Engineering a path to the C-suite

When the Chesapeake-Elizabeth Sewage Treatment Plant goes offline by the end of 2021, Jay Bernas EMBA ’13 will have indirectly saved the Hampton Roads Sanitation Department (HRSD) more than $100 million Net Present Value (NPV) over the next 30 years. Bernas led the team responsible for determining whether the plant closure was feasible. It was one of the first projects he worked on after completing the Executive MBA program, and he believes the problem would have been impossible to solve had it not been for the education he received at William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business.

“It was a really complex problem where we knew we could do it from an engineering standpoint, but quantitatively we couldn’t figure out a way to convince the organization that it was a good idea,” he explains.

The recommendation to close the over 50-year-old plant came after Bernas built a financial model he learned while in the Executive MBA program to show the cost-effectiveness of diverting flow to another plant that had capacity.

“By using everything that I learned at William & Mary, from the finance piece, to the strategic planning piece, to the change management piece – all of those things really came together, and we convinced the organization that it was a good idea and we would save a lot of money,” he says.

An Engineer's Path to Business School

Bernas began his career in civil engineering, a practical choice over pursuing a degree in finance at Old Dominion University.

“I loved finance but I also love engineering,” he says. “I didn’t think in the ‘90s when I was going to college that I had a good chance of getting a finance job on Wall Street so I chose engineering because I was pretty sure I could get a job.”

Initially, Bernas worked as a consultant for engineering firms. But after a while, he says he found the work uninspiring, so in 2005 he joined HRSD as the Chief of Planning and Analysis. In this role, he worked on capital improvement projects, executing the cash flow planning for hundreds of millions of dollars allocated towards building new or improving the existing infrastructure of large treatment plants, pipelines, and pump stations.

“I was involved in the closest thing that you can get involved in related to finance within the engineering profession,” he explains. “I had to have a good understanding of the cost and schedule of the projects but also have an understanding of the engineering.”

His work reignited his interest in finance and the business aspect of HRSD, but it wasn’t until his mentor began the Executive MBA program at the Mason School that Bernas considered going back for his degree.

Bernas’s mentor was Steve de Mik, the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of HRSD who raved about the William & Mary program. HRSD offered to cover the cost of tuition for both Bernas and his mentor, and recently HRSD has become an official member of the Mason School’s Corporate Partnership Program.  Employees of Corporate Partner companies receive a reduced tuition rate for the Executive MBA or Flex MBA programs, among other benefits. Since then, Bernas says that HRSD has sponsored numerous employees to apply to the program under his recommendation.

“The return on investment is just immeasurable,” he says.

Entering the C-Suite

Bernas was attracted to William & Mary’s Executive MBA program for several reasons besides the nominal cost incurred as a corporate-sponsored student. Being married with two small children at the time, he needed a program that was within driving distance to his home and his work. And he liked the rich history the university offers. But above all else, he found that the quantitative focus of the program appealed to him as an engineer.

“[For example, the] marketing class wasn’t just about advertising. It was more about using data to make good decisions,” he explains.

Once in the program, however, Bernas discovered the biggest takeaway was learning how to think differently and approach a problem from different perspectives. He attributes his transformative experience to his professors and fellow students.

“The fact that in the Executive MBA program you start with the same cohort that you end with is just really special,” he says. “We all came from so many different backgrounds. You may have somebody from the military or marketing, a Senior Vice-President, or a C-suite executive with a unique perspective; it just adds so much color to the conversation when talking about different issues or case studies.”

Bernas completed the program in 2013 and continued his work managing capital improvement projects at HRSD for two more years. Then, in 2015, the executive suite at HRSD experienced a shake-up when the Chief of Operations retired. Bernas’s mentor was asked to backfill as the interim operations executive. He notes this as significant because the head of operations normally comes from an engineering background; at the time, it was atypical for someone with a finance background to manage that arm of the organization. 

The move proved fruitful for HRSD who benefitted from the different perspectives a financial leader brought to the role. Eventually, the move became permanent and Bernas had an opportunity to apply for the newly vacated CFO position. He believes that despite coming from a primarily engineering background, his William & Mary MBA, coupled with the success of the plant closure project, helped his application. It also didn’t hurt that the organization now had a fresh perspective on hiring candidates for positions they would have in the past been considered unconventional. After a nationwide search, Bernas was offered the job.

 “One of my philosophies in life has always been “be prepared for luck,” he says. “What that means to me is always do your best, always treat people like how you would want to be treated, be really ambitious, and just be prepared for anything that comes along in life. That is what happened to me.”

Since assuming the position of CFO, Bernas has used his engineering background and his MBA knowledge to drive value within HRSD. The organization received three Ratings Agency upgrades in the last two years, which is an indicator of having strong finances. In the last five years, he oversaw the issuance of $786 million in fixed and variable rate bonds. And in August 2019, the agency saved almost $30 million NPV on a taxable refunding.

Dedication to public service

In addition to investing a significant amount of his career working for a public agency, Bernas served as the Chairman of the Planning Commission for the City of Virginia Beach for eight years. He currently serves on the board of trustees for the $1.4 billion Virginia Investment Pool, and last year wrapped up four years of service on the school board for St. Gregory’s the Great Catholic School. He says his path into service is directly correlated to the jobs he held in the private sector early on in his career.

“I didn’t see the vision of the consulting firms I was working for in terms of really doing something for our community and for our world,” he explains. “Whereas when I got my job with the city of Virginia Beach, all of the hours and hard work I put in was for my community. That’s where I was really inspired by public service. It’s much more fulfilling, and every night I went home feeling like I had done something for my community.”

Bernas actively engages with industry leaders, speaking at national conferences, and serving as a panelist at the Fitch Ratings Agency conference. He also gives back to his organization by helping his HRSD colleagues whenever he can with opportunities to grow and learn so that they too can be given a chance for upward mobility just as he was when he applied for the CFO role. He cites this pay-it-forward mentality as one of his proudest accomplishments.

“Over the 15 years I’ve been at HRSD, I’ve tried to do anything I can to help employees stay motivated,” he says. “They’re the ones doing it all, and I’m just there to help facilitate their growth by providing opportunities.”