Alumnus Biren Patel innovates through simplicity

The founder of Biren Patel Engineering is ahead of the curve
Biren Patel

The boss of Biren Patel Engineering can hold board meetings in the mirror.

Biren Patel (MBA ’12) is chief engineer, director of marketing, culture minister, finance watchdog, real estate manager and first vice president of R&D. He skips right over the inefficiencies that often put a drag on decision-making, like asking permission and too much pondering.

What has Patel learned from going one-on-one with Patel?

Mostly, that business is not a single-file monolith — you can take it where it needs to go. He also discovered he is a capable double-thinker, able to merge technical intellect with marketing savvy.

Biren Patel Engineering (BPE) designs and redesigns substations — key to handling evolving sources of power on the grid, from nuclear, to natural gas, to wind, to solar, to coal. His company strengthens the grid to handle the additional power consumption demanded in the last five years, but he is also a clever biz-builder.

Patel started building BPE before he even finished the Terry Professional MBA. “My first day of the Terry program left me feeling empowered, like I could do anything,” he says. “The next day, I turned in my two-week notice at the company I was working for so I could start my own company.

“The plan had been to at least finish the Terry MBA, then start my own firm. I felt like I was ready that first week.”

Unlike some entrepreneurs, Patel didn’t have to unlearn bad mechanics of running his own business. He got the ins and outs and do’s and don’ts on the fly, and he says Terry faculty were with him every step of his startup. “They all stayed with me after class to work through things,” Patel says. “I was learning something and immediately using it.”

The first thing he learned was to construct an ethos — a mission statement. Founded in 2011, BPE does not explain itself by answering “What we do” or “How we do it,” but rather, “Why we do it.”

Check out the company’s website. The tagline? Making life simple.

“The reason our business exists is because we wanted to find a simpler way for us and for our clients,” Patel says. “Everything we do is circled around making life simple, and that’s why we do what we do.”

His MBA taught Patel to use analogies, the art of turning someone from passive to active listener. BPE, he says, is what the California roll was to the evolution of sushi in American culture. People liked the idea of food neatly rolled into rice, he says, but when that food was raw fish they hesitated, so they started with a cooked roll.

Sashimi took some getting used to. Kind of like working from home.

Nearly a decade before the COVID pandemic made working in pajamas a thing, Patel embraced remote work, and it helped his company flourish.

“What we do hasn’t changed,” he says. “How we did it changed.”

Working on the grid is not an alluring option for electrical engineers just out of school, Patel says. They want to work for Tesla or a snazzy startup, or climb the ladder to VP at a big corporation. But some engineers value lifestyle as much as work. And some are abruptly told the next step in the company is a job in another city.

Patel told them, “Hey, I don’t care where you work.” That was 2012. Now BPE has 30 engineers in-house — but in their own houses.

Call Patel a cosmopolitan engineer. He has employees who live in Alabama and in Turkey. Because he embraced working from home before it was a phenomenon, BPE was ready to jump to the next iteration, which was working from home in another country. BPE has 60 leased employees in Colombia, another curve-bending initiative.

It’s also another example of the sushi effect. “Rather than go to another country to do engineering work, BPE hopes to ease folks into outsourcing by providing American lead engineers and American client contacts,” says Patel.

Off-shoring saved Patel’s firm. In 2018, supply chain mavens at big power companies that were using smaller vendors, like BPE, pivoted to a policy of engineer-of-choice. Instead of dealing with 40 firms, they wanted five, and those five had to have substantial manpower.

Even though BPE was doing quality work, it could have been a disaster. Patel found a way to make his company bigger by entering into a carefully calculated partnership with a firm in South America.

“There’s not enough engineers in this country that are willing to do what we do. The math does not add up,” he says. “So we’re in Colombia, where there are fantastic engineering schools and they are working from home where it is the same time zone, and the same holidays, like Christmas and Easter.”

The common acronym for his industry is EE, for electrical engineer, but in the first few years of his business, Patel stretched himself to EEE, electrical engineer entrepreneur. He invented ways to market his firm with clever advertising hacks. “We had a Terry class where we had to come up with ways to market that were memorable but didn’t cost a whole lot,” he explains.

Instead of buying an $800 placement to squeeze his logo on a sign with everyone else at a trade show in downtown Atlanta, Patel arrived for the conference at 5:30 a.m. and grabbed the parking space closest to the front doors of the hotel conference center. His car door was emblazoned with the BPE logo, and every event-goer had to walk by.

On a job, workers wear hard hats, which are usually white. Patel and his people wear black hard hats.

As culture minister, Patel wants to make sure BPE is not too busy trying to build its business that it does not pay enough attention to the customers it has.

“I tell all of my employees to be highly responsive,” he says. “We try to be perfect, but that’s not realistic. However, it is realistic to have the attitude of, drop what you’re doing and attend to the customer’s needs as fast as you can and stay with them until the problem is solved. This is a low-cost way to build good will with the customer and something so simple to do.”

These are the lessons the boss gives the boss in the mirror every morning. Making life simple.