Alumni Spotlight: Peter Christian ENG‘75

“Great guidance isn’t always what you want to hear, but what you need to hear.” –Peter Christian

Peter Christian earned his SoE bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering in 1975 and his master’s degree from Lehigh University in 1977. As founding partner and president of business consulting company Enterprise Systems Partners Inc., or espi, he helped more than 300 clients throughout the U.S. realize cost efficiencies and improved profits. Before that, he held various executive director positions at Crayola® Corporation and was a guest lecturer at Lehigh. Currently a senior consultant at JMJ Entrepreneurial Excellence, he has recently published his first book, What About the Vermin Problem?: A Guide to Avoiding Damaging Business Practices, which leverages lessons learned from his more than 40 years of corporate experience in everything from operational strategic planning to project and product management.

Why Rutgers?

I’m from Queens, NY. My father was an architect whose firm worked on the Wright-Rieman Chemistry labs. I’d come with him when he met with contractors and designers and so got to know folks at Rutgers. I was impressed: the cost was reasonable and it was close to home.

Why industrial engineering?

Industrial engineering has lot of people involvement, which I liked. I didn’t want to just be at a desk. That’s what interested me.

Where did you start your career?

My first job out of school was with Air Products & Chemicals, in Allentown, Pennsylvania for about a year and a half.

I then moved on to Binney & Smith – now Crayola – where I started as an industrial engineer and ended 17 years later as R&D Director after several other directorships.

What came after Crayola?

As an independent consultant, I hooked up with Lehigh University’s Enterprise Systems Center, where I worked essentially full-time for about 5 years. I eventually founded Enterprise Systems Partners, Inc., or espi, with colleagues, which I headed for 17 years before retiring in 2018.

What have you done since retiring?

We moved to the Tampa area. My wife and I have hooked up with the Rutgers alumni association out of Tampa – a nice bunch of folks. It’s great dealing with people from the same background, and maintaining a tie with Rutgers.

I also keep my hand in business by consulting with a group in South Carolina, JMJ Entrepreneurial Excellence. We’re looking at providing early stage firms and start-ups with a good foundation for doing business.

And I wrote What About the Vermin Problem?.

What prompted you to write it?

In consulting, I had a lot of experiences, met a lot of different people, and  learned a lot. I’d sometimes wonder how some of them got into and managed to stay in business. I thought that answering that could be a good book.

When I retired, I decided it was the time write that book.

What is your elevator pitch for What About the Vermin Problem?

It’s a collection of experiences about actions and activities that can either help or harm a business. There can be a fine line between success and failure depending on the decisions people in positions of authority in business make: the book points out where you can head if you make a right or wrong decision.

vermin.jpgHow do you do this?

I discuss three kinds of companies: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Good companies do very well. The bad companies aren’t threatened with going out of business even if they do goofy things and cause unnecessary problems. The ugly section talks about companies that do strange things that threaten to put them out of business.

That being said, it’s really all about decisions. This is a guide to taking the right course, making the right decisions – not just in business, but in life.

What inspired your title?

I was hired by a company to help them either reorganize and expand their existing facility or move it to a new location. Throughout the project, communication was poor. Ultimately, we put a stake in the ground and presented an expansion plan that would put production in one area and store materials in another. The company owners reacted by asking, “What about the vermin problem? You can’t manufacture in this area, because that’s where the vermin are.” It was stunning: this was a problem that had never been mentioned during the months we’d been working with them. And it was a problem the clients could have readily resolved – or we could have taken into account if we’d known about it from the start.

Who is the book’s ideal audience?

It’s the person in middle management who has risen through the ranks over time, but who is getting frustrated by feeling powerless to change things and do the right thing. The book shows them what others have gone through so they can find ways to do their jobs better and move their companies forward.

Nobody goes to work saying what problems do I have to face today: they go in hoping to accomplish good things. They need support and encouragement and to know they’re doing a good job. My book can do that for them.

What’s most important for a company’s success?

The big one for me is communication. If communication is good, even if you don’t agree with what a person says, you can understand where they’re coming from and then can talk about your differences and move forward.

Accountability and responsibility are also big. I hate to say it, but by and large people don’t take responsibility for what they do or for the accountability that comes with responsibility. People in leadership positions often forget they’re not just responsible for themselves but are responsible for all who report to them. You’re going to get credit for things that go right – and for things that go wrong.

What is your next book about?

It’s about positive people and things that influenced me to form my core values as to how I want to act and be – in business and in life. I’ll be naming names of folks at Rutgers and Lehigh, and people I’ve worked with.

Who in particular at Rutgers?

My advisor and department chair Alfred Kuebler had a profound effect on me. He got me scholarships I knew nothing about because he took an interest in me and cared. He guided me to do my graduate work someplace other than Rutgers because he felt exposure to another set of ideas and circumstances would be good for me. I loved Rutgers and wanted to stay there – I met my wife there – but I listened and followed his advice. It was the right thing to do. Great guidance isn’t always what you want to hear, but what you need to hear.

My chemistry professor, Frank Fornoff, a brilliant person, is another. I hated chemistry, but he got me to like it. He cared how I was doing and we stayed in touch.

These professors had a big impact on me because they did things they didn’t have to do. They dealt with hundreds of students, but always made time to listen to me and provided great guidance. I don’t think we say thank you enough and I’m grateful to these and other influencers in my life.

Do you have any advice for students and budding engineers?

My son worked for me for a couple of summers when he was going to college, and said to me, “Dad, 90% of what we do is common sense. Only 10% is from textbooks. Why is that?”

It’s pretty hard to teach common sense. Book learning is important, but you have to apply common sense. Knowing what you like, what works, how it affects other people will be important, too. Look at the whole picture, and realize that while the end goal is important, how you get there is also important. Remember who you are in life and in your career – what your values are, what drives and motivates you, and how you act. You don’t just switch these things off – you’re you.

Looking back, would you have done anything differently?

I have no regrets about life or business dealings. It’s been great. At the end of the day, if you can look back and say that, that’s really cool.

What did you do for fun at Rutgers?

I was in the Squamish fraternity and became its president my senior year. I liked to play sports – a lot of basketball. I lived in a coed dorm, which is how I met my wife.

What do you do for fun these days?

I write books. We also go to shows and concerts – we recently saw Celine Dion and the Righteous Brothers. There are festivals for everything – you name it, there’s a festival. Through the alumni association I even watched the Rutgers-Purdue basketball game as a group.

You’re a writer, what do you like to read?

I like reading about secret societies like the Knights Templar and Rosicrucians. I like history and enjoyed Brett Baier’s book Three Days at the Brink, about Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin’s alliance. I also like science fiction – I’m a big fan of Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury.

If you were going on vacation tomorrow, where would you go?

This year, we’ll be going out west to visit some national parks. I love Ireland, and want to go back and see more of it sometime.