J.J. Suárez

The CII Executive Committee has selected J.J. Suárez as the twenty-seventh recipient of the Carroll H. Dunn Award of Excellence.

Born in 1949 in Florida, Cuba, a small town on the less populated eastern side of the island, J.J. Suárez grew up amidst the turmoil of the Communist takeover. After Castro prevailed in 1959, and the state nationalized his parents’ general store, the Suárez family—his father, Jesus, his mother, Emelina, and younger sister, Carmen—emigrated to Miami, Florida in 1960, whereupon they obtained political refugee status from the United States government. His parents moved the family again in 1962, this time to Puerto Rico, where they put down roots and established another store. He helped support the family business by selling piece goods from door to door, from the young age of 12 through his teen years. From this early experience, Suárez developed a deep understanding of how much people can accomplish if they work hard, persevere through adversity, and take advantage of the resources available to them. He was particularly inspired by the tenacity and resilience of his father, who—having grown up in poverty in rural Spain in the early decades of the twentieth century—had emigrated alone to Cuba as a teenager. After initially working at whatever jobs he could find in his new country, and then starting a family and opening his own business, he found himself back where he started 40 years later—landing in a new country, relying on nothing but his wits and his work ethic to survive.

Once in Puerto Rico, the younger Suárez decided that he would take advantage of the educational opportunities available in the U.S., and became determined to go to college. Since he excelled in mathematics and science and, during early childhood visits to New York City, had been fascinated by the ingenuity required to erect skyscrapers, he decided to pursue engineering at the University of Puerto Rico. After graduating in 1971 with a B.S. in civil engineering, he entered the graduate civil engineering program at Cornell University. There he specialized in structural engineering, earning a master’s degree in 1974 and a doctorate in 1976.

Upon graduation, he joined Structural Dynamics Research Corporation (SDRC), and helped build up the company from a 70-person office in Ohio to an international concern. It was at SDRC that he first understood that the real challenge to being an engineer is in balancing the technical component of a project with its business drivers. This challenge ultimately became a great opportunity for Suárez, since it motivated him to focus on business matters and become a project manager. When SDRC went public in 1986, he left the firm and joined Belcan Engineering, where he served as president.

At Belcan, he led the planning, implementation, and supervision of several strategic alliances and long-term programs with public and private sector organizations. Under his leadership, the company grew from about 400 employees to more than 1200. In 1995, he decided to leave Belcan to establish his own company, CSA Group. A full-service project delivery firm that specializes in transportation, utilities, and general building, CSA started out in one office with 30 people. By 2008, the company had 800 employees and 14 offices in North America, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean.

A few years before moving to Belcan from SDRC, Suárez met and married his wife, Ginger Lippmeier-Suárez. Married now for 33 years, with four children and six grandchildren, they worked together to build CSA. Indeed, Suárez credits much of the firm’s success to Ginger’s skill at managing the administration of the firm’s facilities, vehicles, and purchasing. Looking back on the past 18 years of CSA’s often exponential growth, he cites careful recruitment and retention of key people as crucial to the company’s ongoing success—through both good and bad economic cycles.

Having been involved in CII since his first days at Belcan, Suárez sees his 26-year membership in the Institute as central to the growth and health of his business, particularly in terms of the implementation of best practices and the professional development of his employees. From a personal standpoint, he notes that, through his involvement in CII activities, he has established several important lifelong friendships. He was the 2007 Chairman of CII and, over the years, has led or been a member of several CII committees, including the Executive and Benchmarking Committees. He was also a member of Research Team 36, Quality Performance Measurements, and contributed to research teams investigating partnering and team building.

Looking at the future of the industry, Suárez sees the need for infrastructure renewal in the United States as one of the biggest challenges in the next five to ten years. He believes that, because public means do not match the scale of public facility decay, it will be crucial to overcome the current public and political resistance to more private financing of infrastructure projects. He also hopes to see the industry address the environmental and political challenges related to the technologies and methods now being used to extract previously unviable oil and natural gas resources. In his view, because a further expansion in these emerging energy markets could make the United States energy-independent and significantly reduce energy prices, it could spur the infrastructure development the country so badly needs. Such a positive shift could consequently revive the rest of the economy. In the nearer term, Suárez expects that, once the economy stabilizes in the next two years, the pent-up demand for public and private projects will generate healthy and sustained growth for the industry. To meet these challenges, the industry will increasingly need to tap the potential of emerging technologies—particularly emerging automation and collaborative tools for designers and constructors—to improve consistency and productivity, and, ultimately, to streamline the project delivery process. He would like to see CII support more research that would help industry practitioners adopt such new performance-enhancing technologies.

Throughout his career, Suárez has received numerous other awards and honors. In 2002, he was inducted into the National Academy of Construction for his career-long contributions to the industry. He served as the organization’s president in 2011 and as its Annual Meeting Committee chair in 2012. He has also received the Puerto Rico Chapter Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, the Ohio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Businessman of the Year Award, and the Cincinnati Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Leadership Award. In addition to these honors, he has held several prestigious leadership positions in various international and professional organizations such as the Construction Industry Round Table and the ACE Mentor Program of America.

It is because of the many contributions that J.J. Suárez has made to the industry, to the Institute, and to his colleagues and friends that he is so deserving of this award. It is also because he has set such a sterling example of individual accomplishment in the face of adversity that we take such pleasure in presenting it to him. Indeed, it is with immense admiration and deepest appreciation that CII recognizes J.J. Suárez as the 2013 Carroll H. Dunn Award winner.