"You make us dream in the daytime": Andrew Lemer
Editor's Note: This month's Member Profile features Andrew Lemer, Ph.D., President, The MATRIX Group, LLC; member of APWA's Leadership and Management Committee; and former member of APWA's Government Affairs Committee and the Asset Management Task Force.
Tell us about your background: I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and then went to MIT and stayed there for quite awhile. I got all my degrees there, in civil engineering. In graduate school, once I got my basic courses out of the way, I took a lot of economics, planning and business courses to allow myself to go off into systems and planning and urban studies.
Later on I was given a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. I spent a year hanging out with designers and lots of other people interested in cities. It was a great opportunity to work with some really interesting people.
Favorite Book: That's a tough one, because I read a lot. If "favorite" means things that you go back to and look at it more than once, then I suppose my favorite would be the poetry of T. S. Eliot, particularly a little book called Four Quartets.
What in particular about Eliot's writing stands out for you? I enjoy his insights, his way of presenting observations about people in the world and his use of the language. There are a lot of great lines that others have used, for example in book titles. One that I remember is, "I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river is a strong brown god...." The last phrase was used as the title of a book about the Niger, which I read when I was working in Nigeria. And then there's "...the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." It's just text that's worth going back to.
Hobbies/Interests: Well, I've got a couple of young children at home, so it's a little hard to maintain hobbies because there's not a lot of spare time. But I do enjoy cooking and good wine, photography, and arts and crafts. I used to make pottery when I had more time. Now I just like to go look at pottery and other crafts work. I also like modern architecture.
Role Model: I tend to like people who think outside the box. My family might say I'm just perverse. My main role models might be Benjamin Franklin and Hannibal: Hannibal figuring out how to get across the Alps, Benjamin Franklin because he did so many things, was so creative and excelled in so many areas—diplomacy, science, business, and civic engagement.
Career Accomplishments: I was fairly proud at the time and still am proud of having led the team that wrote the first set of environmental guidelines for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. And then some years later I did a master plan for what amounts to a new town in Indonesia. I got to present that to President Suharto and the cabinet in Indonesia. I was standing next to a senior Indonesian government official during the presentation, and he leaned over and said to me, "You make us dream in the daytime." That stuck with me.
Tell us more about The MATRIX Group: The MATRIX Group is a small company that I started about fifteen years ago when I left PRC Engineering. That company, which really doesn't exist anymore, was part of a very large professional-services conglomerate that had bought Alan M. Voorhees Associates, the operation I joined when I got out of grad school. I started MATRIX with several former colleagues from Voorhees, and over the years it has evolved. Currently the practice is focused on management planning systems, policy research, technology assessment in civil infrastructure and the design and construction industries. I particularly do a lot of transportation work, here and overseas.
You've been a member of APWA's Leadership and Management Committee for the past six years. What have been some of your responsibilities with that committee? Well, I don't know that there have been any specific responsibilities. I really think of it more as opportunities than responsibilities. We each take on a task that we think we ought to be doing. I've been the asset management person on the committee for awhile. The responsibility, I guess, is to identify and debate with other members of the committee what we think we could do to help APWA's members to be better leaders and managers.
Once we decide what we think will help, then we follow through and develop our ideas—for example, "The Baker's Dozen" leadership qualities that we're writing about now, as well as similar tasks to identify characteristics of a good public works manager (see Andy's "Baker's Dozen" leadership series contribution on page 18 - Ed.). We've also been trying to prod senior leadership of APWA as a whole to rethink what the organization's vision for the future ought to be and adjust our strategy to provide more dynamic leadership to the profession.
You've written a publication for APWA on asset management (Getting the Most out of Your Infrastructure Assets), as well as articles on the subject for the APWA Reporter. What is asset management and what is its significance to APWA members? These big systems—highways, roads, water treatment plants, sewage treatment plants—are wanted because they provide certain services. Once they're built they represent community assets, just the same as our houses are family assets. For the longest time those assets have not really been shown on the books, although that's now changing. APWA members have known the assets are there because we're involved in public works, but the general public doesn't have a very clear picture of them because they've not been recorded in any sort of regular way on the financial statements of our government agencies.
Once you come to realize that you have this big portfolio of assets, then you can understand that you might want to manage them effectively to get the greatest possible benefit for the public that makes the investment. Public works management and development is really all about asset management. We're just trying to apply good management principles to public investments, recognizing the real value of those investments.
Why do you like being a member of APWA? I would say for at least three reasons. It's a chance to get to know some great people professionally and personally; it's a chance to learn from others about what they've done and what they think about the issues we're all dealing with; and it's a chance to further improve our lives through better public works management. Getting to know people, learning from them, and improving ourselves. I think it's a terrific organization.