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Alliance Consulting Engineers

MidlandsBiz Conversations

April 12, 2008

Conversations with Deepal Eliatamby, President of Alliance Consulting Engineers

MidlandsBiz:
The economy does not seem to be doing well, yet you are hiring engineers.

Deepal Eliatamby:
Despite what may or may not be happening out there, engineering is part of the knowledge-based economy of South Carolina and this sector is doing extremely well.

South Carolina is strategically located along the Eastern Seaboard and we are seeing a lot going on in the engineering community. We are looking for talented people.

MidlandsBiz:
Is there an engineering shortage?

Deepal Eliatamby:
As a nation, we produce about 75,000 – 80,000 engineers a year; the emerging economies such as China and India are generating almost a million engineers a year.

With the likelihood of new nuclear power plants coming on board in the state over the next 15 years, I see a real shortage of engineers to fill these needs.

Midlands:
Where were you born and raised? What is your educational background?

Deepal Eliatamby:
I was born and raised in Sri Lanka, a country that is an island about the size of South Carolina off the southern tip of India. I went through high school there and came to Columbia to attend university the University of South Carolina. I finished my undergraduate degree in 1988 and my graduate degree in engineering in 1989.

MidlandsBiz:
How did you find USC from Sri Lanka?

Deepal Eliatamby:
Yeah, that’s pretty amazing – this was a time before the Internet and even the fax machine. My parents were educated in England, but I wanted to do something different. I was also accepted at colleges in Texas and Virginia, but I just had a good feeling about USC.

I took a flight to New York, and from there, I took my first, and last, Greyhound bus ride to Columbia. At age 17, I showed up at Russell House with two bags and a back pack.

MidlandsBiz:
What is the best takeaway from an engineering degree?

Deepal Eliatamby:
Engineering teaches you how to think analytically, to solve problems, and also how to stay organized.

Engineering is all about people-oriented problem solving – you can’t take the people out of it. Engineers may have a reputation for being strictly left-brain thinkers, but more and more we seeing engineers who are doing a better job of taking into consideration the environmental, social and economic impacts of their work.

That’s what has been really exciting over the past decade or so.

MidlandsBiz:
Why did you start your own firm? What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?

Deepal Eliatamby:
I had a successful engineering career, but I just felt that I needed something else. I wanted to do something that would drastically change my outlook on life and potentially create opportunity and wealth for me and for a talented group of employees. I also felt, as many entrepreneurs do, that I would be better able to stay focused on my clients if I started my own firm.

As cliché as it might sound, failure was not an option for me. I tell young entrepreneurs to take that step. Don’t be afraid.

MidlandsBiz:
What are you most proud of after four years in business?

Deepal Eliatamby:
Four years ago I started with five people on the team; now we have 41 on staff, so I am proud of the opportunity that has been created here.

As an engineer, it’s always exciting to see a project go vertical. I am proud of the contributions we have made to the engineering community here in the state.

We have done the site work for the 2 million square foot distribution center for QVC that is running 10,000 packages a day over in the Florence area. We did a similarly sized project for Adidas up in Spartanburg. We were selected to do the work for the almost 12 million square feet that Ross Perot, Jr.’s company, the Hillwood Group, is just starting in Berkeley county. This is a company that could locate literally anywhere in the world, but they are very bullish on South Carolina.

We were also chosen by the Beach Company out of Charleston to do the site work for the marquee CanalSide project right here in town.

MidlandsBiz:
Where do you see the company in five years?

Deepal Eliatamby:
While the growth in the company has exceeded my wildest dreams, we want to make sure that we remain true to our core values: responsiveness to our clients, a quality product, at a good value.

MidlandsBiz:
How has the profession of engineering changed over the past 20 years? Where do you see the profession in 10 years from now?

Deepal Eliatamby:
There has been phenomenal change in the engineering profession over the past 20 years. When I started, we were still on drafting tables; today most of our staff has never even heard of a drafting table. Twenty years ago, computer assisted design (CAD) was an emerging technology; today everything we do is on computer.

Last summer, I was on a national committee for the American Society of Civil Engineers that convened in Washington D.C. to try and come up with a portrait of what an engineer might look like in the year 2025. I was seated next to Mr. Steven Bechtel Jr. the head of one of the largest international engineering firms in the world. There is a man who has seen the profession go from the slide rule to the calculator to the computer.

Sixty-four engineers from all over the globe attended this meeting, and while it wasn’t easy to predict the future, we all did agree that the change over the next 20 years will outpace the past 20 years. Isn’t that amazing?

MidlandsBiz:
Recently you graduated from a leadership program called the Liberty Fellowship. Briefly describe this program. Who gets in and describe your year long experience in the program.

Deepal Eliatamby:
The Liberty Fellowship is a two-year program of seminars and service projects conducted in partnership with the Aspen Institute, Wofford College and the founder of the program, Hayne Hipp. Twenty people under the age of 45 from around the state of South Carolina are selected each year to take part in the program, and I was honored to be included.

We studied the writings of a wide range of great leaders and economic thinkers: Plato, Aristotle Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Milton Friedman, and Forbes. The greatest thing about the program is the interaction within this talented group of people. Creativity comes from people thinking differently, not everybody thinking the same.

Fellows also have to complete an individual project.

MidlandsBiz:
What was your project?

Deepal Eliatamby:
There are three criteria for the project: follow your passion, do something that will have a lasting impression on the state, and do something that can be replicated.

I decided to do something that would increase enrollment in the engineering program at the University of South Carolina. One major impediment to attending college today is the cost. Speaker Bobby Harrell has been a huge supporter of promoting math and science education in this state, and the General Asssembly increased the Life Scholarship to $7,500 a year for second, third and forth year students - as long as they are a South Carolina resident and maintain a B average.

But that still leaves a $5,000 gap for students over their 4 years at school. What I did for my project is raise a half a million dollars so that 100 South Carolina students could go through an engineering program totally free.

A couple of months ago, Speaker Harrell helped me introduce this project at the College of Engineering and already we have seen an increase in applications. Some students who were not previously considering an engineering degree have changed their mind.

We have also had some inquiries from other institutions about duplicating this program elsewhere. All they need is to find a local champion for the program in their respective schools.

MidlandsBiz:
Describe your leadership style.

Deepal Eliatamby:
I try to lead by example. You will not gain the respect of your peers, your clients or your staff if you don’t lead by example. I work hard and anything I ask someone else to do, I make sure that it’s something that I would be willing to do myself.

MidlandsBiz:
What leaders do you admire?

Deepal Eliatamby:
Mahatma Gandhi topped my list of a survey of the greatest leaders of the 20th century – he is certainly someone to admire.

As far as business is concerned, I have always admired how Jack Welch transformed General Electric during his time as CEO.

MidlandsBiz:
Everyone talks about the shortcomings of South Carolina infrastructure. What is your assessment of the situation? How serious is the problem and how do we fix it?

Deepal Eliatamby:
What we can’t do is wait for another bridge collapse like the one that happened in Minnesota last year.

Some of the infrastructure that we have today in the state is 50-75 years old, and we have developed this "out of sight out of mind" attitude towards the problems. Whether it’s safe drinking water, or clean waste water disposal, or safe roads to meet the demands of today and tomorrow, or additional port and rail capacity, or clean air – we have to place a greater emphasis on infrastructure.

In South Carolina, we have the fourth largest highway system in the country. That’s a remarkable number of roadway miles for such a small state of 4 million people.

Whether it’s through a sales tax increase or user fees, or through some other dedicated revenue source, we have to come up with ways to fund these infrastructure needs.

Voters are willing to pay additional fees to meet specific and strategic needs; they are not willing to have additional taxes go into a general fund that gets appropriated into something else.

MidlandsBiz:
You are on numerous Boards and you run your own company. Plus you have done this Liberty Fellowship. How do you manage your time?

Deepal Eliatamby:
Yeah, sometimes I feel as though I am walking on a tightrope.

I travel about 40,000 miles a year in South Carolina, so I am out of the office a lot. The key is having good people.

You have to find a way to balance your professional and personal life. You have to be good at multi-tasking; it takes a lot of creativity and it takes a lot of hard work.

MidlandsBiz:
What is the biggest challenge you face?

Deepal Eliatamby:
The biggest challenge is that it’s tough to find those good, talented, hard-working people who want be rewarded for their efforts. Once you do find them, it’s great, but the shortage of engineers that we are experiencing doesn’t make this easy to do.

MidlandsBiz:
What books would you recommend?

Deepal Eliatamby:
I recently read a great book on Albert Einstein that was written by Walter Isaacson who is the head of the Aspen Institute.

It’s Einstein’s hard work and perseverance that I most admire. Here’s a man whose ideas were initially rejected, but who is now arguably the benchmark for much of our present day thinking.

MidlandsBiz:
What would you most like to do if you weren’t an engineer?

Deepal Eliatamby:
[laughs] You can’t take the engineer out of the engineer; it’s been my whole life.

But what I love most – is bring people together to achieve something great. I see myself as a facilitator, and that is what I would most love to continue to do.

It gets back to that point. Engineering is a people business.