Many CEOs like to call themselves people persons, but how uncommon that is only becomes apparent once you meet one who really is.
First, he asks questions, not only about the job but about life. Second, he gets to know you-not because he has to-but because he wants to.
It is rare because, to work, it must be sincere. And with Sergio Esteban, 57, the new CEO of LaBella Associates P.C., it is.
“If I had one word to describe him, it’s gentleman. He’s a perfect gentleman,” said William Kiselycznyk, managing construction engineer for the city of Rochester, a client of LaBella Associates’ for 20 years.
“Nice guys finish last, but not Sergio, thank you very much,” says Eduardo Navarro, president of Greater Rochester Area Hispanic Association for Professional Advancement, where Esteban formerly was president.
Navarro took over leadership at the association from Esteban, whom Navarro says has long been his mentor.
“He’s just such a classy guy, and I can’t think of anyone who excels at people skills like he does,” Navarro says. “He’s got the human touch, and he’s got that cute little accent-which doesn’t hurt,” he joked.
In the Rochester Business Journal’s latest list of architecture firms, LaBella Associates ranked fifth; among engineering firms, the firm ranked fourth.
It is a good time for the firm to make its leadership transition. LaBella Associates just came off its best year ever. With 2005 revenues up 14 percent to $11.8 million, profits last year were up close to 50 percent.
Originally from a village some 20 miles north of Madrid, Esteban is one of four brothers: three became engineers and one an architect. His was the first family in the village to have someone graduate from college, Esteban says.
His father, a prominent businessman, later moved the family to Madrid and encouraged his children to pursue their studies at some of the best schools in Europe.
It was from an early age, Esteban says, that he began preparing for a career in civil engineering. He chose it because of the challenge it posed.
“We were driven from the beginning to get a good education,” he says. “Professional civil engineering is the most challenging and probably the most demanding profession in Spain. That was what attracted me to engineering-that it is very competitive and very difficult to get ahead.”
Meeting challenges and relating to people are Esteban’s two passions at LaBella Associates, where he has spent the last 25 years of his career.
He joined LaBella’s founder, Salvatore LaBella, who started the firm as a one-man operation that quickly grew to four.
Growing the firm
This month, after a five-year succession transition, LaBella steps down as CEO, retaining his title as chairman as Esteban steps up from president to assume leadership.
LaBella, 65, will devote himself to the job of project manager for the associate architect team, which consists of the city’s leading design firms, for the Renaissance Square project.
LaBella remains majority shareholder of the firm until the end of 2006, when the business shifts to more broadly shared ownership.
The firm has become what it is today due in great part to Esteban’s contributions, LaBella says. He recently nominated Esteban for the Rochester Engineering Society’s Engineer of the Year Award.
One of his contributions to the field, LaBella says, is the conviction that engineers can make a difference. Throughout Esteban’s career, he has valued engineers for both their technical skills and their ingenuity, LaBella says.
LaBella attributes much of the firm’s ongoing diversification to Esteban’s hard work.
Since it opened, LaBella Associates gradually has diversified from its core offering of civil engineering to include design services, such as structural engineering, mechanical and electrical engineering, highway and street design, utility design and architecture.
Esteban says the company’s recent growth has been fueled in part by environmental planning, such as brownfield development, municipal planning and geographic information system-a tool LaBella Associates is using to help perform better planning for all of the firm’s services.
GIS provides a set of applications for accessing, monitoring and managing the environment’s elements, which, when combined with the firm’s global positioning mapping system, helps LaBella perform land-management planning. The systems allow users to efficiently record large amounts of field data electronically and eliminate the need to convert field notes to electronic files.
The company also is seeing an increase in its work for jail complexes in Suffolk, Steuben and Chautauqua counties. The firm expects soon to sign a contract with another jail in Sullivan County, Esteban said.
With a staff of 109, which grew by 20 percent last year, LaBella is expanding its headquarters next month. Currently on the 17,209-square-foot second floor of the High Falls Button Factory on State Street, the company is expanding to the building’s 6,000-square-foot third floor.
Many new hires are specialized in energy conservation and management services to support its growing energy services business.
And the company continues its growth mode. It has 14 available positions.
“We are small, but we are part of the economic engine of the community, and that makes me feel better when I go to bed at night,” Esteban says.
He hinted LaBella Associates is in discussions for a possible local acquisition. The company also is considering expanding closer to New York City and exploring an out-of-state acquisition. For now, the firm has offices in Buffalo, Hornell and Coudersport, Pa.
Esteban, who considers community involvement essential to his business, says wherever the firm goes next, LaBella Associates needs to be equally engaged.
“I don’t see us going to Virginia or Florida without being as involved in the community as we are now. We just need to find the right fit,” he says.
With all of the affiliations Esteban has in Rochester, that may be a tall order.
He is past president of the Genesee River Alliance, the Rochester chapter of the Consulting Engineering Council of New York State and the Rochester chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He also is an active volunteer at St. John of Rochester Church, a director of the Rochester Convention Center Management Corp., a trustee at Nazareth College of Rochester and member of the Rochester Works Workforce Investment Board.
And at WXXI Public Broadcasting Council, Norm Silverstein, the organization’s president and CEO, says Esteban is a model board member.
“He takes on just about any challenge that you ask,” Siverstein says. “Because of that commitment, he has risen through the ranks of the board to become part of leadership and is currently vice chairman.”
Recently Esteban flew to Washington, D.C., along with Silverstein to spend two days discussing the importance of federal funding to public broadcasting.
“It was hard work, but he didn’t hesitate a minute. Having Sergio there was really important to me and to our organization.
“He’s well-known in the community and if WXXI is something that Sergio is part of, our representatives on the Hill-and in Albany-take notice,” Silverstein says.
Involvement is one reason employees are drawn to LaBella Associates, Esteban says. Autonomy is another reason.
“It’s not the money that brings them, it’s the culture,” he says. “It’s loose here, in that people are responsible for their own time. We don’t want to tie people to their chairs.”
As he assumes the role of CEO, one concern Esteban has is staying close to his employees.
“My biggest fear is to lose the camaraderie that I love so much. I’m not ignoring that. I’m taking care not to let it happen.
“I want people to see Sergio, not the CEO,” he says.
To ensure that, Esteban makes sure to meet one-on-one with employees-something he wants to do more of in the months and years to come-not as part of evaluations, he says, but to maintain an open dialogue.
“To stay in contact with employees is what I want, and it’s what the company needs,” Esteban says.
He also has assembled a leadership team that serves as a sounding board for him on many issues.
The group meets every three weeks and includes Robert Healy, senior vice president; Robert Pepe, chief financial officer; Patricia Perevich, marketing manager; and Michelle Pedzich, human resources manager.
“The goal (of the group) is to assess the company and give direction through a broad perspective that includes finances, marketing (and others),” Healy says. “When we get together we talk about what’s going well and what maybe is not going so well. We address the employee aspect-what we need to do to get them the training they need. We talk about our goals for the year, and we prioritize them.”
What is key, Healy says, is being able to speak openly. Recently the team implemented a quarterly review that includes the entire firm.
Each review lasts roughly two hours and is intended to get everyone on the same page with the projects the firm is pursuing, how the company is doing financially and new markets the firm is evaluating.
Healy, who has been with the firm for 15 years, says these regular meetings are especially important at this stage of the company’s development.
“For a company this size, it’s much different now to get a full perspective. It’s more difficult now than it was when we were half the size,” he says.
Something else that helps Esteban keep his eye on the bigger picture is his involvement with projects, such as the Port of Rochester project, which he managed himself.
Over the years, the city’s Kiselycznyk has worked with Esteban on the Port of Rochester and other projects.
On construction projects, he said, often there are harsh words exchanged among the various parties involved on complex jobs.
But Esteban always handles himself with poise and control.
“It’s a tough business. Sometimes things do get adversarial, but I’ve never seen him mad. He’s always calm,” Kiselycznyk says.
Healy adds: “He’s maintained that (project-level) involvement, which is unusual. I think, for employees, it’s inspiring to see the firm’s principal get involved and stay involved as Sergio does.”
LaBella says that while the title of CEO sometimes can get in the way of one’s approachability, because of his personality, Esteban should have no problem maintaining the camaraderie he likes, especially given his track record of community engagement.
Silverstein adds, “He cares about the community, and you can tell he is not going to be satisfied unless he feels he’s making a difference, helping to improve the quality of life here.”
It was that opportunity for involvement that Esteban recognized early on about Rochester.
He first came to the city in 1978, three years before he joined LaBella. He had met his wife some years before in Madrid, where she, a native of Syracuse, was pursuing a master’s in Spanish literature.
While they were dating, the two spoke only in Spanish since Esteban, who also knew French, had never learned English.
It was 1976 when Esteban married his wife in Syracuse. At the time, they had not decided where they would build their lives, but both of them liked to travel. For Esteban, the United States was an exciting change, though he did not know it would be a permanent one.
He worked in Syracuse for two years before moving to Rochester, where he worked for an Albany company as an engineer on the construction of the Genesee Expressway.
“I had an offer to work for a large construction company in Minneapolis. They wanted me to take over the coordination of a construction project in South America, because I was bilingual,” Esteban says.
On his way home from Minneapolis to Rochester, after he was offered the South America job, he received a call from LaBella asking him to come in for an interview.
“I was interested because they offered me to work as an engineer, but one of the questions that Sal asked me was, ‘What would be your goal?’ And I said, ‘My goal would be to own a company.'”
“I came home and I remember saying, ‘They’re not going to hire me. They’re looking for an engineer, and I said I wanted to be an owner.’ That was my honest opinion: I wanted to be an engineer, but I also wanted to be in ownership and management,” he remembers.
Esteban got the job. And though his passion for travel almost took him to South America, he was glad to stay in Rochester, where he and his family already had begun to make their roots.
Today, Esteban and his wife, Mary Ann, live in Fairport. They have two children: Damian, 26, and Gabriel, 21.
“My father used to say, the best thing you can do with your money is travel,” he says.
Esteban and his family continue to travel. He says reading and traveling are two of his favorite things to do-another is socializing.
“My ideal afternoon would be with friends and family. Life here is not as social as it is in Europe,” he says, adding he likes to dine out with friends so he can enjoy good food and good conversation.
Esteban says he was happy to join a young company such as LaBella’s.
“I had the opportunity to offer ideas to grow the company. So (LaBella) and I have been working together ever since, and I have fulfilled my goal of becoming an owner,” Esteban says.
But becoming an integral part of a company in a new culture had its challenges.
“I never minded that, because I’ve always been very open and very excited about different cultures. To me that was more excitement,” he says. “The professional side, it took me a little longer to adjust to it. I remember thinking how am I going to maneuver in this environment. It looks so different, and on a personal level, obviously the language was a barrier.
“I didn’t want the language to be an impediment to me, so that became a challenge for me to overcome, and I welcomed the challenge,” he says, adding, “Of course, I have an accent and that’s not going away.”
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03/10/06 (C) Rochester Business Journal