This NJIT Grad Is President and CEO of a Major Engineering Firm

NJIT Graduate David Gockel is President and CEO of Langan Engineering.

In 1978, David Gockel was a civil engineering major at NJIT who hadn’t yet defined his interests. During his sophomore year, though, he took a class that piqued his curiosity and put him on the path to professional success.

The class, Soil Mechanics and Foundation Design, taught by Professor Moynihan, introduced him to geotechnical engineering, a branch of civil engineering concerned with the mechanical properties of soils. Gockel was intrigued by the endless varieties of subsurface soil. Given such variety, geotechnical engineers must confront new challenges each time they design a foundation. And Gockel was the kind of student who liked to be challenged.

“Moynihan’s class was a turning point for me,” recalls Gockel. “It really got me jazzed about soil mechanics and by the end of that semester I knew what I wanted to do.”

Gockel excelled at NJIT and was awarded a fellowship to study geotechnical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, where he earned his master’s. In 1982, he returned to the East Coast to take a job as a staff engineer at Langan. He had considered staying in the Bay Area, but the economy was then in the grip of a persistent recession, so he couldn’t pass up a solid job offer. These days, Gockel is President and CEO of Langan, a major engineering and environmental firm based in Elmwood Park, N.J.

When he started at Langan, the firm had 36 employees and reached $2.5 million in business. Today, under Gockel’s leadership, Langan has 800 employees and is on track this year to do $175 million in business.

“NJIT gave me the educational foundation that helped me win a fellowship to U.C. Berkeley, which allowed me start my career,” says Gockel. “NJIT offers students a solid education that is a good blend of theory and practice. When you start working, that well-rounded education really helps you.”

As a result of Langan’s success and its continued support of the university, Langan will receive the Newark College of Engineering (NCE) 2014 Outstanding Industry Partnership Award. Gockel will receive the award on the company’s behalf.

In this interview, Gockel talks about how he used his NJIT education to ascend in his career and make Langan a global firm.

How’d you get interested in civil engineering?

When I was young, I didn’t know that engineers designed things. I liked construction and just wanted to build, so I wanted to be a carpenter.  It was a counselor at my high school who suggested I study civil engineering.

Why did you enroll at NJIT?

Out of high school, I was still thinking about construction. I went to Middlesex County College and earned an associate’s degree in civil engineering technology. I then looked into Rutgers University, Stevens Institute of Technology and NJIT, ultimately deciding that NJIT had the best program for me.

How did you ascend from an entry-level job to CEO?

I worked very, very hard.  I was also very lucky to have partners, meaning my fellow employees at Langan. They have had much to do with my success. Engineering is about teamwork, so I know that many others helped my career.

As CEO, what are your main responsibilities?

We have 23 offices around the world: 18 in the U.S. and five overseas. I manage the leaders of our global organization. I have a few different buckets of responsibility, such as overseeing our major clients and projects and managing our business operations.  I also lead our strategic initiatives, such as our foray into the oil and gas industry and our acquisition of a major firm in California in 2010. I’ve led the firm during times of robust economic growth, but more importantly, I led it through the recessionary years of 2009 and 2010.

Can you talk about some of the major projects Langan has done?

We’ve done major projects all across America, and abroad, but I can give you two examples of projects in New Jersey. We designed the foundation for Met Life Stadium, the former Giants Stadium. We also did the traffic analyses and design for the stadium and did the civil engineering for the utilities and storm-water management.  In Newark, we handled all of the engineering and environmental services for the Prudential Center, the home of the New Jersey Devils. We did the foundation design and the support of the arena. 

What are your ties to NJIT?

We now have 50 NJIT grads working for us, and they are great employees. I serve on NJIT’s Board of Overseers and Langan has recently forged a research agreement with NJIT.  Stewart Abrams, a vice president here, and NJIT Professor Michel Boufadel co-direct Langan’s Remediation Technology Program.  It’s based at NJIT’s Center of Natural Resources Development and Protection. Together, Langan and NJIT have been doing research on clean-up technologies for some of our clients, achieving a degree of quality and control not available if this work was subcontracted.

What is it like to have your company named NCE Outstanding Industry Partner?

It feels great.  It makes me feel even more connected to my college. I travel a lot for my job, and can’t get to campus as much as I’d like.  But I’m really looking forward to attending the Salute to Engineering awards ceremony.  As I said, NJIT gave me the education that allowed me to do well professionally.

As an engineer and a business leader, do you have any advice to students?

To be successful, you have to work very, very hard.  I’ll also say that my definition of a leader is not someone who succeeds, but someone who creates success for those around him. And if you are an engineering student, it is important to know that engineers have tremendous success in all aspects of business, not just engineering.  Engineers are hard workers, they are problem solvers, and they are ethical. The last bit of advice I have is that you should never underestimate the importance of communication -- especially the art of listening.

By Robert Florida