In pay-to-play Philly, Pennoni knows where to draw the line

Celestino R. "Chuck" Pennoni in his office at Pennoni Associates Inc., a civil engineering firm. Pennoni will receive the 2016 William Penn Award from the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia on April 21.

CELESTINO R. "CHUCK" PENNONI:

  • Home: Bryn Mawr
  • Family: Wife, Annette; children, David, Diane Wendling, Vincent, Andrew.
  • Diplomas: Drexel University, bachelor's, masters in civil engineering. Twice served as Drexel's president.
  • To relax: Sudoku from the Inquirer and a glass of Brunello di Montacino red
  • PENNONI ASSOCIATES INC:
  • What: Philadelphia-based civil engineering firm, founded in 1966.
  • Revenues: $185 million.
  • Employees: 1,200
  • Portfolio: Projects in U.S., worldwide, including Pennsylvania turnpike northeast extension design; Schuylkill River Trail; Vine Street bridge design; Longwood Gardens Photovoltaic Facility; Talen Energy Stadium.

Given all the news about pay-to-play, with Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams accused of selling his office and former state Treasurer Rob McCord convicted of trading state contracts for campaign contributions, it might make sense for a civil engineering company that relies on government contracts to tell its employees to steer clear of electoral office.

But that’s not Celestino R. “Chuck” Pennoni’s philosophy. The founder and chairman of Pennoni Associates Inc. said he expects employees “to be involved in the community and to be involved in the political process.”

Pennoni, 79, will receive the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia’s 2016 William Penn Award on April 21. It's the chamber's highest honor, recognizing a business leader for contributions to the region and commitment to charity. Past recipients include Diversified Search chairwoman and founder Judith von Seldeneck and William Hankowsky, chairman of Liberty Property Trust.

What do you mean by being involved in the political process?

You could run for office. You could do fund-raisers for somebody running for office. You could stuff envelopes. You could go door-to-door for people. Just because we work for government entities does not disenfranchise us from the right to support a party or a candidate.

Given that you are engineering government projects -- highways, bridges, schools -- aren't you asking for trouble?

If we, as experts in the civil infrastructure, aren’t involved, then we don’t have an opportunity to advise the decision-makers, because they aren’t going to know us. People who go into civil engineering have a social conscience. That's why it's called civil. It's about people. When you turn on your faucet, flush your toilet, drive over a bridge, ride a train, it's civil engineers.  

But what if Pennoni were to land a contract from a government entity after one of your people was elected to it?

Wherever anybody in our company was elected – I don’t know if it was by design or coincidence – we never got a contract.

OK, but how do you keep everyone on the straight and narrow?

The good leaders in our country, both in government and in business, have a social conscience. They like to work with companies that have a social conscience. So, if they see we’re giving back to the community, that gives us a leg up in getting the work.

Elaborate, please.

Suppose you’re in the mayor’s office and the mayor says: "Chuck, I’m raising money for the Boy Scouts. Would you like to help out?" Sure, I’d like to help out. I love the Boy Scouts and we want to help the mayor. 

Then the mayor says: "Chuck, I’m running for reelection. I’m having a fund-raiser. Would you be willing to help me?" "Sure, Mayor, I’d be glad to help you."

But, if the mayor says, "Chuck, we’ve got a contract coming out and if you’ll give me X dollars for my campaign, I’ll do everything I can to see you get that contract," we say: "Sorry, Mayor, we don’t do that. That’s pay-to-play."

Have you ever run into that?

I’m 51 years in the business. Yes, I’ve run into that.  I just cut it off. I don’t even take the next step. I tell all my employees, never talk about work and political support in the same conversation. There’s no way or nowhere that conversation could go that would be to your benefit.  

We read so much about infrastructure deterioration – collapsing bridges, highways. Is it Horror City for you when you are driving or walking around the region?

You go under some of the reinforced concrete bridges, just north of the Reading Terminal, and you see where the concrete has fallen down, and you see the exposed reinforcing rods. But I worry more about new construction, because in older construction, we had higher factors of safety; we put more materials into the structures. As time went on, people started to focus more on money, so structures got thinner and lighter.

Any career advice?

Management 101: Plan, organize, direct and control, if you have people under you. Plan and organize, if there is no one under you. A very important part of control is monitoring and checking. You have to know what people are doing. You have to know their capabilities.    

Interview questions and answers have been edited for space.