Carmen Kasner, PE is Senior Vice President and Regional Chief Executive for Southern California Infrastructure Operations. Mrs. Kasner earned a B.S. in Civil Engineering from South Dakota State University.
Lauren Wright, Ph.D. is Director of Investor Relations at NV5. Jenna Carrick, Procurement Manager at NV5, also contributed to this interview.
LW: Let’s start from the beginning of your career and with as much detail as you want you can tell everybody how you got here.
CK: So I was actually born and raised in South Dakota.
LW: Oh I didn’t know that.
CK: Yes, rural South Dakota on a farm. I knew no engineers growing up. My math teacher in high school was a brilliant man. I remember that he explained the difference between scientists and engineers and it spoke to me. It spoke to me from the fact that I love science and I loved math and that to be an engineer you’ve got to be practical. And growing up on a farm my dad fixed a lot of things with baling wire and duct tape. I test well, and I got a scholarship—a civil engineering scholarship—and I applied for engineering school and in talking to the dean of the school he explained what a civil engineer did and I was like, “That’s what I want to do!” I know that our quality of life is improved dramatically because of what we as civil engineers do and so civil engineering really spoke to me.
LW: And so what kind of farm was it that your family had? I think that connection you drew is so interesting.
CK: We had pigs and angus cattle that were breeding stock. And so I paid my way through college and bought my first house with cattle I sold.
CK: Yup, got a down payment for the house and other than that I did summer jobs. In college I worked for a county engineer one summer and the U.S. Forest Service in Western Colorado for two summers and fall semester, I also worked for a private engineering company. I realized that I wanted to work on the private side for at least four or five years to get the technical basis because I could see working on the agency side was a lot more about project management and I knew I wanted to ultimately do project management. I am much better with the bigger picture—driving projects to completion. So, I decided I wanted to go work for a private company for a while and get the technical background. I got a job in Denver working for Boyle Engineering. I got to do water projects, and I was doing projects in San Diego even though I was living in Denver. I worked on master planning and hydraulics and I got to do some designs on a dam, one of the last dams built in Colorado. When they kept sending me to San Diego, I eventually said I wanted to move to San Diego, but they said, “No we can’t lose you!” They didn’t want to share resources, and I said “Well I’m moving whether you have something or not,” and well, as soon as I got back to Denver, the San Diego office landed the design of the Mission Valley West trolley in San Diego.
CK: And so I moved out here in May of 1992 to help do the design of the trolley and that was a big project. I was doing detailed alignment of the trolley and then I got into hydraulics and grading and drainage. A great project, a fun project, I learned a lot. I think it was a three-year job that we were working on and I was doing some other projects along the way. I’ve done some water tanks and reservoir designs, pipeline projects, and I got about five years along in my career and I kind of said, “Hmm.” I wanted to go to the public side at that time. I actually interviewed and was offered a job at a city. Then my friend who had gone to another company said “Why don’t you come interview with this firm called John Powell & Associates, it’s a small company but we do contract city engineering for the City of Del Mar and we have the best of both worlds.” So I did.
We (John Powell) went from about 100 employees and then we sold it to PBS&J which was about 2,500 employees when they eventually sold to Atkins North America. So after 18 years at one firm, I saw it grow from the small firm of 32 employees all the way to part of a 17,000 employee firm.
LW: And that was over 10 years ago?
CK: Over and 18 years period.
LW: 18 years, wow.
CK: So along the way I got to work on such a variety of projects. I spent some time in the City of Lemon Grove. We completed 22 projects in two years. They needed street lights and they needed paving so that was a problem, and drainage problems all across the community. I helped in Dana Point where we did something similar, we got millions of dollars’ worth of work completed in a very short period of time, again bringing the community up to the next level of improvement. We did some really unique projects. We designed a storm water treatment project at the storm drain outlet downstream from the St. Regis Hotel & Golf Course. It’s a very expensive beach that was often contaminated and closed a large portion of the year. That community was taking improvements really to the next level, where what we did helped and improved the environment along the way.
LW: Got it.
CK: Then I started working on Del Mar projects and was actually named city engineer for the City of Del Mar in 2004.
CK: The best part of it was the most challenging part, and that was working with the community, the residents.
LW: Well they care a lot about their community.
CK: They’re very passionate about their community and many of them have a lot of time to be extra passionate about their community.
LW: Right. You have to please a lot of different groups.
CK: That’s a good way of putting it, dealing with competing stakeholders and their perspectives and I loved that part of it. I loved helping. Their wastewater collection system needed a lot of improvements. They were actually on the forefront of doing a lot of improvements that many other cities are just now starting to do because they could afford it. Del Mar had many close-by residents, we had a lot of backyard work, working directly with the resident side: “We’re going to have to come into your yard and relocate your sewer line,” types of things. That was a fun part of the project, working directly with the people.
So in that way I acquired a reputation for doing the challenging projects. In 2009 after 25 years, we were not reselected to do their [Del Mar’s] city engineering. I started working on a project in Lake Havasu, Arizona where they were doing a septic to sewer conversion project and they were getting near the end of the program. They wanted to get it done in a certain timeline and their current consultant for the project was taking about a year to do the design of each project. We were selected to complete the last two phases. I was the PM for the project and we designed two of their projects in six months.
CK: We brought people in from four different offices, we built this team that worked long hours but we had fun. We just worked really hard and had a lot of fun along the way. Then we did the construction management on three projects and I was the client manager. I started taking larger roles in the company. I became a regional director for the waste water group, I became the contract City Engineer for Imperial Beach, and that contract I’ve actually brought with me to NV5.
LW: Oh yeah.
CK: I mean we had to re-compete for it…but they reselected us. So I was managing larger groups and the company went through a reorganization and I was actually named their National Public Works Business Unit Leader and so I was traveling a lot. I was spending a lot of my time away from my family for a while, every week for months on end. So when the opportunity came to join NV5 and focus on public works, I decided I really wanted to do that instead.
Public works is really about dealing with local communities. So, public works on a national level involves a lot of paper pushing. I wanted to be helping people in my local and regional community. So it was really the perfect fit for me here to be in this regional level, the firm wanted to be doing more public works in the San Diego region. At Atkins, we did a lot of plan check and development review, and NV5 was already performing plan check for Imperial County, but I’ve expanded that service more locally. I’ve hired some key people that are bringing additional contracts. Imperial Beach, for example, and after the first of the year two more communities will have been added.
LW: Great. So it sounds like your passion is delivering lots of different types of services that a community needs, but you don’t have an affinity for just waste water and water or just water pipeline design, for example. You’ve never really attached yourself to one specific discipline?
CK: No, I mean I did. Throughout my career I have designed more water and waste water pipelines than anything else. But I do really consider myself more a municipal engineer.
CK: In a community, one of the major public works function is distributing potable water and collecting wastewater and so I’ve done lot of master planning for wastewater systems. The reason you do a project where you get a community off of septic systems and onto a collection waste water system, is because of the environment. You’re having an impact on the environment with the septic – if you’re on septic, you’re often getting contamination of your water systems because the water is not being fully treated. So, it’s helping the communities and improving the environment at the same time. Civil engineers do wastewater, water, roads and structures; it all affects the environment and good engineers consider that. We have limited resources both financially and environmentally. You’re trying to get the most bang for the buck. But that means you’re respectful of the environment. In fact, the Lake Havasu Project won a sustainability award from the State of Arizona. The project looked at the whole, while we took out septic systems and installed new pipelines, but we reused the asphalt when we repaved the roadways. A part of sustainability and environmental responsibility is working locally while protecting the environment. The Colorado River was being contaminated by the septic flows.
LW: That’s a great answer. So, do you miss being so hands-on with the client? I mean obviously you speak to your clients all the time, even if in a more administrative role. But do you miss actually being there on site and doing that design work yourself?
CK: At times. However, I know I can be more of a help as a trusted adviser. I have a couple of clients that just call to pick my brain.
CK: I try and stay very on top of things happening, trends in the industry and what’s going on and have great staff here to help. But being that adviser is just as satisfying to me, honestly. I don’t miss doing the drawing and figuring out the slopes of the pipe. I miss some of the creative process of coming up with a solution but I’m still engaged on that side and I help review or write proposals. I get to tap into that creative side, because engineering is really creative.
LW: And you can do as much as you want, it’s up to you.
CK: I’m an entrepreneur at heart. Being a woman engineer I’ve had a number of people ask me why I haven’t started my own firm. Honestly NV5 has been a great vehicle for my entrepreneurial spirit because it is kind of like starting my own firm but having 80 people to build from. That’s why it’s been just a perfect opportunity for me. I am having an impact.
LW: Well of course, you’re running a big business.
CK: It’s a big business, it’s a huge group and making sure (we meet) the needs of the people that we work with. That we are developing them. This is a people business at the heart of it, so we need to have people that are engaged, enthusiastic, talented and supported. I mean, no one wants to work at a place that isn’t any fun.
CK: So I’ve implemented an employee activity committee where they’re given a budget to do certain activities. I’ve implemented giving out anniversary notes, just little small personal handwritten notes, trying to create a family atmosphere. We did a volunteer event where we participated at the Community Resource Holiday Basket Program. We’ve done beach clean-ups. So we give back to our communities and we develop our team. We try to make sure we have that team atmosphere in which we all push towards the same goals at the end of the day.
LW: That sounds familiar. I know Indra Nooyi, the Pepsi CEO, writes, well basically, report cards, I’m sure with help, but to every single employee that reports to her every year. It’s a lot of people.
CK: I mean, I think I’ve kept every handwritten note that was ever given to me.
LW: Oh really?
CK: Yes, all thank you notes I have received at work. It means something to people. As I said I give anniversary cards to employees. It’s an important thing to do and it’s taking the time to say thank you. There are so many people working so hard putting an incredible number of hours serving their clients. And I am very supportive of them working a lot of hours.
LW: How many people do you have in this office now?
CK: So in San Diego County we have 160 employees.
CK: There are about a 160 people tied to this office; we have corporate, we have environmental, we have construction quality assurance, we have Construction Management/Program Management. We don’t technically have anyone in the energy group, but in this office there’s a lot of energy practitioners. I serve my clients. I bring whatever resources they need to the table. One of the best things about this for me was honestly having surveyors and geo-techs within the same firm. That’s a big thing for my clients that we can be a one-stop shop for them. I love it. I’ve never had either of those disciplines in the firms I’ve worked with in the past. I’ve always had to sub that work. I’ve never cared what group someone is in as long as he or she has the skills to serve my clients. And so I’m a big believer in bringing whatever we can to the table and I think this office is proving itself to be a consummate cross-seller.
CK: From January to February 1st, I’ve got six new employees starting.
LW: Wow, yeah that’s a lot. But very exciting.
CK: Yeah, that’s a part of it, all the new people – I’ve brought over some people that I’ve worked with in that past that I thought were good employees and wanted to expand the team. Everyone has such a good energy in this office. Life is too short to be negative and I think that contributes to our success at the same time. That “can do” attitude. Work hard, play hard, and give back to our communities. You develop your staff, you make sure they’ve got a career path. That’s what I want to spend more time on in the next year.
CK: I’ve also got a good next level of leadership underneath me helping develop the business.
LW: That’s great. What are you most excited about in the coming year for developing the business or some of those initiatives you just mentioned, or projects?
CK: I really think we need to be getting up in the Los Angeles/Orange County area.
LW: Oh wow, that’s really exciting.
CK: It’s been at the back of my mind for a long time. It’s important for me to be focused on diversifying clients and while there are still some clients in San Diego County we could be getting more work from, diversifying our client base up into the LA and Orange area will help significantly. If I can identify the right people, we can do it. That could be really exciting. I don’t want to dilute what we’re doing here, but I think it’s important that when you we have more than 160 people in San Diego County we are increasingly spreading our client base. I think we are the third or fourth largest engineering firm in San Diego County.
LW: Oh wow, I’m not sure I knew that.
CK: The big challenge coming into this role was determining what people’s skill sets were. Even within project management there are different skill sets. Some project managers tend to more technical, some are only focused on the numbers and don’t pay attention to the technical. So that’s one of the biggest challenges, to really figure out different people’s strengths and weaknesses within the team. I’ve been here a year and a half and I’ve got a pretty good handle on that, so the next year I think we’re going to have some challenges as to how to best maximize the individual skill sets to really take us to that next level. So if someone isn’t as good on the numbers that we have them do more of the technical side of it and if someone is more technically focused, we don’t have them focus as much on the numbers. I mean, it is important to give attention to the numbers, but it is just as important to try to make sure everyone is in the right spot for their skills. One aspect of leadership is about getting people to the right seat on the bus.