Anne M. Ellis
Class of 1980, BS
When Anne Ellis was a senior studying civil engineering in the fall of 1979, she returned to the Virginia Tech campus with several strikes against her. Diagnosed with mononucleosis, she couldn’t stay home because her mother’s immune system was also compromised – she had been hospitalized the entire summer with Lupus. Anne couldn’t convalesce with her older sister who was pregnant, and her doctors were nervous about the expectant mother’s exposure to Anne’s illness.
So Ellis traveled on to Blacksburg, and after a week in Montgomery County Hospital, had no energy to attend classes. In a separate trip from her, Anne’s sister visited Paul Torgersen, the dean at the time, and explained the situation. Torgersen gathered Ellis’ professors, informed them of the problem, and they charted an academic rescue plan that allowed Ellis to graduate on time.
“My family will be forever grateful. How many schools would do that? Virginia Tech is and was a big school, but I had a home in civil engineering, and they made sure we succeeded,” said Ellis, today a successful vice president for AECOM, a global provider of professional technical and management support services.
“Virginia Tech gave someone from very humble beginnings a wonderful opportunity, and Virginia Tech will always be a part of my life,” said the executive, who is also the current president of the American Concrete Institute, the first female professional engineer to hold this leadership position.
Ellis explained her “humble beginnings” as being one of four siblings, all of whom were the first generation in her family to attend college. Her father made his living as a salesman and her mother was a secretary to a principal in a rural school. For 16 straight years, they provided for one or more of their children to attend college at Virginia Tech, Virginia Military Institute, Longwood College, or American University. “My parents instilled a drive in us and they were determined we would be college graduates,” Ellis said.
At first, she thought she would become a teacher. But at 16, Ellis was captivated by the vision of a church group advisor who emphatically told her: “No, you are going to become an engineer.” He even visited her parents with his aspirations for Anne, and she was amazed and flattered by his interest in her future. Another friend advocated Virginia Tech’s engineering program, and encouraged her parents to make the drive from Salisbury, Maryland, to the campus.
“We arrived on a beautiful spring day, drove around the Drill Field, and it was a done deal,” Ellis recalled. “I came from a rural, small town, and Virginia Tech was the right match for me.”
She found Virginia Tech very challenging but she survived the “weeding out” process of the freshman class that the engineering school was known for in the late 1970s. Then, in her junior year, she moved into the civil engineering discipline and her views changed. “Wow, this is awesome,” is her memory of finally taking classes in her major.
“I was drawn to the tangible results of civil engineering. We build things. It is fantastic to see the finished product – bridges, buildings – and the impact. With technology evolving, we were entering a dynamic world where we could push the technological frontier and we had the responsibility to share our knowledge and contribute to codes, standards, and professional practice,” Ellis said, adding that the late Herb Moore, one of her professors at the time, was particularly instrumental in instilling this philosophy.
Ellis credited both Moore and Sigfried Holzer, another faculty member in the department who is now retired, with mentoring her. “They knew I was at a disadvantage, having grown up playing with dolls, but they saw that I had the hunger for the discipline and the mathematical ability.”
When Ellis graduated in 1980, the “economy was going gangbusters, and I had so much opportunity,” she said. During her senior year she had flown numerous places for interviews including Houston, Texas, for an oil company position, Seattle, Washington, for a meeting with Boeing, and Long Island, New York, for an opening at Grumman. In the end, she selected a structural engineering position with Parson, Brinckerhoff, Quade & Douglas in the Washington, D.C. area.
After about 18 months, the country’s economy tanked, and Ellis was handed a pink slip. But she bounced back quickly and joined Martin, Cagley & Middlebrook as a project engineer on flagship building projects. Additional exciting projects followed when she joined Dewberry & Davis (now Dewberry) as a project manager. Her portfolio of projects included casinos, hospitals, and many high-rise buildings.
Ellis found the challenges of designing casinos and hospitals particularly exciting, and the Trump Marina (designed for the Hilton and now the Golden Nugget) in Atlantic City was one of her achievements. “The cost of the structure is almost insignificant compared to what goes in the building – theaters, skating rinks, rooftop swimming pools, sophisticated security technology, each presenting unusual challenges from an analysis, design, and construction perspective. In an Atlantic City casino, coin storage necessitated we design framed floors for 2500psf – that is a car per square foot,” Ellis explained.
With Dewberry she worked on a number of local building projects, allowing her to visit the construction site and view the progress frequently.
In 1992, blessed with two children and pregnant with her third child, Ellis decided to take time off. To keep her hand in the profession, she became a contract instructor, working for Total Training Technology (TTT). She helped engineers who needed their professional engineer license (PE) to advance to the next level in their careers. She stayed with them for several years, allowing for all of her children to be in school.
She returned to the full-time workforce in 1996 in the non-profit arena, first for the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association and later for the Portland Cement Association. She represented these non-profits’ interests in the arena of standards and codes.
In addition to this work, Ellis advanced landmark green building regulation and legislation as well as adoption in project specifications of construction personnel certification aimed at improving quality of construction. “During this time, I became aware of and fascinated by the bigger arena – social and political – that impacts our profession,” Ellis said. “I also became acutely aware of legislation” impacting construction.
In 2001, fellow CEE alumnus, Dennis Kamber, also a member of the Academy of Engineering Excellence, convinced Ellis to join Earth Tech, Inc., as a program director. The company, then part of Tyco International, was growing quickly through acquisition and Ellis’ job was in market development supporting the engineering business – much newly acquired and integrated – in organic growth.
“Earth Tech was exciting – growth focused and quite successful,” she said. So when the parent company, Tyco, imploded in 2002 due to the misconduct by its former chairman and CEO Dennis Kozlowski and his senior management team, Ellis described the situation as if “an earthquake hit.” Her career took a surprising turn. She managed some of the fallout, and worked on Capitol Hill and with state legislatures to help address the company’s credibility. This high profile and successful corporate initiative led to additional special and sensitive projects.
The ability to analyze situations and design solutions proved as valuable in business as it did in engineering. In 2008, Earth Tech was acquired by AECOM. Ellis now vice president, Americas & Government, supports special projects for the Fortune 500 executives. She drives business critical initiatives, develops solutions for uncharted and complex challenges, and engages in policy, legislative, and regulatory issues affecting AECOM and its clients and markets.
With the company through its 11-year evolution, she also is responsible for two of AECOM’s advisories: the Government Services Advisory Council and the Global Advisory Board. Comprised of global business and geopolitical leaders, these advisories provide valued insights and advice on entering and growing business in new geographies, business lines and high-growth services building, enhancing and sustaining natural, built, and social environments.
“It is a privilege to work with AECOM’s executive team as well as the Council and Advisory Board members, former prime ministers, secretary general of the UN, military commanders and presidential advisors – leaders who have shaped our world,” said Ellis.
Ellis is engaged in professional and industry activities. She is the co-author of the “Concrete Design and Construction” section of the Standard Handbook for Civil Engineers, Fifth Edition. She is a Fellow of the American Concrete Institute. She serves on the Environmental Technologies Trade Advisory Committee by appointment of the U.S. Secretary of Commerce since 2002. She judged the American Society of Civil Engineers National Concrete Canoe Competition in 2004, 2005, and 2012.
At Virginia Tech, Ellis has served as a member of the advisory boards for the college, the CEE department, and the Alexandria Research Institute.
Ellis and her husband, Marc Lubin, reside in McLean, Virginia. She has three children: Jake and Olivia are Virginia Tech Hokies, and Julie graduated from Hunter College in New York City. Her blended family includes Marc’s children: Alexander, Emily, Caroline, and her husband, Alan.
Class of: 1980
Year Inducted into Academy: 2013