Why Is This Philly-Area Construction Company Teaching Its Workers to Take Deep Breaths?

We visited EDA Contractors to find out how the suburban organization is driving an emotion revolution.

breathing exercises

EDA Contractors in Bensalem has instituted an intensive program that involves breathing exercises and emotional intelligence training to help their employees be happier and more productive. / Photograph courtesy of EDA Contractors

“We’re going to start with one hand on the chest and one hand on the belly button,” Pat DeAngelis announces to the quiet room. “First, breathe three breaths normal like you’d typically breathe. Now take three deep breaths. Notice what happens with your belly and your lungs.”

“Breathe in,” she intones. The 10 people in front of her inhale, eyes closed, concentrating on the simple motion of breathing in and out. “Two more,” she continues. “Oftentimes, when we breathe, we’re breathing more shallow than we should,” she explains. “When we breathe deep, there are lots of little blood vessels at the bottom of our lungs, and we oxygenate those vessels. And then it goes to the rest of our body. And it decreases anxiety. And it makes us calmer.”

“Now just bring your attention to your feet,” she says. “Do a quick body scan. Just know that you’re grounded to the earth through this floor. Notice any tension in your feet and release it. Now just notice your legs — is there any tightness? Any sensation? Any tension? And just release it.” She repeats the same instructions for the abdomen and pelvis, the chest and shoulders, the throat, the face, the head. “When you’re ready,” she says, “you can open your eyes.”

When I blink my eyes open, I’m surprised at what I see. Even though it’s only been a few minutes, Pat DeAngelis has lulled me into thinking I’m in a yoga class, surrounded by other women in exercise tights, ready to destress after a long work day. Instead, I’m sitting in a conference room, the only female at a table of construction workers, many in work boots and jeans and T-shirts emblazoned with the logo of EDA Contractors — a Bensalem-based company transforming the idea of what it means to be intelligent.

In 1999, Ed DeAngelis decided to start a roofing company. The Philly native and St. Joseph’s University graduate had worked his way through the ranks at Montgomeryville’s Belcher Roofing Corporation and had an inkling that he could do this whole construction thing a little bit better. At the time, his goal was to inject some more professionalism into the business and see if he could make a profit while doing it. Since he knew that most start-ups fail in the first few years — of the small businesses founded in America in 2014, 56 percent were still operating in year five — he figured he could really say he’d made it if his namesake company was around after a decade.

That was two decades ago. EDA has expanded from roofing into exteriors more broadly and grown to a workforce of more than 200. Its suburban headquarters wouldn’t be out of place in Silicon Valley. The Inquirer named it a top workplace in the region in 2018 and 2019. The latter has come about because Ed’s well of ambition hasn’t run dry yet. “At one point, I said, ‘I have a company,’” Ed says. “Now I want to build a community.’”

That point was around 2010 or 2011, when Ed decided to make sure EDA’s office culture was getting as much attention as its construction projects. He’d been reading book after book on successful business strategies and realized he needed to not only set an example for his workers but also invest in their health and happiness.

He began defining the company’s values — humility, passion, trust, self-improvement. In 2016, when his managers asked for more structure in this culture space, he brought on his aunt, Patricia, a hospital CEO turned leadership development coach, to teach workshops on a part-time basis. Her methods were rooted in the idea of emotional intelligence (EI), or, as prominent EI coach Justin Bariso defines it, “the ability to make emotions work for you, instead of against you.”

The concept stems from neuroscience and the two neural pathways we can take in response to stimuli: the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is the part of the brain we use when we react emotionally, the shorter, easier option when we don’t pause to think through what’s happening. The prefrontal cortex, the longer route, harbors our more rational responses — easier to access when we take a moment and breathe.

Multiple studies suggest that the prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until about age 25, which is why many people behave more impulsively as teenagers. But no matter how old we are, virtually none of us is taught to think about managing our emotions. Traditionally, men have been brought up to bury their feelings, that a tough and aggressive exterior is the key to respect among their peers, particularly in male-dominated industries. “It’s such a non-man thing to do,” Ed says. “Construction workers aren’t built to think that you’re allowed to do that. You’re supposed to figure it out on your own. But that only works for so long.”

In the conference room, Patricia is asking the room a question: “When in the last two weeks have you completely lost it?”

“Last night,” says Kevin Smith, a burly carpentry foreman with two full sleeves of tattoos. “My five-year-old was having a little discipline trouble in school, and I lost it on her. She doesn’t handle that well. She shuts me down when I do it like that. A couple hours later, when I went to her and spoke to her in a normal tone of voice and not, ‘You better wise the eff up,’ she responded to me better.”

Pat presses further, asking why Smith reacted the way he did.

“What triggered you?” she says.

“Disappointment,” he says.

“What is that from?” she says. “I was disappointed because,” she prompts.

“My first thought was like, ‘This kid’s like me. She’s going to be like me. She’s going to be a discipline problem ‘cuz I was a discipline problem,’” Smith says. “Kind of like a letdown, like what am I doing wrong. So my reaction was to take it out on her immediately. After I calmed down, I spoke to my wife, and my wife handles her a little better than me because we’re like the same exact person, me and my five-year-old.”

“OK, so what triggered you was disappointment. It was not with your daughter. It was your own fear that what?” Pat says. “That she might…”

“Be like me,” Kevin says.

The silence in the conference room was louder than any words as everyone processed what Smith had just said. It was the kind of epiphany that comes about after months of therapy. Here, surrounded by peers, Smith’s vulnerability was thick, binding.

“It’s a very deep trigger for you,” Pat says. “It is a very powerful emotion. The more powerful the emotion, the easier it is to get triggered, which is why it’s so important to breathe. That level of self-awareness, to go backwards and say, ‘Why? ‘Cuz I was disappointed, cuz I’m afraid that she’ll turn out like me.’

“When I look at you, I see a wonderful, wonderful man, a wonderful father, a wonderful husband,” she continues. “That is what I see. A wonderful leader, a wonderful worker, an incredibly supportive human being who is making a massive impact in this world because of decisions you have made to help others. That’s part of you, too. There are many parts of you. You went to this part, this other part. But there’s a lot of other parts that you didn’t think of.”

Smith looks touched and a little uncomfortable.

“What could you have done that would have been more effective?” Pat asks.

“I could have took a breath on the ride home and prepared myself for what would happen and thought about it,” he responds.

“The power is in restraint,” pipes up Jason Merlo, a project manager.

“The power is in restraint,” Pat repeats.

breathing exercises

EDA now makes little cards that say “breathe” to remind their employees to pause before responding. / Photograph by Mary Clare Fischer

The workshops were just the starting line for Ed’s transformation of his company. Last year, EDA launched a leadership academy for all manager positions, during which the workers meet three times a year in large groups, with two small groups — like what I was witnessing in the conference room — in between each bigger session. There are culture classes and town hall meetings that hammer the ideas home even further. EDA now has little cards resembling a gift card that say “Breathe.” People have literally given them to each other when they need a moment to collect themselves.

About nine months ago, Ed convinced Pat, whom EDA’s employees affectionally call “Aunt Pat,” to drop her other clients and come work for him full-time. “He kept saying, ‘I want more,’” Patricia says. “It was hard and scary for me to stop all my other consulting work. But what’s going on here is so profound. It’s insane. This doesn’t go on in other places.”

Sitting in her sizable office, she tells the story of one EDA employee who’d always been an alpha, a dominating person who always had to have the last say. Eventually, she asked him straight up, “What is going on to drive that behavior?” He told her his parents had abandoned him when he was 12 years old, and his mother had come back addicted to hard drugs. “I was the little boy in the corner who wasn’t heard,” he said to her.

Smith, too, had dealt with addiction issues in the past and speaks openly about how much personal growth he’s had at EDA. “I’ve only been here a year and a half and for me to buy in, I had to believe it,” he says. “I would have picked out phoniness. I think I have a pretty good ticker on people. But man, this thing works. I’m happier when I open my eyes in the morning.”

Smith said he started to buy in when a roofer in a wifebeater tank top was speaking at one of the town hall meetings — a regular guy given a platform of authority. John Rakus, EDA’s director of estimating, roofing & waterproofing said he got on board when he started to see the effects of emotional intelligence outside of work. “Everyone starts out with a certain skepticism,” he says. “You could argue EI is about how to talk yourself through a situation and manipulate emotions to get what you want. But when you can see it in your personal life, you realize this isn’t about squares per man. It’s more global. It’s hard to have an honest conversation with yourself and say, ‘I’m a prick, and I have to change that.’ But I haven’t lost it with any family members in the last four years. When you see the impact in your family life, you realize this really isn’t work-related.”

For several others, the clincher was when one man stood up in a meeting while Ed was talking about the importance of safety on EDA’s projects and said, “I think you’re being hypocritical.” If you speak platitudes about safety but then only measure profit, he said, then it smells like hypocrisy. The expressions on many faces in the room said they knew this guy was getting fired. But, instead of getting defensive, Ed used the situation to to start a larger discussion about how the company does things — and the true meaning of success.

Bringing up this moment, tense even in its memory, in front of a reporter loosens the room up, and other people start throwing out their recollections of the incident. All except one, Jimmy Dougherty, a carpentry foreman who’s been sitting silent in the corner. Pat asks him to share his thoughts. He pauses. Then he says, “I like seeing everybody as one. It feels like a team. Feels like a family.”

Everyone marinates in that sentiment. Although I don’t hear it, in that moment, it feels like each person here is letting out a deep breath.