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Guiding BME into next phase

Peter Vars, CEO of BME Associates, helps employees grow as company expands. (Photo by Kimberly McKinzie)


Peter Vars sees his career path as a natural evolution.

Vars, 52, is president and CEO of BME Associates, a Fairport engineering and surveying firm. Its projects range from housing subdivisions to Wilmorite Inc.’s planned $425 million casino.

He has spent more than 25 years at the business. President since 2010, Vars took the top spot in October 2014, succeeding Bruce Boncke after the firm’s CEO and founding partner retired.

The leadership transition over the last year has been seamless, Vars says, noting a plan had been in place for several years.

“We didn’t miss a beat at all,” he says.

The company has 27 employees, and sales are projected to top $3.25 million this year, which is a 10 percent increase over 2014 sales.

Looking to the company’s future growth, Vars calls the plan BME 2.0. The employees play a major role in that growth and Vars wants to be there to help.

“My goal is to empower people, to get them to recognize their potential and get the most out of it,” Vars says.

Vars attended Clarkson University where he received a bachelor of science degree in civil and environmental engineering in 1985. While there, he saw a job posting at the former Sear-Brown Group Inc., now part of Stantec Inc. Vars liked the Rochester area and decided to talk to the firm.

It was Boncke—another Clarkson engineering graduate—who conducted the interview as Sear-Brown’s site department manager. Vars reminded him of a younger version of himself, Boncke says.

“He was enjoying life and enjoying what he was doing,” Boncke says. “I knew he was the one.”

Vars landed the job and worked there until joining Boncke and Doug Eldred at their new business in 1988.

While it may have been a gamble to leave a well-established firm for a startup, Vars says the opportunities outweighed the risks. The decision proved to be the right one.

At BME, Vars’ career accelerated.

“We were a small firm where you needed to learn quick and were expected to do everything necessary to complete the project,” Vars says.

He credits Boncke and Eldred as mentors, noting both taught him what he now knows from an engineering and management standpoint.

“There is no doubt I am not where I am today if I did not work for Bruce and Doug,” Vars says. “They saw potential in me and made sure they gave me the opportunity to achieve it.”

Vars did not set out to run his own business, but it came naturally through his growth at BME.

Changing style
When Boncke speaks of Vars’ evolving management style over the years, he notes that it went from being more hands-on—feeling the need to do everything himself—to a more empowering style focused on teaching and training.

“He’s the perfect guy for the job,” Boncke says of Vars’ current role.

Vars, too, says his leadership style has changed. He believes that is how it should be, given that people and the work environment constantly shift.

“The management style of 1985, when I entered the workforce, would not work today in 2015,” he says.

Vars spends a fair amount of time listening to employees and understanding what motivates them.

“I approach it from an individual basis. I take interest in each employee, which is a benefit of a small firm,” he says. “My job is to partner this potential and motivation with the goals of the firm.”

If employees have ideas or interests they would like to pursue, Vars is encouraging. Often those ideas lead to a better way of doing business.

“I say, ‘If it’s your passion, let’s make it happen,’” he says.

Vars describes the past year as interesting, with key managers, including Boncke, retiring. That meant that, in addition to assuming CEO duties, Vars had to be more involved than normal in day-to-day financial and business operations. His typical day is split among projects, business and management.

“In a small firm, individuals are responsible for a lot of areas,” Vars says. “I see to it that all of the bases are covered and that the people responsible for items have the resources and support they need to complete their assignments effectively.”

Vars still goes out of the office a couple of nights a week to attend municipal meetings. It is something he enjoys.

“It keeps me active and connected to our projects, clients and communities we work in,” he says.

It also keeps him up to date on areas such as public speaking, politics and economics. While some public meetings can be contentious, Vars stays calm and helps others, who may be presenting engineering plans for a project, do the same.

“I tell them, ‘No one knows the project better than you do,’” he says.

And few know the communities BME works in better than BME, with its longevity in the field, he adds.

Some 90 percent of BME’s business is in the Rochester-Finger Lakes region. The company’s focus is primarily private development work, with a mix of residential, commercial and recreational efforts. 

Among its notable projects, Wilmorite’s multimillion-dollar casino project in Tyre, Seneca County, probably best sums up who BME is as a business and sets the table for its future, Vars adds. It is a smaller firm that can handle large-scale projects.

Other such projects include several environmental permitting projects for the Orleans County Economic Development Agency surrounding agribusiness, a growing industry, and several private developments such as Riedman Cos.’ the Residences at Canalside, across the Erie Canal from BME.

Trevor Harrison, managing partner of HBT Architects LLP, first worked with Vars nearly 13 years ago when Vars served as the site engineer for the Bushnell’s Basin Fire Department’s new facility. Harrison immediately knew both firms were on the same page.

“He is a really great guy and has been so successful because of his personality and his care for his clients,” Harrison says.

He describes Vars as creative, smart and focused on getting clients through the design and approval process efficiently.

“He is a relationship guy, and this is evident in every aspect of his professional life, from his work with clients, with other design team members and with the local municipalities,” Harrison says. “This friendly, respectful and intelligent approach is what makes him such an effective leader.”

The best part of the job is when a client or regulatory officials tell Vars that a BME employee has done a good job.

“That validates that we are taking the right approach and it is working,” he says.

The worst part is managing government regulations, from both a business and project perspective.

“On the business side, we spend so much time on regulatory matters that it takes away from our core business and that can be frustrating at times, but I also understand it is what it is,” he says. 

On the project side, the regulatory environment has increased dramatically in the last decade, boosting the amount of time it takes to bring projects to completion, he says.

Both sets of regulation affect the business climate in Western New York.

The bigger industry challenge is a combination of the regulatory environment, making it more difficult for landowners and developers to bring new projects to fruition or to redevelop existing properties, and the competition for talent.  

“They are inter-related; if the economic environment does not improve, talent will continue to leave the area,” Vars says.

BME’s plan is to get out in front of the regulatory issues, to advocate for the industry and be the best-informed firm on regulatory matters. This will ensure it can help clients go through the process quickly and effectively, officials say.

Growth areas include private development opportunities in multi-family and senior housing and in environmental services, he says. BME is looking to expand its services farther along the state Thruway corridor and the Finger Lakes region.

Off the job
Vars lives in Perinton. He and his wife, Amy, have a daughter, Madeline, 20, and a son, Adam, 17.

When not working, Vars enjoys golfing, reading historical books and watching Buffalo Sabres games.

He also enjoys bicycling. He completed a 42-mile bike ride through the five boroughs of New York City in May.

“What a great way to see the city,” he says.

At BME, Vars plans to continue to work on growing the business.

“I have a real passion for what we do here,” he says.

Peter Vars
Title: President and CEO, BME Associates
Age: 52
Education: B.S. in civil and environmental engineering from Clarkson University, Potsdam, St. Lawrence County, 1985
Residence: Perinton
Family: Wife, Amy; daughter, Madeline, 20, and son, Adam, 17
Hobbies: Bicycling, golfing, reading history, watching Buffalo Sabres games
Quote: “My goal is to empower people, to get them to recognize their potential and get the most out of it.”

10/23/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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