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Spend two minutes talking to Chris DiPaolo and you’ll, at very least, be interested in what he’s selling. Far from a fly-by-night salesman or a sidewalk hawker, DiPaolo has a confident presence about him that commands the same respect and attention he’s showing to you.
“Work ethic was always instilled in me because my parents weren’t going to give me the money to do the things I wanted to do,” DiPaolo said. “I had a local paper route at 11. I was selling Fuller Brush products door to door at 12. I ran a pizza joint at 15. This exposure to people helped me learn how to read them and understand their needs.”
DiPaolo felt that the professional face-to-face interactions of his youth taught him valuable skills that serve him well as a professional. Specifically, having to go door-to-door and collect money from his paper route.
“It’s awkward asking someone to pay up,” he said. “It’s also difficult being a young kid and going to strangers' houses asking them to buy something from you. You need to pitch them just to get in the door then convince them to buy. You’ve got to use everything you’ve got: if you’re smart, funny, or a cute kid, you’ve got to present yourself well. So, as a young kid, I wore a suit.”
Though DiPaolo was skilled as a salesman, it was his intellect that got him into Drexel University’s first dual degree engineering program. The program offered opportunities for co-ops, which actually helped DiPaolo discover what careers he didn’t want to pursue.
“I once worked for a water department and knew that wasn’t the type of work that would align with my entrepreneurial mindset,” he recalled. “That’s why I think it’s important to try everything and anything. There’s nothing you should not do; you’ll learn in everything you do, and maybe you’ll fail, but failure at a young age is no big deal.”
Ironically, it was after he received his dual engineering degrees that his salesman skills became even more valuable. After moving to Pennsylvania for the woman who’d later become his wife of 30+ years, DiPaolo was caught in a bit of a pickle. A friend worked for a local firm and the principal would gladly hire DiPaolo – if they had the work.
But the recession of the early 1990’s wasn’t going to deter DiPaolo’s drive.
“Every Friday, I went to a payphone and called the principal asking if they sold any work that week,” he said. “I did this every Friday for six months. It helped me build a relationship with the principal. Eventually, they said that they could use my persistence, not as a project engineer, but as a cold caller to help them generate new business from hospitals.”
And just like that, DiPaolo was assuming the same role that made him money a decade earlier: cold pitching potential customers, taking the rejections, and pushing through until he hit success.
“There’s only so far you can go in certain roles like being a project engineer or a project manager,” he said. “But if you’re a rainmaker and can bring in revenue, it’s a whole different game.”
Eventually, DiPaolo advanced his way up into a project engineer role, then through the ranks to become a principal of his firm. One skill DiPaolo developed en route was problem solving. He became the clean-up guy, a fixer of sorts for projects that were running off the rails. Every problem he fixed taught him about the mistakes he needed to avoid.
DiPaolo's resume could read like a how-to-succeed guide for any aspiring project engineer. He’s managed over $1 Billion in design/build project value, that ranges from working with fortune 500 leading life sciences and advanced technology companies to start-up companies as well. These projects range in size from $130 million to as small as $250,000. His success is directly related to his expertise, though his foresight has been just as valuable as his experience. He was often leading a cleanup crew earlier in his career: coming in to take over a project that had veered off course.
“I learned so much through fixing others’ mistakes that I was able to add more value to my role,” he said.
“I was able to teach my team how to avoid these mistakes and develop protocols that helped us handle projects more efficiently.”
In the late 1990s, the company he worked for had an opportunity to move into the semiconductor space – an industry that they had no experience, or interest, in. DiPaolo thought that it was a risk worth taking. By the time they successfully completed an LED manufacturing facility in Florida, DiPaolo knew that LEDs were destined for use in everyday life. He spun a separate company specifically for the semiconductor industry off of the main company and raked up $30 million annually in two years.
“In 2004, I saw the market shifting to focus on biotech and converting ordinary flex buildings into high-tech lab and manufacturing operations,” he said. “Although I was a senior partner, the company I worked for didn’t want to move into that market under their current name and brand, so I made up a new company name to lead.
Professional Turnkey Engineering Construction Services, or PROTECS, was founded in 2005. DiPaolo’s first decision as a business owner was to buck the trend of integrated design-build strategies that the industry used, including a reliance on solely in-house engineers.
“I found it hard to complete projects in my other company because I couldn’t get the right person for the job, just the one that was available,” he said. “Why would a client want an engineer who’s well-versed in pharmaceutical design-build projects to work on a design-build for semiconductors? Now, in my own company, I could bring in the best of the best in their fields and get 150-200 years of experience around the table at the initial stages of a project.”
In the nearly 20-year history of PROTECS, DiPaolo has only walked away from a job once.
“We were on a government funded project and the funding got cut,” he said. “That’s the only time we had to walk away. We always finish the jobs we start; even the unprofitable or painful ones.”
“I’m still involved in projects because if you’re not involved in the day to day, it’s hard to see where the future is headed.”
We could talk about the future of PROTECS and how they’re expanding the real estate element of their business to not only generate diverse revenue streams, but to also better understand the mindsets of their developer, landlord and tenant clients.
We could just as easily talk about DiPaolo’s personal life and free time which is spent golfing, hanging out with friends he’s known for a lifetime, enjoying family time with his wife and two adult children, or enjoying a nice glass of wine and an occasional cigar. But when looking at the future that DiPaolo is creating, the most inspiring info is found through his philanthropy.
PROTECS hosts an annual golf tournament, raising tens of thousands of dollars for nonprofit organizations, like the Exceptional Care for Children’s Hospital and Wounded Warrior Project. Their current charity partner is the Tunnel to Towers Foundation: a charity which pays for the mortgages of the families of deceased first responders and veterans. DiPaolo also ensures that the bottom line never gets in the way of doing what’s right by society. Being a high-tech landlord of several innovation center buildings for 12 years, he’s had several start-up companies as his tenants that had incredible ideas and technology but not good cash flow. In a few instances, DiPaolo allowed these companies to continue their research for years without paying rent.
“I’ve been in this industry for more than 31 years and am fortunate to have worked with companies that make a difference in our world,” he said.
That’s the understatement of the year.
DiPaolo helped a startup in Georgia with hardly any money move into a facility in Princeton, New Jersey, where they developed the cure for Hepatitis C.
Similarly, he helped a man named John Crowley move from an incubator space into a facility so he could make strides in Pompe disease research, to find a cure for a rare disease his children have. The film Extraordinary Measures starring Harrison Ford was based on Crowley’s story.
For years, DiPaolo has taken a chance on his clients not for the payday – he’ll be the first to admit that he has taken a hit on many deals – but because he believes that any project his clients are involved in have the potential to change the world.
“We help clients advance the capabilities of what they can do because we think dynamically to build something that achieves both performance and cost goals,” he said. “Their breakthroughs are the reward of what we do.”
When entrepreneurs think about leaving a legacy, so much focus is placed on direct, measurable impacts on the world. Make no mistake: Chris DiPaolo has had a direct impact in improving the lives of countless people. But perhaps his most important contribution to the world is in his indirect actions.
One of his clients could cure cancer.
One of his clients could go belly up mid-build and leave him with the bill.
Each is a possibility, but possibility is what DiPaolo really cares about.
He cares about the possibility of what tomorrow could bring and he’s dedicated to designing and building a better future however, and with whomever, he can.
Strategic alignment is key to success. Everyone involved, both internally and externally, needs to be aligned at the onset of a project to ensure expectations and key objectives are clearly identified. This results in eliminating unrealistic or unexpected outcomes and instead, creates a successful team environment where all members are working towards the same goals in a collaborative and focused manner.
I have been very fortunate to have crossed paths with some amazing people in my life. I met my wife, Jacqueline, at Drexel University and at a time where I defined myself by my ability to be financially independent. Not a bad metric, but she saw a lot more to me than I ever allowed myself to see, and 30 years later, her and my two children help me to be the best version of myself. My early career in project management provided me with two influential mentors that were generous with their time and knowledge of the design/build industry. This was invaluable to my career. And now, I find motivation through networking with the best people in their industries to share ideas and solutions.
It’s sobering to think about being a kid just trying to make a few dollars alone to now having an extensive network and the realization of the many connections it takes for real success.
It’s a different world, today, that’s for sure. Keep as few people as possible in your Zoom calls. You want to build relationships and it’s easier to do so in one-on-one meetings versus group settings. If you have a partner, you’ll want to leverage their personality because yours isn’t going to fit with every client’s profile. A partner is better suited for some areas, and you can learn a lot by simply observing their interactions.
I have no problem being confrontational; that’s something that today’s business environment is lacking. People are afraid to have tough conversations in today’s market, but you’ve got to state your opinion. And confrontation doesn’t mean being disrespectful or putting someone down. It’s just being real with someone, especially if they’re on their third, fourth, or fifth chance. If someone doesn’t have a seat on the bus, and the purpose of that bus is to support your company, then they’ve got to get off the bus.
I don’t believe that you need a college career to achieve as an entrepreneur. Try anything and everything for a little bit to see how it goes. You can form opinions on how to customize what you’re doing, or you can realize that you need to abandon it. That’s how you learn. Whether you learn that on the job or through books, it’s valuable at the end of the day.
You can’t be afraid to take risks and fail. You also need to enjoy what you do to keep your drive high.
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