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Profile: New leader creates opportunities

John Caruso this year was named president of Passero Associates

Each morning, John Caruso heads to his home office, where he prepares for the workday.

For Caruso, president of Rochester-based Passero Associates DPC, getting organized early in the day before heading to the office is vital to his success.

“I like to spend time looking through my briefcase, planning my day and writing things in my day planner—which I still use—and then I feel like I have a plan,” he says. “Engineers have to have structure. If we don’t have structure, it drives us crazy.”

Passero Associates ranks fourth on the Rochester Business Journal’s most recent list of engineering firms.

A decade ago, in an effort to preserve the structural integrity of the firm, Caruso worked with company leaders to develop a succession plan. The goal was to ensure high-quality leadership for the 90-member architectural and engineering company then and in the future. Little did Caruso know he would become a key part of the plan 10 years down the road.

This year, he was chosen to lead the company following the retirement of Wayne Wegman.

“It’s been cool,” Caruso says. “We’ve been able to communicate to our staff that we have strong, solid, forward-thinking leadership and explain what we plan to do. It is obvious that we aren’t winging it when decisions are made.

“That’s important to our employees and our customers. We have a reputation to uphold for managing and running their projects. If we can do it for ourselves, I think it shows that we can do it for them.”

Wise decision

Caruso has spent his entire adult life working at Passero Associates, at one point or another holding every engineering position in the company. His success in large part is the result of a bold move he made in 1984 as a senior at SUNY Buffalo.

At the time, Caruso was completing an independent study with the goal of making bridge decks lighter through the use of finite element analysis. He studied the concrete that was being used, considered alternatives and was invited to share his findings at a meeting of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“When I got done with my presentation, the crowd cheered and this woman came up to me,” Caruso recalls. “She said, ‘I’d like you to send me a resume. I’m interested in having you work for me. Are you interested in Boston?’ I was just a college kid, but here she was offering me a job. She asked where I was from and I told her Rochester. She said, ‘I just hired a woman engineer from Rochester, from Passero Associates.’”

The next morning, the enterprising college student sent his resume to Passero Associates and quickly landed an interview for the vacant position.

“I explained what I had learned in school and from my research,” Caruso says. The interviewer “asked, ‘How much do you think you’re worth?’ I said, ‘$22,000,’ and shared that guys like me with an extra degree were getting a grand more.’ He replied, ‘$17,500,’ and I said, ‘I’ll take it.’”

Robert Morgan, CEO of Morgan Management LLC, met Caruso during his first week on the job at Passero Associates.

“I had a drainage problem at a site and he came over and showed me how to correct it,” he says. “I’ve been friends with him ever since.”

It is challenging to find people in the business world who can be trusted completely, but Caruso fits the bill, Morgan says.

“His agenda is getting the project done and making the customer happy,” he says. “John is a genuine person and a man of his word.”

Creating opportunities

Founded in 1972, Passero Associates provides architectural design, engineering, planning, sustainability, surveying, program management and construction services. Locally, the firm has been a key player in the development of Southpoint Cove on Irondequoit Bay, Pinnacle North in Canandaigua and the new town of Henrietta Recreation Center.

Zweig Group recently named the company to its “Best Firms to Work For” for a third consecutive year. The award recognizes the top architecture, structural engineering, civil engineering, environmental and multidiscipline firms in the United States and Canada. Rankings are based on feedback provided by employees at each company.

“We work people hard, but I think they find the same thing here that I do,” Caruso says. “Each project is different and so fulfilling. We get to apply our talents to new problems and, the next thing you know, we have created a new solution.”

With annual gross revenues of more than $14 million and Caruso now at the helm, the company has plans to grow. For example, it has offices in Jacksonville, Fla., and is looking to expand north to Georgia and further south in Florida. Closer to home, the company has an office in Ohio and would like to further its reach into Kentucky.

Working in different locales provides certain challenges, but in many ways, the work is the same.

“We design by rules and regulations and code,” Caruso says. “That’s what we do. It is our expertise. We provide professional services, but the underlying theme is health and safety and welfare.”

Passero Associates has aviation and non-aviation divisions. When it comes to aviation, the firm is expert at everything from rehabbing runways to devising solutions to fuel-storage problems.

“When we work on airport stuff, it’s not like a local zoning code,” Caruso says. “It’s a national code. That makes it sort of easy, because if you can understand the (Federal Aviation Administration) airport design code in Rochester, you can go down to Florida and apply the same code.

“Is New York a little bit more fastidious in their process? Yes, absolutely, but I can tell you that Fort Lauderdale is no slouch. These communities are sophisticated.”

The non-aviation branch of Passero Associates includes traditional architecture and engineering services for private and public clients. For example, the firm is assisting with the creation of The Lodge, a student housing community in Henrietta.

Throughout the years, Caruso has earned the respect of those who know him.

“His drive for excellence touches all aspects of our business,” says Kim Kulik, a Passero Associates’ human resources executive who has worked with Caruso for 14 years. “The passion he brings to developing the next generation of leaders, the focus he maintains in delivering unmatched service to our clients, the stewardship he feels in passing on a more successful company to the next generation, and his unwavering commitment to continue the firm’s legacy of volunteerism and charitable giving—it’s all in a day’s work for John.”

As part of the firm’s philosophy on giving, Passero Associates returns at least 10 percent of its profits each year to the communities in which it works.

More than three decades have passed since he first showed up at the office, but the enthusiasm Caruso demonstrates toward his work has not waned.

“Like most people, I was able to develop a professional talent and skill,” he says. “Some people are better than others at what they do and that’s what gives the public the ability to differentiate who they want to work with. What I like about our projects here is people bring us their problems and we apply our own personal skills to solve that problem.”

Caruso is the youngest of four brothers who grew up in an Italian family living in Chili. The 1979 Gates Chili High School graduate is thankful for his strong family roots and the lessons he learned that he has been able to pass on to his own children, Lauren, 25, and Julie, 22. Both are in the nursing field.

“With two kids graduating from college, my wife and I are so proud of them, especially for the responsibility and the accountability that they have,” Caruso says. “One day, we stopped and realized, ‘Hey, they get that from us.’ We work hard and then we play. That’s sort of my mantra at work and with the kids.”

Travis Anderson is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

Name: John Caruso

Title: President, Passero Associates DPC

Age: 56

Education: B.S. in physics, SUNY College at Cortland, 1983

B.S., engineering, SUNY Buffalo, 1984

Family: Wife, Lisa; daughters, Lauren, 25, and Julie, 22

Residence: Victor

Hobbies: Being in the great outdoors; boating and hunting

Quote: “We work hard and then we play.”

(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email madams@bridgetowermedia.com.

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