Pushing the envelope

PEO’s new president, David Brown, P.Eng., BDS, C.E.T., thrives on change, and he’s ready to steer the organization through potentially rough waters ahead.

Engineer, family man, maverick—when David Brown, P.Eng., BDS, C.E.T., isn’t racing a motorcycle, flying a plane, climbing mountains or spending time with his family, he’s running a successful engineering firm. Whatever the task, Brown is pushing the envelope—a quality he brings to his new position as PEO’s 99th president. Brown assumed office at PEO’s 2018 Annual General Meeting on April 21. Born in Cornwall, Ontario, he comes from a five-generation construction family, and he learned from an early age that to get on in life, you must embrace change.

Brown learned to adapt young. His father’s work caused the family to move a lot when he was growing up—12 different towns by the time he was 16. Although some might look at that experience and see a bit of hard luck, Brown sees a key element that shaped his personality and primed him for success. It allowed him to not only quickly adapt to new situations but also enjoy new situations—and it is this experience that helped him adapt a very full life to the rigorous demands of volunteering at PEO.

At last March’s Council meeting, Brown received his five-year volunteer pin. He concedes that, normally, to become president, a significantly higher amount of volunteer time is involved. This is another area that sets Brown apart. He has spent his professional life immersed in building a business from the ground up—he’s a founding partner of design-build firm TaskForce Engineering in Belleville, Ontario, taking it from nothing to what it is today, a thriving firm. He has devoted the remainder of his time to his family: wife, Liza; stepson, Owen; and three children from his first marriage, Kale, Dylan and Rachel.

Brown is no stranger to volunteering. He served PEO as vice president and Eastern Region councillor, as well as on PEO’s Elliot Lake Advisory, Finance and Human Resources committees, among others, and represents PEO on the boards of Engineers Canada and the Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technicians and Technologists. He also served as campaign chair for the United Way and volunteered his time on the boards of colleges and technology advisory committees, although he’s had to step away from the latter because of the time commitment inherent to being PEO president-elect and now president. He plans to return to volunteering in the community when his tenure at PEO is up—and it will be up, he points out, due to the term limits he helped champion.

The high-level access and considerable number of volunteer hours that come with being president-elect and then president have given Brown a level of knowledge he asserts is “ten-fold” above any other position on Council. “Beyond the Council table, it’s about what happens in the building and the issues with the committees and the volunteer base and staff,” he says. “You don’t get into that stuff until you start getting up into the higher echelons of the organization. You have to have been blessed with strong leadership skills to convince people that you see the bigger picture and you want to do what’s best for the organization.”

A workaholic, Brown feared his kids would struggle with work-life balance, as he did, saying he missed much of their younger years because he was simply working too much. He worried about it so much that he encouraged his children to find a different path in life: “I looked at them and said, ‘What I want you to do is get an education and use it to get a job that allows you to find that balance.’” Finding that balance was so important to him as a father that he only agreed to pay for their education if they didn’t go into engineering: “If you go into engineering, you’re on your own,” he told them.

On the other hand, Brown was greatly influenced by his father’s work in the construction industry and his unflappable work ethic, so it wasn’t surprising that Brown gravitated toward a similar career. His father had concerns about his son following in his footsteps. “In Grade 8, my father saw I had an interest in construction and was becoming quite a good amateur carpenter and really liked building things, and he started to get a little nervous,” Brown says. “So he bought me a drafting table. It was a $70 drafting table—it was nothing—but that $70 completely changed my life. I took drafting through high school, which eventually led to studying civil engineering technology in college. Then I went back to university and got my degree, and here I am.”

That seemingly small gift from his father when he was 13 shaped not just his education but his life. “It shaped everything,” Brown says. “Up until Grade 8, I didn’t do very well in school, and it was mostly because I wasn’t interested in it.” His teachers even spoke to his parents about steering him toward the trades and placed him in the basic stream in high school. “I just resolved myself to thinking, okay, well I guess that’s all I can do.” In Grade 10, a math teacher took a special interest in him—an event that changed the course of Brown’s academic career. “She did an aptitude test on me, and it turned out I had no trouble learning any of this stuff.”

Being in the 10th grade basic stream, and another move that year to a new school in a new city, complicated things. But a seed had been planted and, in Grade 12, Brown asked for permission to use a spare period to take Grade 13 physics, which he describes as “the line in the sand to get into engineering.” He finished with one of the highest marks in class. Without the mass of OACs needed for university admission, college was the only possible option—but he had proved to himself that he could excel at academics. He enrolled in St. Clair College in Windsor, Ontario, graduated with an almost 4.0 GPA and landed a job. “I worked for four years and thought to myself, you know what? I can’t stand engineers—I either have to become one or get out of this business. So that’s why I went back to school.” And return he did, this time to study civil engineering at Queen’s University. Two years after graduating in 1990, he was licensed as a professional engineer and two years later he co-founded TaskForce Engineering, where he’s worked as a structural engineer ever since.

While his enthusiasm for engineering is undeniable, it’s tempered with concern for the future as a self-regulating profession. “Every social grace we’ve been allowed, every nicety and creature comfort, everything has touched the hand of an engineer,” he says, “but what I’m really concerned with as a regulator going forward—because we use such a broad brush to define engineering under our act—is how do you regulate that?” Times are changing rapidly. Technology brings efficiency, and what once took three hours now takes three minutes. “The Fourth Industrial Revolution is expanding exponentially,” Brown explains. “The ground underneath our feet is constantly changing, and it’s expanding to the point where we need to ask ourselves, how do we as a regulator put a rope around that and control it? How do we regulate stuff we don’t even know is happening, even though it completely falls under the definition of engineering in our act?”

Prevailing attitudes within the organization and membership concern him, too. “You need a lot of money to properly regulate, especially when you don’t know what you’re regulating. That’s a problem. And we have some loud voices in our membership that are completely averse to raising fees.”

Brown, a businessman to his core, has trouble wrapping his head around what he sees as the sort of incongruous thinking that flies in the face of any logical business model. “Right now, we have our first deficit budget, and it’s been a long time since we’ve had a deficit budget approved,” he explains. “The first thing we must do is analyze our business model and performance as a regulator and look at the programs we’re running and ask ourselves if any are non-core that we can remove. We’ll have to make those hard choices. But we must make those first before we consider going to a membership asking to raise fees. I would never ask for a fee increase without an evidence-based business plan, properly mapped to our act.”

Brown anticipates the shakeup will happen on his watch. “For us to have [a] farther-reaching ability to regulate [engineering], we need to focus our resources far better than we currently do, because the resources we have right now, I would argue, from a staff point of view, are maxed. Everybody’s running on fumes and trying to do more with less. When I say, ‘Look at cutting programs,’ I don’t mean cutting staff. I mean reorganizing the staff that are doing things that are non-regulatory and getting them to do regulatory tasks—like work at trying to find more people who are doing engineering and saying, ‘How can we get them licensed, and how do we go about doing that?’”

Burning through available reserves is not the answer, he says. He believes in coming to the membership with full transparency and appealing to what he hopes is their sense of reason—and business sense. “We might as well be honest in saying, ‘Here’s the thing, folks, we can’t keep adding programs to this organization and keep taxing staff, making them do more with less, and carry on and not have an increase in the revenue stream,’” Brown explains. “I’ve been a businessman my entire life, and you have two things: you have revenue streams and you have expenses. At PEO, the expenses keep going up and up and up, but the revenue stream has not changed, in terms of membership fees, in a decade.”

The entrenchment in the status quo frustrates Brown, who firmly believes PEO’s disruption is closer than the organization would like: “The train has pulled away from the station, and PEO must decide—right now—do we want to run our butts off down that platform and catch that train, or do we want to wave goodbye? Because that’s where we’re at right now. And if we stand here any longer and watch it moving away—because that’s what we’re doing—it’s going to accelerate to the point where we won’t even be able to get on it, and then we’ll be disrupted from the outside.”

It’s not that PEO is irrelevant as a regulator, Brown says. It’s the scope of what PEO is regulating—and that scope continues to narrow relative to the expanding big picture. He shares a story about a group of newly graduating engineers who’ve designed and developed a product that’s 100 per cent engineering, and how they’re planning to build and sell this on the market—and none of them are licensed. “And there’s nothing we can do about it because we don’t have the resources,” Brown points out. “And that’s just one example. There’s stuff like that happening at every university in this province. The first thing is we can’t even define what it is that’s happening, and the second thing is, how the heck are we ever going to have the resources to regulate it in conformance with our act? It’s such a daunting task we don’t even know where to start. And that’s why I say we’re on the cusp of being disrupted. Because the Fourth Industrial Revolution isn’t going to go away, it’s just going to continue expanding.”

Ultimately, Brown isn’t interested in small wins but in the bigger picture of where PEO is headed, and he wants Council to work together and move forward with a mutual recognition of where PEO must go. “What I’d like to see during my tenure is have Council, the volunteer base, staff, everyone come to the realization that we’re already at this point where we’re looking at the train moving,” Brown says. “If we can come to understand that, then we must ask the fundamental question: What is it that we are going to do as a regulator? Are we going to try to do the job the government thinks we’re doing under our act—self-regulating engineering in Ontario? Because I’d argue we’re not doing that very well right now. Or are we going to only regulate things that fall under demand-side legislation? We should decide that.”

Brown doesn’t mince words or shrink from making hard choices. He’s adamant raising fees is about deciding whether PEO will continue to be in the business of regulating engineering in Ontario or not: “If the answer is yes, that costs more money, end of discussion. You can’t argue that. It costs money to regulate. That’s what a fee referendum is to me,” he asserts. “It’s not like $20 or $50 is going to break anybody. That’s not what it is at all. It’s about the membership deciding if we are going to do our job protecting the citizens of this province.” Brown finds some attitudes exacerbating. “Some members look at me and say, ‘We’re self-regulating.’ And I say, that doesn’t mean we’re self-serving; it means we’re supposed to regulate.”

Brown is not afraid of change, and he’s ready to usher PEO forward into a sustainable future. He wants the organization and membership to care as much as he does and get real. “When someone says they’re going to lower fees and increase services, that tells me they’re completely out of touch with what we do. They don’t understand what it means to be a regulator,” he exclaims. “I’m at the end of my career. I have EITs working for me, and my youngest licensee just got licensed six months ago. Those are the people who have a future in engineering in this province, and those are the ones I care about,” he says. “That’s why I’m doing this.”