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Hot Firm leader sees technology as a game-changer

Yehudi “Gaf” Gaffen, the CEO of Gafcon, Inc. (San Diego), arrived in the United States from Cape Town, South Africa, in 1979 with only what he describes as a “great education.” Less than 10 years later, in 1987, he was starting Gafcon, a 110-person firm that has become one of Southern California’s most respected construction consulting firms, and No. 71 in The Zweig Letter 2010 Hot Firm List.

In this interview, Gaffen talks about avoiding becoming a commodity in a very complicated market and how a true desire to take charge over one’s destiny can help explain success.

The Zweig Letter: What does it mean to be a Hot Firm?

Yehudi Gaffen: It means recognition and calibration of how we are doing.

TZL: How did you get where you are today?

YG: Took risks; maintained confidence in myself; listened to the inner voice; worked hard; persevered when things were not going well; stayed optimistic and driven.

TZL: Do you remember your first paid job? What did you learn then that still influences the way you work today?

YG: I remember my first employer well. He was totally out of touch with the business, which resulted in it going bankrupt and me not receiving my last paycheck. What still influences the way I work is the focus and effort I put on staying in touch with our customers and our staff.

TZL: What is it in your DNA that drives you to success?

YG: It is audacity and risk-taking, a can-do attitude, and a relentless pursuit of perfection.

It is the desire to be in charge of my (and my family’s) destiny and future, never ever to be a victim of someone else’s actions or decisions, to know that whatever happens to me will be a direct outcome of actions and decisions I make.

TZL: In today’s difficult business climate, what does it take to succeed? Is the spectrum of failure a motivator?

YG: To succeed in today’s climate one has to work harder and smarter to avoid becoming a commodity in our crowded and very competitive market. Commodities are purchased on price alone, and with the current state of competition, this is the beginning of the end. Avoiding becoming a commodity is achieved by offering real added value when compared to the competition.

The possibility of failure is definitely a motivating factor to work harder and smarter!

TZL: Where do you see this industry in 10 or 20 years? What trends are influencing it? What about your company?

YG: I see integrated project delivery being much more of the norm vs. the current silo-ed approach for project delivery services. I also see technology becoming an integral part of the delivery paradigm. All aspects of the building process, including design, cost and schedule planning and control, financial management, document management and facility management will be on a seamless and open, cloud-based platform that will manage the entire lifecycle of the facility or program. All information and data will be easily accessed through mobile devices. Augmented reality and other yet-to-be-discovered technologies will create a truly industrialized and proactive construction environment that will be sustainable and efficient.

TZL: Do you hold someone as a special mentor? How did this person influence who you are?

YG: I hold my mother Ella Arensberg as a special mentor. She overcame incredible adversity. Based on her life experience, she believed that education was the one thing that could never be forcefully taken away and strived to make sure I got a great education. Most importantly, she believed in me! When I arrived in the United States in 1979 from Cape Town, all I had was a great education and confidence in my abilities, which provided the foundation for the business we have built.

TZL: What’s the one trait you most admire in people and why?

YG: Perseverance and tenacity in the face of adversity.

TZL: Describe the most challenging thing you have ever done/the biggest challenge you have taken on outside of work?

YG: Making a speech at my mother’s funeral.

TZL: What question would you ask of another Hot Firm leader?

YG: Talk to me about your succession plan— what options did you consider before making that decision?

TZL: What lesson learned would you pass along to a recent college graduate embarking on a career in the A/E/P and environmental consulting fields?

YG: Make it a goal to work as high in the “feeding chain” as possible. Use your 20s to get educated, your 30s to gain experience, your 40s to become established, and if by your 50s you are not set up, you are could be in for serious trouble.

This article first appeared in The Zweig Letter (ISSN 1068-1310) Issue # 909
Originally published 5/2/2011

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