Guest Commentator: David Mason, CEO, David Mason + Associates

How can branching out from your peer group result in business development opportunities? How can programs like CEO Access Network help?

A few weeks ago, my company opened an office in Center City, almost five years to the day since I made our first hire in Greater Philadelphia. Working from a small office space in Norristown, our first employee here was a talented young engineer assigned to a project for PECO. And with that hire David Mason + Associates (DMA), an infrastructure engineering company, began an East Coast expansion from our base in the Midwest. Not a simple task, but for our company, Philadelphia seemed like a good bet.

Our leadership team, my sons Taylor and Spencer and my brother Paul, imagined Philadelphia to be similar to Chicago and St. Louis where the company was founded 30 years ago. Three great American cities with strong education and medical communities, great professional sports franchises, and complex infrastructure challenges — all requiring the best civil and structural engineers in the business.

With a portfolio of more than 10,000 successfully completed civil, structural, and electrical engineering projects, we knew that DMA had built a practice that could bring value to Philadelphia’s robust design and construction industry. And after analyzing the marketplace, we believed that a minority-owned business with a particularly strong track record of hiring minorities and women could add more value.

But we faced a central question: could we make the connections necessary to establish our company in a new region where we had few advocates and very little brand equity?

We went to work, reaching out to Philadelphia architectural and engineering firms that had satellite offices in St. Louis and Chicago, professional service firms who could check our references with colleagues in the Midwest who were familiar with our work. But we also realized that making strong connections in Philadelphia required us to reach beyond the architecture and engineering community. As outsiders, we needed to find a meaningful way to become a mainstream business attuned to the social and economic trends impacting local businesses big and small.

We contacted the City of Philadelphia’s Commerce Department and registered our company with its Office of Economic Opportunity. We discovered Della Clark’s Enterprise Center in West Philadelphia, where community-based small business owners have networked for 30 years. We hired several extraordinarily talented Philadelphians — engineers and business development professionals — who quickly became the core leadership we needed to ground our company in the community. And on the recommendation of an overwhelming number of our new friends and acquaintances, we joined the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia.

Within a year, the Chamber invited me to participate in its CEO Access program — a monthly forum for a selected group of business leaders paired with established Philadelphia CEOs. I was lucky enough to be partnered with John Grady, President and CEO of PIDC. Quickly, John and I found common ground as two businessmen who had a passion for the tangible and intangible aspects of urban life and real estate development that create thriving cities. I benefitted from John’s knowledge as a local “insider” and I think he appreciated my experience as an outsider with fresh eyes and broad knowledge of the workings of business in St. Louis and Chicago. My association with John and CEO Access helped me to gain a completely new perspective on Philadelphia and a new set of business contacts to explore.

Our move last month to 123 S. Broad St represents a watershed moment in a process now five years old and counting. Now, as a Philadelphia-based professional services firm, David Mason + Associates is looking to continue its expansion on the East Coast. You can easily find us in Center City, one block south of City Hall.