Published December 16, 2008
Volume 16, Number 12

Bellecci & Associates’ President Charts a Steady Course

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

A fourth-generation Californian, Frank Bellecci grew up in Martinez, not far from where his great-grandfather had settled at the turn of the last century. The elder Bellecci had left a coastal fishing village in Sicily, Isola delle Femmine, to escape the Mafia domination spreading through his home region, taking control of jobs and robbing inhabitants of their prospects for a future. The San Francisco Bay Area became his destination of choice for two main reasons: the hospitable waters around the straits of Martinez would support him in his trade as a commercial fisherman, and the moderate climate had a distinctly familiar feel.

Frank may not have inherited his great-grandfather’s fishing genes, but a taste for open space and fresh air is definitely a shared family trait. He remembers accompanying his father, a land surveyor, on projects out in the fields of eastern Contra Costa County from a young age. “I would tag along while he worked,” Bellecci recalls. “It was nice being outside, roaming the hills, seeing the countryside.”

Those early experiences had a strong influence on his ultimate career choice as a civil engineer. It helped that he was always very good with numbers. “Understanding mathematical relationships always came easily to me. Engineering was a natural outgrowth of these skills, just something I found very easy to learn and absorb,” he notes. 

He earned his BS in civil engineering from Santa Clara University in the early 1970s, back before the valley traded its pastoral orchards for the bustle of the emerging silicon industry. Small classes and the opportunity for personal contact with his professors made college a positive experience. After graduation he worked for a good-sized engineering firm in Oakland, but 10 months later the California native picked up and moved to Louisiana. The impetus was a nursing school classmate of his cousin’s, whom he had met several months back during a Mardi Gras trip to New Orleans, and who soon became his wife. Bellecci took a position with a general contractor in Louisiana, but after three years he decided it wasn’t the right fit. The couple returned to northern California, with its greater promise for professional opportunity.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing at home, though. Bellecci found work quickly with a small engineering firm in Benicia, But 18 months later a housing downturn hit, the market tanked, and he was laid off. “In February 1983 there I was with a wife, child, and bills, and without a job,” he confides. Fortunately, he wasn’t without skills, or a rolodex. Business contacts from his father helped him obtain an assortment of engineering and land survey projects, mainly in eastern Contra Costa County, and that’s how his firm got its start.  

As Bellecci & Associates gradually expanded its portfolio and capabilities, it began to acquire some significant projects from land developers. With that came the need to hire other licensed professionals, technical staff, and administrative support. The business grew steadily until the early 90s, when another housing downturn struck. This time it was Bellecci himself who handed out pink slips. “We contracted slightly, but our clientele was varied enough that we only had a 10 percent reduction in staffing.”

In the late 1990s, as the market started to pick up again, Bellecci recognized the firm was at another turning point. Just as his great-grandfather had regularly faced the ebb and flow of the tides, he needed to chart a course through the ups and downs of the civil engineering business in order to take the sting out of the cycles.

“I decided it was in our best interest to diversify our client and geographic base, so we wouldn’t be as tied to the home building industry,” he says. His first step was to bring on Dan Leary as partner. “Dan had worked for me as a young engineer in the early 1990s. When the economy slowed down, he elected to return to school for an MBA. After he graduated, he went to work for a company in San Jose for four to five years. Then, as business started to pick up again, and we were adding people, I invited him to join me. It is a good match,” Bellecci relates.

Diversification also meant getting into the public works arena, which, he notes, many people don’t realize takes a different skill set from home-building. Private developers typically work with contractors they feel are qualified to construct their projects, while public works projects are open to any entity demonstrating it can do the work. 

The multitude of regulatory agencies makes the public arena a special challenge to engineering ingenuity. Conflicts often arise among the various agencies, but each is bound to pursue its own goals. “Each regulatory agency has its own agenda,” observes Bellecci. “As engineers, we have to figure out how to satisfy them all.”

The ability to understand the real goal of the project is the key to that satisfaction, and in Bellecci’s view it is also one of the firm’s special strengths. “In the public area, engineers have to implement the solutions the scientists come up with,” he explains. “We deal with a lot of different specialty engineering aspects--traffic, water supply, drainage, grading issues—which have a lot of specific requirements. Much of our job revolves around figuring out how to devise a solution that substantially resolves everyone’s issues. To do that, we sit down with our clients and the regulatory entities to understand the real goal of their requirements, and then we design to that goal. Our answer may not follow precisely the stated approach to the goal, but we carry the ball across the goal line.” 

With the appropriate staff in place, Bellecci has been able to navigate his firm through the changing tides of the past decade. Its headquarters in Concord has 19 employees.  The Hacienda office, at 4695 Chabot Drive, which Leary opened in 1999, now boasts a staff of nine.

Bellecci’s days are generally divided among three different activities: managing projects, marketing and proposing for new work, and managing the overall business, including finances. The firm is active in most of the Bay Area’s nine counties, along with Sacramento and San Joaquin counties. UC Berkeley, UC Merced, the Alameda Housing Authority, and the San Jose Redevelopment Agency figure among current public works clients. “We do a lot of different types of projects, more than other firms of our size. I enjoy the diversity,” Bellecci comments. 

While home-building has slowed to a trickle—and will remain that way, he opines, “until home prices stabilize”—he sees good news in the proposals for public works projects as part of a second economic stimulus package. “If the projects aren’t enormous, they won’t take too long to get started, and people will be back at work, driving cars, buying boots and gloves, and so on. Then the cycle begins again,” he says. But he is not willing to predict how long it will take. “There are still developers out there with large holdings,” he remarks. “They haven’t stopped work completely, but they have slowed the pace. At some point home-building will come back. It’s just a question of whose crystal ball is clearest.”

With the family heritage of resilience and his own foresight in pursuing diversification, Bellecci will undoubtedly continue to steer the firm on a steady course.


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