Rutgers EMBA gave engineer a perspective that proved beneficial as he climbed company ranks
Sauter veered from tradition when he realized he couldn’t muster up any excitement for his college liberal arts courses. After his first year, he packed up his bags and returned home to forge a more challenging path into the future: With little to draw on except having helped his father fix things around the house and some summer jobs, he started a construction company of his own.
“I wasn’t inspired,” he said, recalling his decision to abandon college and start working on his own. “What interested me was working with my hands and creating something.”
The non-traditional stretch was short-lived. Sauter eventually went back to college to study engineering, which suited his attention to detail and his interest in working with his hands. A stint in one of the riskiest areas of engineering and a Rutgers Executive MBA helped to propel him into the executive offices of one of the nation’s largest companies with responsibility for critical areas like safety, security, technology and ethics.
Four years after he graduated from high school, with the insight gained from running a small business and with a completely different plan for his education, he began his college life in earnest at the University of Massachusetts while he continued to run his company.
When he finished his undergraduate degree, he took his first engineering job with Stone & Webster, one of the giants in the field and among Sauter’s top choices of places to work after college. While he was working on a project in Alabama, he continued his studies at the University of Arizona, where he received his master’s in environmental engineering.
Stone & Webster’s Environmental Division had a specialty in chemical weapons destruction and unexploded ordnance removal – the technical term for identifying and rendering safe previously fired munitions that remain in the ground at former bombing ranges that are being reclaimed for other purposes. This was Sauter’s indoctrination into high-risk projects and it would take him to nuclear plants, a former nuclear weapons plant and other sites where stockpiles of chemical weapons like nerve agent and mustard gas had to be destroyed.
“It’s the type of work that requires diligence and a lot of attention to quality and detail,” the 48-year-old Sauter said during an interview in his office at AECOM’s headquarters in Manhattan. “It’s highly complex and highly risky.”
Sauter relished the precision involved in the work even though it took him as he put it, to some of the “nastiest of the nasty places in the world.’’
He spent two years at the infamous Rocky Flats, a site about 15 miles outside Denver, Colorado, where the United States operated a nuclear weapons production facility for 40 years. The plant, which was named after the windswept plateau it was built on, started producing bomb components in 1953.
After years of intense controversy over evidence of serious environmental contamination and, ultimately, a special grand jury hearing into operations at the site, Rocky Flats was closed in 1993. Sauter had the job of doing key maintenance and cleanup at the site.
"I got really good training in quality and risk early on," he said.
In 2000, he was introduced to John Dionisio, who is now chief executive officer of AECOM. The company was smaller at the time, but existed more like a holding company, with a collection of individual engineering firms. At the time, AECOM was working on establishing a standard platform of operations to combine the synergies of the companies.
Sauter was hired to head quality and risk management for the company’s legacy Frederic R. Harris operation. Around the same time he started at AECOM and with the company’s support, Sauter began the Rutgers Executive MBA program.
While he had operated his own business and worked on projects for large companies, Sauter said he felt there was “a gap” in his understanding of big business. The MBA helped to round out his technical education, he said, by exposing him to subjects such as corporate finance and marketing.
“The thing that’s so powerful (about a good Executive MBA program) is how it changes and enhances your view of the world and your global appreciation for business impact,” he said.
“Every decision that we make can have such far-reaching business implications but if you don’t know how businesses run and why decisions are made, you’re going to have all of these blind spots,” he said. “For me, it opened up my world to a lot of those blind spots.”
“If you think about the facets of a business, they all overlap and each one of them impacts the others,” he said. “And If you don’t understand what the other teams are trying to achieve and why and how they go about it, you’re going to be at a loss because you only going to be thinking of your part of the pie and not how it impacts everybody else.’’
Sauter completed the EMBA program in 2003. Meanwhile, he had continued to move into positions of new and greater responsibility at AECOM. He became the head of human resources, recruiting, training and development and later was named senior vice president of corporate development for AECOM’s U.S. Group, where he was responsible for overseeing risk management, quality assurance, project management and other areas of the company, including communications and information technology. During his 13 years at AECOM, he’s had responsibility for all but two corporate functions – finance and legal.
AECOM has morphed into an $8 billion global provider of professional technical and management support services. To get more of an idea of what the firm does, consider the variety of projects the firm’s 47,000 engineers, architects and planners are working on:
In New York City, the firm is part of a joint venture leading the design and management of the Second Avenue subway project and the Ground Zero reconstruction, including planning for the PATH transportation terminal.
In preparation for the 2016 Olympics, AECOM is developing the master plan for a new Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro. And it is working on a variety of projects in the Middle East.
In his current role as chief corporate officer and executive vice president Sauter oversees a number of essential areas of AECOM’s business operations, including safety, health and environment and security, which means making decisions about thousands of employees working on projects in 130 different countries and traveling daily to countless locations around the world.
“We have to look after their safety and security. There is an office that does that for the company,’’ he said, “and I’m responsible for overseeing that.”
On any given day, Sauter may have to help make a decision about whether employees should remain in a country where political or civil unrest could intensify to the point of jeopardizing their safety. In 2011, nearly 200 employees were evacuated from Benghazi, Libya, he said, when civil war erupted during the Arab Spring.
It’s one of the reasons Sauter keeps a large map of the world hanging on the wall across from his desk. “I’m looking at it all the time,” he said.