Behind the Build: Interview with Vince DiPofi, PE, CEO at SSOE Group

Construction businesses rise or fall based on the vision and strength of their leaders. A cornerstone of any organization, a leader's actions directly influence the path and progress of the company. As such, embarking on a leadership journey isn't something to be taken lightly. 

No one understands this better than Vince DiPofi, PE, CEO at SSOE Group. As someone who oversees over 1,000 employees globally, Vince continuously balances the tasks of growing the firm's top-line revenue, maintaining productivity, and fostering an inclusive company culture.

We recently met with Vince and asked him to walk through his journey as SSOE's top executive. In this conversation, he discusses how he rose through the ranks, his challenges as CEO, and how he leads a global team in a constantly evolving industry.

Take a look.

Let's talk about your 40+ years in the industry. How did you rise through the ranks?

Well, I didn't walk in and say, "My goal is to be CEO," though somewhere along the way, it did become a goal. 

I've been in the business for 42 years, since 1981, and I've only worked for two companies. For the first half of my career, it was all technical, and I learned how to be an engineer. I got my registration, ran projects, worked with clients, and went to job sites.

Then when I came to SSOE, I ended up being on the business side of things. When I walked in, at first, I was intimidated. I'm like, "I'm not sure I'm going to make it here." The business side was so intense, and I had to get up to speed quickly.

But that's when I learned the business, and that's when I said, "Hey, I want to become a CEO."

That was more my calling than the technical side of it. I could see the people rising on the technical side, and I was frankly not in their league. I was never going to be that strong technical engineer. But on the business side, it was like a fish to water.

I started getting into sales, building new clients, and managing larger accounts—that's what got me excited. 

I continued from client development into becoming our Chief Strategy Officer, leading me to become CEO. 

As the CEO of SSOE, you're responsible for overseeing more than 1,000 employees globally. How do you create a strong culture for your team to thrive?

I try to visit every office every year. It's challenging, and I don't always hit that goal. I couldn't do it during the early parts of the pandemic. But I want to get to a point where I go and meet with our people annually. I like to see what's happening, and I learn so much more about the company by getting out there.

I don't just meet with the principals and managers; I meet with some of the design team members as well. I want to hear about their projects. 

I also recognize that as a global company, you've got to have a blend of culture. Our culture in the United States doesn't necessarily apply in Mexico, or even at another office in the U.S.

In fact, I started our office in Mexico, and the number one thing we said was we wanted a blended culture. What are the things unique to Mexico that we want to keep? What are the things unique to our company that need to be part of the fabric? 

I can walk into any office, and it's an 80/20 split. Eighty percent of it, I can see it's the same. We do things the same way in these areas, but 20% is different.

I like the richness of it. If I go into the Southeast part of the United States versus the West Coast versus the Midwest, those are three different cultures. 

I'm not here to tell people, "We all have to act and be the same." Instead, we have core values that we live by, and those values are implemented across our different offices.

It's essential that people feel there's consistency from management. I hear that from employees. I hear from across the country and around the world that there's a lot of commonality among our offices. They all feel part of the same company.

Tell me more about SSOE's digital transformation strategy.

Forging a digital transformation path was actually my most important strategic initiative when I became CEO three years ago. I've set a goal of achieving 50% efficiency.

How do we do that? Technology is the driver. Of course, Autodesk has been a huge partner for us to do that. We've gotten 10 to 15% efficiency through the use of technology over the three years, so we’ve made incremental progress.

We also think the most critical part of digital transformation is engaging the client in the discussion. That's why we've got four or five different clients that are also on digital transformation journeys with us. We can have great ideas on what we think we need to do, but if it doesn't help the client or add value, then there's no point in doing it.

So we have one of our leaders, Julie Dolan, who sets up digital transformation tables with non-competing clients, all in the same meeting.

We've gotten a lot of good direction from our clients that say, "Well, here's what we're doing, and here's what would be valuable for us." That's helped shape that journey. The things we're working on, the tools we use, and where we invest are very well aligned, which helps us evolve with our clients.

We also implemented an annual client satisfaction survey, asking, "Do you think we're a leader or a laggard in technology?" 

Right now, we have no clients telling us we're laggards, and it's split about 50/50 between clients that feel we're at the normal industry level and clients that feel we're leading.

I'll also say that the clients who feel we're leaders are also ones that are on a digital transformation journey with us. Not all our clients are on that journey, so they don't necessarily see some of those things.  

As far as Autodesk is concerned, the platform has been a big part of our digital transformation journey. We test out a lot of new technology that gives us insight on what's coming down the road and help shape it. We know it will come out, so it's better that we help. We want to be part of the final solution in shaping the program.

Autodesk is a partner. They know our business very well. They come to our meetings, and they say, "Well, we know you guys have this initiative and that initiative." I say, "Alright, we don't have to explain. You've talked to our people. You've read our strategic plans." 

So, it's a partnership that continues to evolve.

Please share how you actively give back to the industry and community.

We encourage people at a couple of different levels. For all employees, we set a goal of 20 volunteer hours per year. If an employee puts in 20 hours per year, we give them a financial contribution for that charity.

Then professionally, if you belong to a professional organization, we pay for your dues and membership. Sometimes we'll pay for conferences. 

There are also initiatives and benefits if you're in a leadership position and you sit on a board. We will give you money to contribute because we know that's an expectation with a board member. For our principals in our company, they are allocated money.

It's up to them to decide where they want to contribute. But they have to sit on the board to get the money because we think it's important for our leaders to be active on boards. 

As for how we came up with the volunteerism program—we tied it to our company vision, making it about clients, colleagues, and communities. 

It's about our clients, our people, and the communities we live in. You won't get good people if you're not investing in the communities. You're not going to support your clients unless you get good people. It's a circular thing that we get paid by clients, and we reinvest that back in the communities to get the best people.

In our mind, it's a circular transition that you need to keep reinvesting in your communities. That's important.

Candice Harrison was recently brought on as your Corporate Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; please share about SSOE's commitment to DEI. 

When I wrote my strategic plan to be CEO of the company, I need to be completely transparent here, diversity and DEI were not even in the plan. This is like a 20-page plan, and it was not even in there.

But during the pandemic and as I listened to people, one of the things that got me thinking about it was the murder of George Floyd.

And so I started having roundtables with employees throughout the company. I had a roundtable with our African-American employees, and they started telling me things they had to deal with as Black people in America. It's some of the things that you hear about in the media. But these are professional people in my organization saying, "Yeah, Vince, I've been stopped in my neighborhood for driving while Black." I didn't even know the term "driving while Black."

It opened my eyes that my employees are dealing with much more than the projects they have to do. As I talked to more people, I realized how important this was, so I started getting myself on the journey.

One of my partners in the business is Catherine Myers, our President and Chief Operating Officer. I got a great perspective from her on what women go through in an organization and the challenges she faced. It was just a matter of me continuing to network with people, hearing the challenges involved, and saying, "Hey, what do we need to do differently?"

This is one of those things I thought a lot about, and I thought, “I'm not going to just take this top down. I'm also going to take it bottom up.” 

So, we assembled a committee of diverse employees from across the company, and I said, "You tell me what the company should do with DEI."

I'll say this, and I've said this to my executive team—there's no way we could have come up with anything better than what they did. It was a home run. Since it came from the employees, the DEI mission got people going right away.

That being said, I wanted someone who wasn't an engineer and had a different perspective.

So we interviewed candidates, and when we shortlisted them, we decided on Candice Harrison. There was no question in our minds. She's brought a fresh perspective, and her and I couldn't be more opposite.

I'm a white man. She's a black woman. I'm 62. She's probably in her early 40s. The environment that she was brought up in was completely different from mine. Her work experience came from public school systems, art museums, and charitable organizations. She'd never even heard of an engineering firm before.

People were saying, "Vince, do we really need a full-time person in this role?" I said, "We've tried this before, and it's stalled because nobody was dedicated. Somebody was always doing it part-time." I said, "We need somebody to tell us what to do."

This was clearly a case of someone coming in from the outside and saying, "Here's what you guys need to do." And we listened. 

I've given Candice a lot of rope. I've given her a budget, and I've given support. I say, "You tell us the best way to do it." 

And she's doing things like setting up scholarships with historically black colleges and universities. We never even no thought about this before. Again, it's someone coming in who's different from me.

This is where I feel diversity adds value. She's changing the conversation that we're having. We talked a lot there, but that's the impact that she's had on our business, and I continue to look to her to have an impact on our leadership.

Do you have any advice for the next generation of men and women thinking about joining the industry?

I speak to college groups regularly. What I always tell them is "I wish I was 25 again, and was getting the chance to be in this industry now. Because I think we will see the greatest transformation in the AE industry in the next 10 years; more than in the last 50 years." 

Because of the advent of artificial intelligence and the nature of the world, the projects happening now are just incredible.

And there's so much opportunity, especially for non-traditional people who have entered the business.

Engineering now is less about spreadsheets and software. It's about communicating and working with people and being creative and innovative. Those are the best characteristics we look for in engineers and architects right now. 

How can you be innovative? How can you think differently? How can you help our clients find solutions that make it happen better, faster, and cheaper? That's always the goal.

In addition, I'd like to emphasize the value of relationships. I told both my kids this when they graduated from college: "You can't start building a 25-year relationship when you're 50. You have to start that when you're 25."

You don't know whose relationship will be the most valuable, so don't discount people. You have to look at the long term.

Remember, relationships have to be built over time. You can talk about artificial intelligence. You can talk about technology. You can talk about all these things, but relationships cannot be accelerated. You can't just say, "Hey, let's go out tomorrow and start a great relationship." No, it has to happen over time. You have to learn about each other.

So, that's one thing I encourage. I don't care if you're in engineering or anything else. To be truly successful in this business, you've got to have great relationships because a lot of our business is built on those long-term connections.

Alyssa Jaber

As Manager of Customer Marketing at Autodesk, Alyssa Jaber has been partnering with Autodesk customers in the construction space for 5+ years to build their brands and powerfully tell their stories. Alyssa is a human-first leader who supports a team of talented individuals who always put the customer experience first.