The Chairman's Corner - A Look Back at 2019 and What Lies Ahead for 2020
Engineering Influence welcomed ACEC Board Chair Mitch Simpler back to the show for his quarterly Chairman's Corner podcast. In this episode, Mitch looks back on a successful year for ACEC and gives his thoughts on what 2020 could bring for ACEC and the engineering industry.
Host: Welcome to Engineering Influence, a podcast by the American Council of Engineering Companies. We're very pleased today to welcome back to the show, our board chair, Mitch, Simpler for his quarterly chairman's corner podcast. And now that we're in the second week of a new year and a new decade, it's a good time to look back a bit on 2019 on what was a very busy and successful year for ACEC and maybe you know, a little bit of look forward to what the new year might bring. So Mitch, welcome back to the show.
Mitch Simpler: Well, thank you for having me back and Happy New Year to you and to all the listeners.
Host: Yes. Happy New Year.
Mitch Simpler: And you know, my wife gets very depressed at the end of the year and I tell her, I said, this is an opportunity. It's, it's, you've gotta look for it as these are opportunities and challenges not to be to be depressing, but to be enlightening and energizing. So here we are.
Speaker 2: Happy new year. Yeah. And really when I came on in May of last year with ACEC, it was right at the conference in, in Washington and my introduction of course to ACEC but then also you, you assumed the role officially is as board chair a lot's happened since. What are your big takeaways from the year for the industry and from the association?
Mitch Simpler: Well, and so let's just talk about the year in general. It was, it's been a very unique year because as you know, we had a, a, a previous president, CEO had retired after 20 years. So as I came on board as the chair and when I was actually chair elect, we brought in a whole new management team for ACC national, which has been both the a blessing and a bit of a curse. The curse is that there was not a lot of intellectual an institutional knowledge that was carried forward. And that's actually part of the blessing. We did not have a lot of baggage, but the short version is having a new staff starting with Linda Bauer Darr - she brought in as a CEO, new president, but then we brought in a new CEO, CFO and, and new legislative representation a lot of, a lot of people that needed to get brought up to speed as to who we are and what we do.
Mitch Simpler: And then on top of that for reasons that I'll make clear later, I hope is the fact that we determined that we needed to upgrade and actually replace our strategic plan. So we've really had a lot of major challenges for the team, both the volunteer leadership, which was new. That would be me and Manish, the good news is we were able to adjust the bylaws that allow the previous chair to stay on executive committee to help smooth the transition out. And then having Charlie G on board who is now the chair-elect gave us a really clear set of guidance and guiding principle leaders that can help transition the organization into the future. But some, some real big challenges. And I think all had been met with enthusiasm and the team has done a terrific job to to move the needles across the board for ACEC, both on membership relationship building between the member offices and national opening up the national doors so that the states and the member firms really get a better understanding of who ACEC is, what our role is and what our responsibilities are and what we do for them.
Host: Yeah, I kind of felt that change coming in. Of course, I didn't have a lot of the institutional knowledge you know, coming in to ACEC, but I noticed that you had, that feeling of change was afoot and you had pieces being moved on the table, but really no sense of disruption. That energy, that enthusiasm was evident when I came on board. And of course, you know, Linda's been a real force in that moving this forward and kind of expanding our scope and looking bigger and trying to raise the profile of the industry. But I noticed that seemed to be kind of universal, you know - let's move this forward, and let's keep things going. So it's been an interesting ride that this level of enthusiasm hasn't waned at all. And has kind of opened new doors. Of course. You know, one of the perfect examples of that I think was the first time that we really as a large team went to a FIDIC conference of course this time in Mexico City where we had policy. Of course I came down to do podcasts. You, you were there and you were presented at the, at, at the conferences. Well as did Linda. And that was a new experience. You know, what did you think of that?
Mitch Simpler: I t was my first FIDIC conference for reasons that I don't recall. I was not able to make the previous, it is sort of, it's customary for the incoming chair as well as the chair to attend the FIDIC conferences. FIDIC for those listeners who aren't familiar with it. It is essentially the international version of ACEC and ACEC U.S. is one of 102 member countries that are members of FIDIC. So aside from the fact that it was my first FIDIC convention I have to tell you, it was truly exciting this year since the conference took place in Mexico City. It was my first time there. It was challenging because I don't speak Spanish and neither did many of the people there.
Mitch Simpler: Thank goodness is many of them speak English so that, that really made it well. But, but it's really an opportunity for ACEC to collaborate with over 102 other countries that all represent the FIDIC organization and it really you communicate on a truly global scale. And it was also important for us to be there this year because the new president of FIDIC is Bill Howard who is from CD Smith, CDM Smith, I guess it is who was sworn as a new president's two year term. So the now the leadership of FIDIC is an American. Now - Bill has served on their board for a number of years. People who remember Greg Thompolis - a former chair of ACEC national - also was president of FIDIC several years ago. So ACC has played and will continue to play a major role on the FIDIC front. But it was interesting as a member of ACEC to go down there and listen to the issues that they struggle with, many of which are the same issues that we struggle with at ACEC.
Mitch Simpler: They have the - and that's the issue of commoditization of engineering. Quality based selection. You know, how, how do you, how do you pick the right team for the right reasons. And so these are all the same missions that ACEC has FIDIC has, they have one additional challenge, which is, and we have sorta been blessed in the U S and we're kind of a bit of an a bubble but issues of corruption and, and intellectual property theft and all kinds of things that we have sort of dismissed over the years here. Because we have a much more open society. Those issues are still very prevalent at the international level. And FIDIC's challenge has been to try to open that up and and make the international market as clear and open a place for business as it is here in the U.S. And so they have their own challenges.
Mitch Simpler: The fact that we have significant American representation in FIDIC both at the leadership level as well as on the FIDIC's probably single biggest claim to fame is the fact that they have prepared a number of international contracts for design professionals. These contracts have become sort of the gold standard now. And many of the documents that we use as part of ACEC out of the EJDC have come out of a basis from the FIDIC format. So very interesting. Met some amazing people down there. We were able to as ACEC also I guess I'll say reopen or reinvigorate our eyes invigorates the communication between our counterparts here in North America as well as those in South America and particularly Central America and Mexico. There's a number of things that we think that we have more in common than in difference. They look to the U.S., FIDIC does as well as our South American counterparts. Look to the U.S. as true leaders from a technology design practice and best business practices. You know, where the, where the where the sort of the envy of most of the world and they are looking to us to help them raise their standards. And and we certainly made it very clear that we're open for business and would be willing and, and would love to help.
Host: I remember the enthusiasm of our Mexican counterparts and talking to us and, and reestablishing those ties and it was, it was, it, you know, very optimistic. We share so many common interests both economically and then also in the need for infrastructure investment. You can see how those markets can mutually benefit each other. And it's good for ACEC to be able to open that door back open for collaboration.
Mitch Simpler: Yeah. And it was, it was refreshing the, the fact that the Mexican counterpart for ACEC, that whole team came up to Chicago for our fall meeting and and continued the conversation. So this is, it's very encouraging and and I look forward to see how it how it develops.
Host: Absolutely. it was a valuable conference. And it was, it was especially interesting the subject that you presented on was technology. And how that's kind of changing the way that the industry is working and the way that the new cadre of engineers coming up through the ranks and in the university and, and the younger professionals are able to use technology to do things that were, you know, time consuming and inconceivable, you know, only, you know, a decade or so more go. And then how that technology is, is, you know, how it's being spread across the world. Because one of the things about FIDIC is that they include Western Europe, of course, North America Asia, but then also some developing areas of the world that don't have access to that same level of technology. And the point you made about corruption and the issues of IP and really just doing business in an above board way.
Host: You know, it's interesting to hear the stories from people in, you know, Europe and Asia. Then also hearing the perspectives from countries like Kenya and, and some others where, where they want to have the same access, but they just don't because their economies are still developing. They don't have the access to the same technologies, the same legal provisions that American firms have. And then the other side of the coin is American firms that might want to be doing business in those regions. What do they have to be cognizant of and aware of? And it was really interesting to have that exchange and being able to be part of that firsthand. So it was extremely good conference.
Mitch Simpler: Yeah, I agree. And, and, and for us to get a better perspective on the globe, the global business of what ACEC represents. And as you said, Europe has a definite approach and they are embracing technology, but there are a lot of countries which just simply cannot. And they turn to us as, as true technology leaders, what can we do to help them leverage whatever aptitudes they have to be better, better designers and better producers. And I think that using the FIDIC forum is a terrific way for that information exchange to take place. And it does and it was really just really exciting.
Host: Yeah, absolutely. And another big issue or topic of focus for us, of course, something that you alluded to a little bit earlier and has been kind of a a driving force throughout the year has been the development of that new strategic plan, which was adopted in Chicago officially. But that's, you know, the adoption is only the public part of it. There has been a lot of work behind the scenes that have been going on for a long time, which you have been deeply involved in. And it's going to set the stage for how ACEC moves forward and grows as an association and represents the dynamic and changing industry. You know, what, what's your and of course right now we're in the implementation phases of that plan which, which was still ongoing. What are your main thoughts about the plan itself? You know, how it came about and where we are really with, with, you know, the implementation phase right now?
Mitch Simpler: Yeah. Well, no, it's a good question and, and that certainly let me digress real quick. So here I take over as chair. We decide that we're going to have, we're going to have a new budget, a three year budget. We have a new team of our paid professional staff starting with Linda and, and then decide, why we're at it, why don't we do a new strategic plan? You've got nothing else to do on your plate. So what the heck - and I'm being a little facetious. It was a lot. It was a lot of moving parts but, but certainly the strategic plan adoption the new strategic plan adoption I think has been a real success story. Manish Kothari was chair of ACEC before me and when I served as chair elect, I also served on the planning cabinet.
Mitch Simpler: Manish challenged us on the planning cabinet to decide whether the current strategic plan needed to be updated or replaced. The planning cabinet unanimously recommended to replace the current plan as it was, the plan had really become more operational than it was strategic. And that's when the fun really began. We put together an incredible team of diverse leaders from a member firms both across the country and in different markets sectors, male and female. We had, we tried to get as diverse a group as we possibly get. The result from that process was that we developed a brand new strategic plan and that was, as you said, it was presented to the board of directors at the fall conference in Chicago. And the plan was unanimously adopted by the board. It was presented by one of the, one of our members as well as our, our strategic planning chairman, Mr. Greg Kelly.
Mitch Simpler: The plan has been branded as being both bold and audacious and as a refreshing change, I guess from the previous plans. But a real hurdle as you pointed out was the fact that we now need to roll this plan out with real operational and implementation worthy goals. And that's where the fun really began. So part of the process that we're involved in now and we were going to be presenting the next stage at the EXCOM meeting in January is to put together the both the implementation details as well as the performance metrics that we're going to be able to use to measure the success of our collective performance on execution of the plan. So that's really where we are. My hope is to be able to present certainly this a pretty fleshed out skeleton of the implementation plan to the full board at the spring meeting in DC.
Host: And being part of that, you know, the really the, the, I guess the think tank portion of it where we have all the, you know, a diverse kind of set of individuals and in groups within planning cabinet, then also internal staff talking about these goals and objectives. You know, it's, it's going to be interesting to see how it, how it all comes together because without going into detail, there are some themes and some ideas that are rising to the surface that are going to be, I think incorporated into the implementation and it's going to be some exciting, exciting things ahead. So yeah, it's been a very interesting time watching this evolve and develop from the plan, getting it approved. And now moving into this more, you know, more actionable stage of putting meat on the bones as far as, you know, those, those steps to actually get this in from paper into the reality of implementation.
Host: But it's critically important. I think that having this kind of a guiding strategic document really helps crystallize this idea that ACEC can really become the preeminent entity that's really in the popular thought space, both in public debate on the Hill, but then also talking to a larger audiences, the American people other industries about the importance of, of engineering. And this is the kind of document that allows ACEC to kind of get that accomplished. And it's going to be interesting to see how it, how it all develops. And yeah, spring's going to be very interesting to see what is going to be presented in Washington, DC.
Mitch Simpler: And I agree on everything you've just stated, but to me the, one of the key elements of the strategic plan and it's mentioned throughout is the role to become thought leaders and our role as, as the the harbinger of thought leadership in the engineering industry. And that's certainly one of our strategic goals across all of the, the various components of the plan. But it's becoming the true thought leadership developing thought leadership, executing thought leadership and being the resource for thought leadership in the engineering community. And we've been doing it and now we've tried to make it a little more, I'll use my term official that that's our strategic goal. And and it is, as you say, very, very exciting. It was a huge lift and I, and I will tell you between the volunteers and the staff, it has been an incredible process. And then my hats are off to all of you who participated because it is a it's a real challenge. To do it right it takes an incredible amount of time and patience and dedication and that has been measured across the board from everyone who's been involved. And I thank all each and every one of them for doing it - you included
Host: Well, thank you. And it's, I'll tell you the thought leadership piece is something that we're looking at and trying to figure out how best to package and create kind of a platform for thought leadership. But it all really comes down to the people listening to this podcast, our members. You know, we have the great benefit of having some extremely hefty talent out there people who are leading in their fields and are experts and our ability to communicate a thought leadership really bubbles up from the members that we have. So, you know, if there's anyone out there who has an idea or as a who or is, you know, hey, I've been thinking about this one issue that I really think we can talk about, or I can, I can talk about, reach out to us, because we'd love to get that in a place where people can see it.
Host: And our best position from ACEC is to be that amplifier of our, the voices of our membership. So anybody out there with an idea, something that they're an expert on, something that they want to talk about, let us know, because we'd like to help you with that. I'm gonna put in that little plug there because you know, we're, you know, in DC you know, we're, we're, we are staffers. We're, we're communicators. We're lobbyists, you know, association people we're not day to day engineers. And, and our talent is, is really with the States and with our membership. So don't be shy, contact us. So I, you know, really the big tent pole items for 2019 something that we haven't really had the opportunity to talk to you about before on the, on the show.
Host: But it was really interesting was your trip to Asia as part of a commerce delegation to Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam with Secretary Wilbur Ross, Commerce Secretary Ross to talk about American business and what can be done to bring open markets of course in Asia. And then also to create opportunities for U.S. Firms. You were part of that, you had meetings with presidents ambassadors and high level staff in those countries. What were your main takeaways? What were your thoughts on, on the success of that trip?
Mitch Simpler: Well, you know I'll kind of back it up a little bit. Much like the FIDIC meeting, the meeting in, in the trade mission to Southeast Asia was very exciting and incredibly challenging. First, the members of the trade mission in addition to Wilbur Ross and his team from the commerce department was the import export bank, the overseas private investment corporation, otherwise known as OPIC, the U.S. Agency for International Development, otherwise known as USAID, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, USTDA and the Department of State. Those are the government's side of the trade mission. And on the private side we had firms that represent gas companies, Boeing, Citibank, Lockheed Martin, but more specifically ACEC and Manish Kothari and I - Manish being the previous chair of ACEC, my immediate predecessor and I were the only two professionals representing professional design firms on the and the trade delegation. And it was really a unique opportunity for us and the fact that we were representing 7,000 member firms and that that little detail was not lost on anyone on the mission that we actually had more a team behind us.
Mitch Simpler: In addition to the 700,000 members that represent the firms ACEC was really very, very well positioned and we were, as you pointed out, we were able to meet with key ministry level members as well as the presidents and premiers from Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand. Our simple message was that we all, the members of ACEC are open for business with each and every one of these countries. Provided we can be assured that we will be paid in full and in a reasonable period of time that our intellectual property will be honored and respected, which has been sort of the biggest problem with billing work, particularly in Southeast Asia is that you can do design work and next thing you know, your design is popping up everywhere and you're not involved because they have essentially taken your IP, your intellectual property. We - Manish and I, were convinced that our message was heard and well received by all the members of leadership within these countries who also recognize that ACEC represents the best of the best design firms on a global scale.
Mitch Simpler: And if you want us to be able to work on your projects in those countries, they need to be clear and open about how we're working, how we get paid and, and how our intellectual properties will be respected. And that message was made very loud and clear and very well received. And our hope both through the commerce department as well as through the individual firms that are doing actively doing work over there now that we will be able to continue the conversation and and get more firms actively involved. They are all doing incredibly well from a, from an economic development standpoint. And it certainly would behove any and every American firm to get involved to the extent that they are able, because it is, it is a booming economy and will soon be, it's right now that the Asian countries represent the third largest market segment and third largest economy. And we need to be more actively involved. My hope is that we will.
Host: Yeah, I think it's, it's, you know, there's a great, and again, you know, ACEC being part of that trip you know, with how many companies and professionals that we represent and that, that, that massive force behind that name. It's also important to kind of point out that as far as it, as the, as the trade mission went, we were the only professional trade association that was part of the trip. Everybody else was part of a company or....
Mitch Simpler: Yes, they were there with a very pointed mission to sell their specific product. And we were selling an idea and I'll tell you, it was, it was very well received. And by the way, including the companies that were there saying, you know, we need to talk to you guys about help design facilities for us over here because they all want to look. It's a huge economic booming area. Right now one of the big issues was the fact that there is an average of $40 billion trade deficit in favor of those countries against the U.S. and getting us companies to invest and building projects in Southeast Asia, but using U.S. firms and us products was really part of the mission statement. And I, and I, that was not lost on anyone there, including the companies that accompanied us to Southeast Asia using American companies to do their design and build and construction and using American products and the whole thing. It was, there was, it was a home run.
Host: I mean when it was Tesla, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, I mean some and some of the larger players in the oil and gas, natural gas fields. I mean, and also creating those inroads with those companies that are going to be making those investments. And then from a national security and more strategic position is that, you know, the big, of course name on the block there is China and there's a, there's, you know, with, with the belt and road initiatives that China's doing and their investments in the region that those countries are looking for other partners in the landscape.
Mitch Simpler: They are looking for alternatives, because I think the gloss has worn off the belt and road concept and they're now beginning to realize that that's not a good spot for them to be in. Because China has really started tightening, no pun intended, tightening their belt on those countries and they're saying, look, we need alternatives. We need, we need better solutions from outside of China. And we were there to help.
Mitch Simpler: By the way, having both the city there as well as USAID and the Import-Export bank gave them funding opportunities that they would have otherwise not had.
Host: I can tell you from you know, the reciprocity side. I mean, after you came back in short order, before the end of the year, we had about two or three meetings inside our DC office with representatives from the region and including Vietnam who were very interested in talking to us because like you said, you know, we are the gold standard. We have that knowledge base. We have that just that ability to improve of course their own practices and to influence how they are shaping the rules and regulations that govern the work that's done in the region. But then also having that ability to create and build the best infrastructure possible for a market that is just growing by leaps and bounds. And, and for any company out there that's listening any CEO who's saying, you know, it might be interesting to get involved in international work with a country in the region you know, reach out to us because Dan Hilton on our team did a very good job of, of helping to provide the background, of course, to help you guys get out there and make it a successful meeting.
Host: But, you know, we are tied in with still USAID, the Export-Import bank those government entities we have a very good relationship with them and we can help firms out there that earth that are looking at getting involved in those markets. And we can be that door opener. We can be that convener to help make those relationships happen. So if you're interested in it, please reach out because you have a lot, you know your membership in ACEC goes beyond just you know, what you see day to day. There's a lot of work going on to on the international front. So, you know, take advantage of that.
Mitch Simpler: Absolutely agree. As I said, very exciting. Clearly an opportunity and a number of our member firms are already actively involved in Southeast Asia and this is really an opportunity for other firms now to be able to piggyback on the successes that have already taken place.
Host: Yeah. so that's, that's it was a busy year both domestically and internationally, a lot of things are going to be going into 2020 that, that were started of course in 2019. The strategic plan being one I guess what's your outlook? I mean, not just from ACEC, but also as a leader and an executive in the industry. You know, what's 2020 looking like from your seat in the C suite?
Mitch Simpler: Well, from my lips to God's ears I'm, I'll use the term cautiously optimistic. You know, I think everyone is, is feeling the success over the last several years, but particularly for 19, we would love for it to continue. But those of us who've been in business long enough, and this is my 43rd year with JBB and 33 years as a partner I've seen economic booms and I've seen economic busts. And just when you think when things are going good and they're going to be sustained, you know, the floor drops out. So I'll use my term cautiously optimistic for 2020. We certainly have, we as a firm we as a region have a, just a real boom going on in the Northeast construction boom in the, in the engineering industry is is feeling it in a very good way.
Mitch Simpler: We have reasonable expectations that this will certainly continue through 2020. We know, obviously this is an election year and that's when, you know, funny things happen and somebody says the wrong thing at the right time and next, now the market takes a tank. So my term cautiously optimistic is just that for that reason, I've ever reason to believe that it will continue going. Certainly in a matter of similar, not necessarily, I'm not sure it will continue at this a fevered pitch, but, but certainly continue at reasonable growth. And the reports that I've gotten back through my network as chair certainly through my fellow CEOs is that this, I think this cautious optimism is, is pretty much spread out across the country. And it's, that's good news. Anything we can do to continue that process we should be doing. Absolutely. Tell me what that is. I'll be happy to do it.
Host: Well, it's going to be an interesting year. I, without question, when ever you have it you know an election year like this, it's always going to be very interesting. And we're going to be very active in it from our position to help the candidates understand the importance of the engineering industry to see all the policies that are out there that benefit us from, from, you know, issues related to workforce, immigration resiliency, climate change, things like that, that, you know, we have a part to play. And we have a voice and we want to have that voice included in the policy debate. And that's going to be up to us to make sure that happens.
Mitch Simpler: Right. And this is the what's the right word? A a not so honest plug for the PAC, but this is where the PAC becomes so critical. And then the good news is I was, I got my, my notice that the PAC has exceeded $1 million again for 2019 and congratulations to all of those who contributed. It is an absolute, probably the single best arrow we in our quiver for the success of ACEC members and our advocacy program is the PAC. And this year will be the year that it was ever going to be something worthwhile to have. It's a PAC during this presidential election. And so kudos to all of those who, who contributed kudos to ACEC for being able to continue to grow the PAC and use it in our advocacy and amount of, to which it was intended. And that's, this year will be that test year. It's, it's disappointing that for the last four years, we've not been able to get an infrastructure bill passed. But, but we certainly have every reason to believe that this year could be that year.
Host: And again, as it happened with the 2016 election, infrastructure was more than just a back burner issue. It did come to the forefront. Hopefully that happens again. And, and the PAC enables us to keep that conversation going and to introduce, of course, our industry to more Members of Congress. Of course, the significant number of freshmen that are in Congress right now who are going to be up for reelection you know, they're going to want to know what's happening. And the PAC, the townhouse that we have of course in Washington right now, which Dave Bender is overseeing being able to have people in and to have those meetings, it's critically important. So yes, thank you for all who have donated. And the PAC is a, is a potent weapon. And, and, and it's, it's said a lot about in DC that, that, you know having one of that size is the kind of thing that separates you from a crowd and, and has you and your message taken a lot more seriously. So breaking that million Mark is, is a, is a big landmark that really sets us up for for a good 2020.
Mitch Simpler: All right. Fingers crossed.
Host: Yeah. Fingers crossed.
Host: Exactly. I guess that that kind of you know, I think that's a good note to, to kinda end on. It's a cautiously optimistic for 2020. Anything else that you want to add before we sign off?
Mitch Simpler: No, other than it's been a real pleasure to work both with Jeff, with you and the entire ACEC team at national and you guys make us all look good, but it is not lost on any one of us. That it is you, the, the staff that make ACEC the success story that it is. And thank you all. And I wish everyone a very happy, healthy and safe new year. And I will see you actually on Wednesday.
Host: Yes, absolutely. And thank you for that. And we will see you for our EXCOMM training and the year is kicking off with a fast pace and a very packed January. So we really look forward to an exciting year ahead and talking to you in the future. And thank you very much for taking the time, Mitch, and Happy New Year.
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