Victoria Cerami’s life changed forever when she was just 27 years old.
That was when her father, founder of the acoustical engineering firm Cerami and Associates, died suddenly of a heart attack. His partner had left the firm only the year before, Cerami recalled, and at the time she had been eager to reassure her father that the company would continue to succeed.
“I said, don’t worry, pop, it’ll be fine. It’s you and me,” she said. “I had no idea what I was talking about.”
Acoustical engineers play an obscure but important role in in the design of buildings and interiors, a role that is amplified (literally) as structures increase in scale.
“Any high-rise that was going up anywhere, they called my father,” Cerami said.
Armed with her father’s notes, his old briefcase and his college ring from Pratt, Cerami, who had studied mechanical engineering at the University of Hartford, set out to keep the company’s clients on board.
One of her first projects was Canary Warf in London, working with Olympia and York. She was called on to approve a mock-up of a mechanical room that would be re-created 40 times throughout the complex, knowing that how the vibrations of the mechanical systems are handled in the building could make or break its leasing potential.
Compared to the work she had been doing before her father’s death, she said, it was like going straight from college baseball to playing for the Yankees.
“I had to dig deep,” she said. “I think today, I don’t know how I did it.” In her first year in charge of the company, she established a relationship with the renowned architecture and design firm, Gensler, and expanded Cerami and Associates’ service to include working on interiors. This new service line allowed Cerami and Associates to weather the economic downturn of the late eighties, when new construction waned.
Again, in hindsight, Cerami emphasizes how naive her young self seems to the accomplished business owner she has become. The economics of the change, she says, were all over her head.
“I had no idea how that shift went from base-building to interiors,” she said. “But somehow or another I got onto that wave and we corrected, we adjusted and we continued on.”
The firm had a staff of six when Cerami took the helm in 1986. Today it employees 56 people, and has expanded its offering to include not only acoustical engineering services, but also audiovisual and multimedia technology services. Cerami and Associates has worked on the CNN Studios at Time Warner Center and the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Current projects include One World Trade Center, Hudson Yards, the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas and the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai.
In the early 90’s she moved the company’s office from Long Island City to Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
“That was another pivot-point for the company,” she said. “I wouldn’t say clients looked at us differently, buy maybe they did. We were hiring a different kind of people, kids weren’t getting off the subway at Queensborough Plaza and saying, what is this place.”
Three quarters of the employees in Cerami and Associates’ acoustical department are musicians. Cerami herself played the accordion when she was growing up in Queens (“My father thought I could be very popular if I played the accordion,”) but the last time she used her instrument it was paired with a toy organ-grinder’s monkey as part of her Halloween costume.
Instead, in her spare time the CEO competes in triathlons and serves on the boards of a number of organizations, including the New York Building Congress. She lives in Connecticut and has three sons; the youngest two are still in college.
Cerami is also currently working towards an executive MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management – fulfilling a long-standing dream of studying at the prestigious university.
To this day, Cerami says, her father is “the sun, the moon and the stars to me.” But she also recognizes the process she went through all those years ago, as she took on the mantel of head of the company in her own right — taking the reputation that came with her family’s name as a starting point and growing it into something new for a new generation of real estate.
“Everyone knew my father, and people referred to me as ‘Vito’s daughter,’” she said. “I was ‘Vito’s daughter’ and then I became ‘Victoria, Vito’s daughter.’ And then ultimately I became ‘Victoria.’”