people’s lives by providing professional services in the built and natural environments, and in social and economic development. Many of our projects, by their nature, support goals such as better healthcare, quality education, clean water, and renewable energy. We bring innovation to infrastructure and industry, and make cities and communities more inclusive, resilient, and sustainable.

Our goal is to make Mott MacDonald a carbon-neutral company by the end of 2020, and we are actively working to design infrastructure that can withstand the impact of climate change, including flooding and severe weather. We identify opportunities to simultaneously reduce costs and carbon in our clients’ projects.

We help our clients add value to their business, and for their stakeholders, by using our ingenuity, professional excellence, and connected thinking to address their challenges in ways that safeguard the welfare of the public, enhance the environment, and promote sustainable development.

TZL: How has COVID-19 impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting/working remotely?

ND: As the coronavirus pandemic has unfolded, we have complied with the guidance of the CDC and other authorities to ensure the safety of our staff, clients, and the general public. Given the speed at which the COVID-19 virus spread, we encouraged staff to work from home in early March. We recently updated our policy on working remotely to ensure that safety, cybersecurity, and corporate values were prioritized.

Moving past the immediate crisis, there will certainly be longer term effects to our markets. Remote working-from-home may become a norm in our industry and our tools, processes, and workforce will continue to adapt.

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

ND: I grew up in a close-knit, immigrant family in Hoboken, New Jersey. All we had back then was each other, and my fondest memories are of family celebrations. My brothers, sister, and cousins were my best friends and they still are. Family remains a priority as my wife, Linda, and I brought up our four boys and were blessed enough to see them have children of their own.

At Mott MacDonald, well-being and family time is a big part of our culture. There are certain times just for family, but there is also overlap, and it is a good kind of overlap. I’ve seen young people grow up in the business and I’ve seen children of my colleagues work in the business at Mott MacDonald. We have a few multi-generation families working at Mott MacDonald.

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?

ND: Over the last five years we’ve been developing Moata, our digital twin platform. The first deployments of this were in Auckland, New Zealand, where our Safeswim solution uses more than 1 billion data points a day to predict open sea water quality at 85 beaches. In our Coastal Practice, we used AI and neural networks to build an accurate high-speed surrogate hydrodynamic numerical model. We are currently building a set of AI tools to more efficiently predict and eliminate lead service lines in major cities throughout the United States.

The first step towards AI is machine learning, and this is already taking place with Moata, by analyzing live data feeds from sensors and comparing it to values predicted by our algorithms. This process builds confidence in the application, which enables the next step to use those learnings to achieve specific goals and tasks through flexible adaptation driven by the machine. We’re already applying machine learning and AI to water, energy, and transportation problems. Our experience is that AI alone isn’t enough, it needs to be applied to the client’s specific problem and for that you need engineering domain expertise.

Mott MacDonald has been at the cutting edge of digital technology for decades with tools such as Fieldbook, our GIS-based work management tool, and SmartLifecycle, a suite of advanced software tools that help you run every aspect of a large infrastructure project. By incorporating AI into these tools, we are making them more accurate, better predictors of future requirements, and much more efficient

TZL: Does your firm work closely with any higher education institutions to gain access to the latest technology, experience, and innovation and/or recruiting to find qualified resources?

ND: Mott MacDonald works closely with many institutions throughout the country including the New Jersey Institute of Technology, North Carolina State University, Colorado School of Mines, Rutgers University, Columbia University, California Polytechnic State University – San Luis Obispo, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, California State University Los Angeles, and Villanova University, to name a few. I am personally involved with several of these institutions local to our corporate headquarters in New Jersey.

I’m proud to say that I am currently a member of NJIT’s Board of Trustees, my alma mater, and I previously served as a member of its Board of Overseers and past Chairman of the Newark College of Engineering Board of Visitors. We are involved in NJIT’s New Jersey Innovation Institute, internship programs, and various industry programs. My colleague Joe Stanley, a senior Business Management Systems Manager, is a member of the Board of Visitors for the College of Engineering and past president of the Alumni Association, and Bob Fritz, our Practice Leader for the Built Environment, is a member of the Advisory Board for the School of Architecture.

At Rutgers, Mott MacDonald is a member of the New Jersey Climate Adaptation Advisory Committee under the leadership of Pat Natale, our Vice President of Business Strategy. Another colleague, Eric Betz, a Development Manager for Mott MacDonald, is a member of the Advisory Board of the Department of Civil Engineering. As a company, we are involved with Rutgers’ Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation, which is creating new technology for transportation, such as robots that monitor bridge decks for weak spots.

At Columbia University, we are involved in the Industry Board of Center for Buildings, Infrastructure and Public Space. This has been an important forum for discussing cybersecurity and other challenges and threats. Our relationship with Columbia University has gone international with Mott MacDonald’s operations in the UK.

TZL: Mott MacDonald’s business in North America is thriving in the transport, water, oil, and gas sectors, plus projects in education, power, buildings, and infrastructure finance. Tell us about one of the most provocative projects on deck now.

ND: I’d have to say that the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel is one of the most remarkable projects we’re involved with. Together with HDR, we formed a design joint venture as part of a major design-build program. It draws on our skills in tunneling, fire and life safety, highways, bridges, and coastal infrastructure. Hampton Roads creates a new crossing for Chesapeake Bay while coping with the challenges associated with working in proximity of naval bases, ship traffic, and sensitive environments.

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?

ND: Our Learning and Development staff offer in-depth training for project managers and other staff.

Our Horizons program was developed for young professional staff. It is a career development program that helps participants to identify their own development needs and provide them with the tools to manage their career in a more meaningful way. The program lasts about 18 months and starts with a three-day launch event. Subsequent phases consist of activities that result from the learning at the launch event and are self-directed by the participants.

Our Elements program consists of modules on team engagement, client relationships, and commercial awareness. Each module lasts approximately four to six weeks. Participants receive online training through webinars, reading, and online classes, plus a day-long, in-person session.

We also have exceptional leadership training programs including Emerging Leaders. Emerging Leaders is a program designed to develop our next generation of leaders, the stewards of the future who will drive our growth, live our brand and culture, and ensure the best outcomes for our people, our clients, and our communities.

Connected Leaders is our executive training program that integrates staff from throughout the world. This program is part networking and part team building and has helped us bring global resources to projects all around the world.

We have formal mentor programs open to all levels of staff and strong on-the-job training through our practices. Programs like our Graduates Weekend and Early Career Professionals help build networks for those starting off at Mott MacDonald. A day doesn’t go by when we can’t learn something from each other. At Mott MacDonald, learning and development is part of the culture.

TZL: Being such a large firm, how do you ensure staff feels connected? What are some of the top communication tools used and how do you ensure company culture remains the same throughout?

ND: Communication is more important than ever. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 95 percent of our staff work remotely from home or on a project site. Our IT systems and technology capabilities (that include remote working) enable us to continue to communicate with clients, and efficiently manage and support project needs. The effort of our talented staff rolling out systems like Skype, Teams, SharePoint, Azure, GoToWebinar/Webex, and ProjectWise has made it possible for us to work together seamlessly even under adverse conditions.

Compass, our company intranet, is one of our key tools for staying connected. News items go up on a daily basis, letting people know about promotions, hires, reorganizations, publications, internal awards, project wins, awards for our people, and projects and more. Connections, an internal newsletter for staff in North America, covers community service projects, charitable events, and social activities. We have a very active enterprise social networking service through Yammer.

There’s no substitute for a personal message. It’s important for staff to hear frequently from our leadership. As president and CEO for Mott MacDonald in North America, I enjoy conducting town hall webinars with all our staff in attendance. That’s even more important during these unprecedented times. Despite all our technology and ability to communicate digitally, there is no substitute for connecting with each other on a personal basis, even if it’s across remote working platforms.

TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?

ND: Mott MacDonald has a global policy on equality, diversity, and inclusion that guides our offices around the world. We embed EDI into the business, with a focus on recruitment, corporate social responsibility, procurement and supplier diversity, and our work with clients.

More than 700 staff, including all senior staff and board members, have been trained to address unconscious bias. In North America, our Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion committee has active groups in the areas of Advancing Disability, Advancing Gender, Advancing Race and Culture, Advancing Veterans, Advancing LGBT, and Advancing Parents and Caregivers.

We work in partnership with the National Society of Black Engineers and Women’s Transportation Seminar, and we participate in the US government’s Hiring Our Heroes program, which allows veterans to take part in 12-week fellowships with Mott MacDonald that can lead to a rewarding career.

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