Verification Administration

Making sure the building works right

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

cx_associates0517In 2005, Jennifer L. Chiodo joined Cx Associates as a partner to the founder and then-owner, Tom Anderson (not pictured). They hired Matt Napolitan in 2006, and in 2013, when Anderson retired, Chiodo and Napolitan bought his shares.

When Matt Napolitan joined Cx Associates in 2006, the engineering firm was run by its founder, Tom Anderson, and his business partner, Jennifer Chiodo, from their home offices.

Anderson, who would retire in 2013, had launched the company in 1994, naming it Cx (the abbreviation of “commissioning”). Building commissioning is a process that ensures that building subsystems are designed, constructed, and operated to meet the owner’s requirements. This can include reviewing the engineering design relative to efficiency or maintainability goals; verifying the installation of systems, plants, and equipment; testing all the system’s functions; and training the operators to use them the way they’re intended.

Noting that he had come from “design-engineering firms that lived and died from new construction and major renovations,” Napolitan says that shortly after he arrived, the three of them embarked on a facilitated strategic planning session.

At that session, he continues, “Jen talked about the importance of a three-legged stool in terms of the work that we do: to have at least three relatively different focuses in your work so that when one trails off, the others fill in.”

The timing was auspicious. When the Great Recession hit in 2008, says Napolitan, “the construction industry slowed way down, but what didn’t slow down was the energy-evaluation consulting work.” This, along with commissioning of new buildings and what the firm calls “retro-commissioning,” or commissioning of existing buildings, helped Cx continue to grow.

Chiodo had joined Anderson as a contractor in the fall of 2004 “to see if I liked the work and liked him,” she says. She knew him from her work at VEIC (Vermont Energy Investment Corp.) and was intrigued when he contacted her to say he was interviewing engineers looking for a business partner.

“Part of the reason was he needed depth, because he was awarded the commissioning for the UVM Davis Center. He wanted a partner, not to manage somebody.”

In January 2005, she started her buy-in and became a 49 percent owner.

Fortunate opportunities seem to have an affinity for Chiodo. Born in Sharon, Pennsylvania, and raised in Corning, New York, as a high school senior, she was accepted by both Mount Holyoke College and Brown University.

An avid equestrian since childhood, she announced that she wanted to study at Mount Holyoke “so I could ride horses.” Her mother, a multigenerational Vermont native, told her she needed to be able to support her expensive horse habit, “and I have since I was 13,” says Chiodo. “Mother said, ‘Study engineering. You can graduate, get a good job, and you should never expect a man to pay for it.’”

Brown it was, where she earned her degree in electrical engineering in 1981.

Out of college, Chiodo didn’t see herself fitting into the majority of companies that were recruiting. “They were largely military-industrial, and I had a pretty liberal point of view.” She was offered a position with Syska Hennessy and a choice between the New York office or the San Francisco office. She chose San Francisco, where an aunt lived.

Syska Hennessy was an MEC (mechanical, electrical, plumbing engineering design company). She started in the consulting office’s electrical department. On her first “real” project, the 42-story 5 Fremont Center, the project engineer, who was also the project manager, left the company.

“He told his boss that he thought I should be the project manager,” Chiodo says, “so they made me the project manager at 22. The idea was that Hugo, who had been this guy’s boss, would closely supervise me, but Hugo had a nervous breakdown.”

She eventually received a project management award from the company, and would work on such stellar projects as Spaceship Earth at Epcot Center, the Moscone Convention Center, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

When a big data center she was working on needed power, she made a successful appeal to the Board of Examiners for a code variance to use spare power capacity for other than lights. She was invited to give a presentation on it to the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) meeting. “It became the precedent allowing us to use the full capacity of these buildings in San Francisco. It was pretty cool,” she says.

Chiodo was the youngest person to become active in the IEEE and its sub-society, the Industry Application Society (IAS). She would eventually chair the San Francisco IEEE IAS, which received the national award for best small chapter during her term.

Over her years with Syska Hennessy, Chiodo’s personal life blossomed. In 1984, she started riding again, eventually buying a horse, which she owned until having to put him down a year ago.

In 1985, she married David Harcourt, a Brown colleague who had moved to the Bay area a year after she did. They bought a house in Marin County and, in 1987, had their first of two daughters. Her sister Stephanie moved in with them to be her nanny.

In 1989, Chiodo joined the San Francisco office of the engineering firm Glumac. While she was there, she earned her professional engineer’s license for California, and became pregnant with their second daughter.

Her first was nearing kindergarten age, and, unhappy with the schools in California, Chiodo and Harcourt began to seek a place they could call home.

“We made a matrix of the things we wanted: good schools, clean air, clean water, a university, an airport, land for horses, and water, because my husband was a sailor.” Burlington topped the list, and Ithaca, New York, was second. They chose Burlington.

My great-grandmother wrote a book about growing up in Vermont in the last century, True Adventures of a Little Country Girl. I had come to Poultney every year to visit my great-aunt and -uncle, but had never been to Burlington.”

Their daughter was born in 1991, they moved to Vermont in the summer of ’92, and in ’94, Chiodo started at the Department of Public Service working for Scudder Parker in the energy-efficiency division.

When the Chittenden Bank building, which would house Public Service and the Public Service Board, was being built, Chiodo worked to relieve the “sick building syndrome” afflicting the structure.

In 1996, when the federal funding on her position ended, Parker arranged for an interview with Beth Sachs at Vermont Energy Investment Corp (VEIC), where Chiodo worked from 1996 until 2004 when, after a hiatus to write a novel, she joined Anderson.

“Till then, I’d been a one-man band,” Anderson says. “I had completed commissioning of the Echo Science Center, and the project manager, who works for UVM, was handling the new Davis Center, a $50 million project. He said, ‘I’m just a little nervous, because if something happens to you ...’ and I told him I’d find a partner. It just so happened, good timing, good luck, I thought of Jen Chiodo. She’d just taken time off, and I said, ‘I’m looking for a business partner. Would you be open to that? We had three exploratory lunches, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

In 2006, Anderson and Chiodo hired Napolitan, and in 2007, they left their home offices for real office space at 110 Main Street in Burlington. When Anderson retired in 2013, he sold his shares to Chiodo (now managing principal) and Napolitan (now principal).

A New Britain, Connecticut, native, Napolitan grew up in Brooklyn from age 3. In 1997, after earning his degree from Stony Brook University in mechanical engineering — a path he had chosen in middle school — he was hired by Flack + Kurtz, where he had interned the summer before his senior year. A couple of years later, when one of the managers joined HLW, an architectural engineering firm, Napolitan followed, but returned a year and a half later to Flack + Kurtz. In 2002, he took a job with BuroHappold Consulting Engineers, where he worked until joining Cx in ’06..

“I was just searching around and found a headhunter,” he says of the opportunity. “He put me in contact with Jenn, and I interviewed, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

The partners’ skills meld well. As the managing principal, Chiodo runs the business, says Napolitan. “My work is much more along what we call the ‘built environment’ — I deal directly with buildings, and Jen deals much more directly with energy-efficiency programs that affect how buildings get built or renovated.”

Among the company’s recent projects is providing commissioning services for the new Miller Building at The University of Vermont Medical Center, working with Dave Keelty, its director of facilities, planning, and development.

“For Vermont, they really bring tremendous depth and experience, well above their peers,” Keelty says. “We get them started on our projects as early as possible, usually before we get into design, and they give us input through the whole design process.”

In her off time, Chiodo is working on her master gardener certification, and serves on the board of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility where she co-chairs the policy committee. She also chairs the Vermont Green Building Network and participates in the Hinesburg Writers’ Group.

If he had his way, Napolitan, who coaches his two sons’ Little League teams, says he would coach baseball for a living. He and his family also enjoy camping and long weekends on the lake or in the woods.

Cx continues to grow. The client list reads like a Who’s Who of Vermont institutions. Employees now number nine, and the company recently opened an office in Portland, Maine, and its operations manager works remotely from Chicago. In 2010, the firm broke through a wall to make additional space.

Asked how things are going with the company, Napolitan recalls the three-legged stool and how it has benefited them all. “Now we’ve probably got — pick a number — three, four, five legs.”•