No matter the job or the size of its budget, James A. Rispoli always has maintained the same management principles.
“You have to be familiar with what you’re doing and you have to have frequent engagement with your people,” Rispoli said. “It takes a lot of work – frequent dialogue at all the different locations.
“You’re not going to find out what’s going on by reading. You have to go out and see the world.”
As one of the world’s preeminent civil engineers in construction, infrastructure, and nuclear facilities management and operations, Rispoli would know. The successes achieved through his leadership earned him a worthy place among the 2016 class of ASCE Distinguished Members.
Rispoli, P.E., BCEE, NAC, Dist.M.ASCE, was a founder of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Engineering and Construction Management, serving as its director from 2001 to 2005. In 2005, he was appointed by President George W. Bush and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as assistant secretary of energy for environmental management. In four years in that role, Rispoli led the cleanup of waste and contamination from nuclear research and production.
He served 27 years in the Navy, retiring as a captain in the Civil Engineer Corps.
“The military is very good in continuing education,” Rispoli said. “They would send you to schools for a week or two to learn different things, including leadership. There’s always people you know who are older than you and they become your mentors.”
He learned to manage construction jobs, then air stations and runways, then bigger and bigger projects with more and more sites to keep track of – Rispoli always making sure to check in with the site staff in person. Eventually, he rose to the rank of commanding officer, Public Works Center, and director of public works, facilities, and environmental programs for the Pearl Harbor Naval Complex in Hawaii.
“It’s a gradual thing. They teach you as you advance and they do training for your next assignment,” Rispoli said.
Of course most people don’t ever advance to assignments involving a workforce of 1,400 federal employees, more than 30,000 contractors, and the largest capital construction portfolio in the Energy Department. But that’s what Rispoli took on when he accepted President Bush’s appointment.
“The charge I had was the cleanup of all the nuclear waste that was left by the World War II experimentation to develop the first nuclear weapon,” Rispoli said. “The scientists left all the waste in tanks or lined trenches or in metal drums. Our program was charged with getting rid of all that, but also disassembling all the buildings.”
Rispoli managed the $6 billion-a-year program, with over 100 ongoing projects cleaning up sites across the country; he led performance improvements to the level of 90 percent of those projects meeting cost and schedule targets, simultaneously attaining DOE’s best safety record.
“The span of what you’re doing is not so dissimilar [from the previous, smaller projects], and those same principles are what you foster with the people who work for you,” Rispoli said. “I would visit all the sites, face-to-face reviews every three months, talk about their projects.
“It wasn’t really that big a leap. It was the same engineering management principles applied in a bigger program. It’s not a magic formula. It’s a just a matter of good engineering management practices at all levels.”
Rispoli served as president and CEO of PT&C LLC in Atlanta from 2010 to 2012 and works there as a senior executive adviser on a part-time basis. He is a past chair of the ASCE Industry Leaders Council.
Distinguished Membership is the highest honor ASCE can bestow. It is reserved for civil engineers who have attained eminence in some branch of engineering or in related arts and sciences, including the fields of engineering education and construction.
The 2016 class of Distinguished Members will receive their honors at the ASCE 2016 Convention, Sept. 28 through Oct. 1, in Portland, OR.
Read about each of the 2016 Distinguished Members.