Peter Emmons: Cultivating knowledge

January 2013 » Cover Story
Early setbacks give way to innovation and acclaim.
Maureen Foody

Peter Emmons and his wife Anne in Hawaii. Emmons spends his time away from work on personal building and rehab efforts. Most recently he has been working on building a yoga retreat center, off the grid, on a 40-acre property in Hawaii.

Growing up in a nearly 200-year-old house, Peter Emmons had a full-time hobby of building and repairing since he could lift a hammer. But Emmons hasn't attained notoriety for just fixing homes, bridges, and facilities. He's a known innovator in the concrete repair industry and is playing a role educating future concrete professionals.

Emmons' early love of helping out around the house and a natural inclination toward science and mathematics, led him directly into engineering at the University of Maryland at College Park. From there, he entered a co-op program that connected him to the construction side of engineering after a variety of different summer jobs showed him design and surveying aspects. Emmons truly connected to the experience of working with his hands on a project while also using his mind to move the project itself along, from idea to design, to installation. This opportunity helped to lead Emmons into continuing onward and upward, ultimately forming what is now STRUCTURAL in Hanover City, Md.

"Once you discover your passion, it's easy from there," he says.

Growing with the firm
Emmons started his professional life at a small company. He found it was easy to grow and wanted to make sure that he advanced in the industry along with his experiences. So, when he asked if there was any way to become a partner in the firm, he was denied. Emmons was let down but another opportunity arose soon after, when the same bosses approached him about forming a new company to focus on concrete repair – Structural Preservation Systems (SPS).

"I was given a gift to become a president of this company only a year out of school because I made my intentions clear, that I showed them I wanted more," Emmons says.

Peter Emmons completing the glass enclosure of the conservatory addition at his family home in Maryland.

However, soon after the original licenser disappeared and the two partners he began the business with wanted out. He carried on by himself and his salesman, Jim Schneider, as the new 50/50 partners.

At first it was difficult to get the new company afloat, but they carried on after receiving a job from Baltimore to do an assessment and repair of a water treatment plant. Years later, the company kept growing from just one branch into many satellite operations. Emmons had no business background aside from his desire to advance and better himself continually as a leader.

"Everything was always learning since we didn't have the experience or MBA behind us but sometimes it's better to not know everything when you have that desire because it forces you to learn," he says.

This attitude helped Emmons to not only lead SPS into becoming the global presence that is STRUCTURAL but also helped him grow as a leader. Emmons viewed the challenges posed by growth as a blessing, not a burden. He was "changing as a leader, learning how to adapt and become what the company needs. I've had to understand my limitations, both what they are and what I need to do in order to work and lead successfully."

Project wise
This ability to lead has helped Emmons put some very interesting projects under his belt. One such project was to repair a power plant in Seminole, Fla. after a huge fire.

"The entire plant was shut down and we were hired to figure out how to fix this tremendous amount of damage, which was over 40 million dollars for a repair of an area that was only 50x50 feet," he says.

Another project Emmons recalls fondly was the opportunity to work on the Guggenheim in New York. Using carbon fiber composites, Emmons and his crew developed specialized techniques to not only solve the instability of the aging structure but to design and install those repairs using a new technology of carbon fiber composites.

"The main challenge was working with a preservationist. Every part of the structure is sacred so to do those things it's a huge, involved process: different levels of working through the complexity of taking a structure apart, understanding how it works but then also discovering how flawed the structure was or even overlooked to cause these structural defects, which caused the need for repair," Emmons says.

Education web
Emmons has an ardent passion for sharing the knowledge he has gained through three decades working in the industry, both as an employee and in his role as a boss. So, he founded a free website with over 500 videos and resources that companies and individuals can access through the International Concrete Repair Institute, including conferences and lectures on concrete repair technology, techniques and practice. The site helps spread information and knowledge without the sometimes hefty price tag that comes along with attending events.

Emmons also incorporates his creativity into what they do at STRUCTURAL – what he coins as "invention conventions" to develop solutions for clients that can either lower the cost of an existing method or heighten the durability of a solution.

Peter Emmons and his daughter Megan, a 2nd year civil engineering student, visiting STRUCTURAL's Seattle subway station project.

"One example would be the pipelines that carry water from a source into a city, which holds a lot of aging infrastructure. So we developed a technique similar to a slinky-like mechanization inside the pipe that replaces the traditional slip lining. Using your creativity can change the world, it's not just calculations but also combining ideas and execution," Emmons says.

In 1989, Emmons was approached by a publisher requesting the possibility of writing a book on concrete repair, titled Concrete Repair and Maintenance Illustrated.

"I naturally like to organize and teach so it was a wonderful gift that I was given to organize my experiences and put them into a book," he says.

Emmons was also able to use that time to work with his son, Brandon, who did the illustrations for the book.

"It became a visual language that was easily acceptable and translatable so it could speak to people that would read the book without even seeing the words," he says.

Emmons is also proud of how Concrete Repair helped foster a theme of repairing problems with a deeper understanding that can lead to better and safer solutions. The book also opened the world to STRUCTURAL, since the translations reached far and wide across the globe and so did the return of work projects coming from Dubai. These projects ranged from mosques to commercial buildings, but the particular challenge that Emmons relished most was how that area of the world has one of the most intense natural environments to build in – so yet again he was faced with newer and more particular challenges.

"All of a sudden you're credible," Emmons says. "It formed a new place for the company in the global marketplace."

Always handy with a hammer as a kid, Peter Emmons has gone far beyond that as an adult and is a force to be reckoned with within the structural engineering profession.
Photo by Steve Ruark, ruarkphoto, www.ruarkphoto.com

Corporate culture of exploration
After decades in the industry, Emmons declared that one of the best rewards or gifts you can receive is knowing that you touched someone in a way that helped them grow and develop, whether that's professionally or personally. This positive attitude also blends into the workplace as the organizational culture within STRUCTURAL is one that boasts a team-oriented culture, using consensus building and delegating to a team structure while also removing any potential for fear by providing a nurturing environment where the employees are encouraged to discover their passions through exploration.

"The universe is bigger than you think, there's a lot of help out there in terms of synchronicity and how the universe can work for you," Emmons says. "You have to share what you discover about yourself and what it is that you want with the people that can help you."

In his downtime, Emmons spends time with his wife of six years, Anne. He also spends as much time as possible with his three children: Megan, Rebecca, and Brandon (who also works for STRUCTURAL in the curriculum and training program). Emmons employs his love of building and projects into his downtime, since as CEO he rarely gets hands-on assignments.

He repairs and adds on to his two properties (just as he did as a kid), one in Maryland and another in Hawaii, with projects such as a paving, a stone arch bridge, and a hydroelectric dam.

"It satisfies my hands when I can come up with that idea and then implement it," Emmons says.

The property in Hawaii also functions as a retreat center, which Emmons and his wife Anne allow groups to rent for yogic and spiritual retreats that make it economically feasible for such a group to visit a majestic setting to help enhance their own soul-searching.

Maureen Foody is a freelance writer and editor who lives and works in Chicago. She can be reached at Maureen.t.f@gmail.com.

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