CONVERSATIONS WITH CYNTHIA: Each quarter Cynthia speaks with leaders in the A/E/C industry on topics that echo the theme of the issue.
At Boston-based Nitsch Engineering, engaging all employees in planning leads to success, even in challenging economic times. Founded in 1989, Nitsch Engineering works in 17 states and five countries. The firm provides civil/site engineering, transportation engineering, land surveying, planning and GIS services. Certified as a Women-owned Business Enterprise (WBE), Nitsch focuses on both public and private clients. Ninety-two percent of the firm’s civil engineers are LEED APs and more than three-quarters of the firm’s transportation engineers are LEED Green Associates.FMI interviewed founding principal and chairman Judy Nitsch, PE, LEED AP BD+C, and president/CEO Lisa Brothers, PE, LEED AP BD+C.
Cynthia: When meeting perspective customers for the first time, how do you describe Nitsch Engineering?
Judy: It depends on who the customers are, what they might need, and their objectives. We have many different disciplines. We do surveying and transportation engineering mostly locally. We do civil engineering locally and around the world, so it depends on the service, the geography and what the client may need.
Lisa: People definitely understand that Nitsch Engineering is a progressive firm and that we think outside the box. I like to tell people that we are not just your typical engineering and land-surveying firm, that we are truly collaborative and client-focused. People like to work with us because we are fun to work with, and our firm is good at developing good working relationships and maintaining them.
Cynthia: How is Nitsch Engineering different from other engineering firms?
Judy: One of the things we try to do is to keep our staff engaged and happy by leveraging the interesting things that we do, and I think we are good at that. We work at speaking at conferences, engaging our clients to be on panels with us, putting on programs that our clients need to know about, with the underlying theme being that they become more aware of the cool things that we do. As engineers, we are not your typical linear-thinking engineers; we are much more collaborative. The other day in a meeting, we were talking about how we are perceived more as designers instead of engineers in some of our disciplines and we like that. In fact, it was an “ah-ha” moment for us knowing that it really is one of our differentiators. We are at the table as designers with the architects, owners and landscape architects when they are planning the projects. Our planning and engineering groups are considered designers, meaning we are not just given something and told to engineer it — we are part of the project planning,and that is one of the ways we are able to maintain that boutique focus of our company. The past few years have seen a terrible recession, but we actually grew 15% in 2010, and our 2011 was even better. So with working our strategic and marketing plans, investing in our staff, investing and knowing what is going on in the industry and the marketplace — I think all of those rolled up help inform why we are doing as well as we are, despite what is going on in the general economy.
Lisa: Another example of how we think differently is our land surveyors’ use of laser scanning. They are finding unique and innovative ways to use laser scanning on pieces of projects for which people wouldn’t normally think to use laser scanners. Our land surveyors are trying to deliver a better product to the client using the new tools they have available. Again, we are trying to be a savvy advocate and bring different things to the table to make our clients think differently. What we offer may be a better solution for what they are trying to do. Our land surveying group is doing a great job with its laser scanner technology in that regard.
Cynthia: What are your individual roles and responsibilities?
Lisa: I became CEO and president on Jan. 1, 2011. My role is to develop and implement strategic vision for the company and manage the overall operations and resources of the firm to ensure we maintain our profitability and integrity. I also want to create an environment where people really want to come to work and have challenging projects to work on. We have many high-level smart employees, and they want a workplace that is engaging and challenging.
Judy: My title is founding principal and chairman of the board. I focus on client relations and business development. We are known as a very marketing-oriented firm and are really good at being out there with our clients, whether it’s me talking to other principals or our staff talking to their counterparts, using that zipper effect. Lisa tends to focus on the public-sector side and I on the private-sector side. Each of us ventures into the other areas too, but when we were developing the firm those were our two main areas of focus, and we have a divide-and-conquer sort of attitude about how we go about building business for the company.
Cynthia: You talk about being “savvy advocates” for the clients. What does that mean?
Lisa: For us it’s an internal term that we developed when we were rebranding in 2006 due to the company name change. We realized that our staff acted as our customers’ “savvy advocates” because they really take the time to understand our clients’ needs and put forward solutions to their problems that they don’t even know they have, and that differentiates us from our competitors. We put everything on the table and try to educate and inform our clients even if they are difficult conversations, because we know that it is going to be better in the long term. We coined the term “savvy advocates” to remind our staff that we are always on the lookout for the client.
Cynthia: Can you give us an example?
Judy: When we were rebranding and changed the company name five years ago, we talked about what a “savvy advocate” is and really drilled home for everybody the need to understand the client objectives, not just what they are asking for. For example, an architect might call and say, “I need a topographic survey for a project.” Our surveyors would say, “Let’s talk to the owner. If they are going to need a property line survey, then they probably will need a title insurance survey as well.” Instead of just doing a topographic survey right now, we should do enough now to do the property line, the title insurance and the topographic survey, and it will save time and money in the long run for the client.
Cynthia: Excellent. So how do you communicate with and participate in the market and the industry?
Lisa: This goes back to the core of who we are. Since the beginning of the company, Judy and I have always had leadership positions within the industry, and as she says, we have a divide- and-conquer attitude. Judy and I take different public- and private-sector clients and get involved in their industries. For instance, I was president of the Women’s Transportation Seminar here in Boston and was president of the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) of Massachusetts. We also encourage our staff to be involved in local industries in leadership positions. Also, within my community, I was on the Conservation Committee for nine years. I am very active in my college, UMass Lowell, where I am on the Chancellor’s Advisory Board and the College of Engineering Advisory Board. We want to be “out there” as it helps with our firm’s name recognition — it gets us in front of clients and involved in our industry to make sure that we know what’s happening and have an idea what might be affecting our business. That gets drilled down throughout all of the levels of our company. We really want people to be involved in organizations, not just be a member, but be a committee chair, be able to move up the ranks on a board because we want to be out there — it’s important.
Judy: Our tag line is “building better communities with you”. We have many different communities. As Lisa said, it’s the communities in which we live and work; it’s the communities like outreach to introduce girls to engineering careers; but mostly it’s the community of our clients. This includes every potential client organization out there — from NAIOP to IFMA to CREW (Commercial Real Estate Women) Network, and like Lisa said WTS and ACEC — we have people involved. In our marketing plan there is a champion for every organization, and we expect all project managers and above to be involved in some degree in a client organization. We tell our staff that, as professionals, they should be involved in the American Society of Civil Engineers, the ITE or whatever their industry association is, but they also need to be involved in at least one client association. So transportation engineers are involved in the public works associations. I am on the national board for CREW Network; one of our engineers has been on the programs committee for NAIOP for many years. We try to be where our clients are, which means that people have many obligations outside of their normal workday, but it also is how we get our name and brand out there, and opportunities come our way because of those relationships.
Lisa: Metrics are important, but we have the philosophy that if you just pay attention to metrics and you don’t have people doing the things that are important, but not necessarily urgent, you can’t keep moving forward. So we play that balance between our people’s billability and what they are doing outside the company and give them the time they need to make the commitments to the organizations that we want them involved in.
Judy: We give them the technical support and the administrative help. In the early days of the company, we would encourage people to chair a committee and hold the committee meetings in our office. Other committee members would come in our office and say, “Oh my goodness, you’re a lot bigger than I thought,” or “You have better equipment than we do.” They are always impressed when they come to our office. One of our engineers chairs the Public Strategies Committee for NEWIRE (New England Women in Real Estate.) They meet every month in our office, and we provide the space and breakfast. It’s good for us too.
Cynthia: How do you engage others in the innovation and future planning in the firm?
Judy: One of my favorite quotes is Steven Covey’s “begin with the end in mind”. To engage others in the firm, we sit down and talk about what are we trying to accomplish and then that will inform what we actually do. In 2009 we had a year-long celebration for our 20th anniversary. We asked, “What are the things that we want to accomplish as part of celebrating 20 years in business?” We said we want happier, more engaged employees; we want clients to know us better and use more of our services; we want to grow the firm; and we want our name out there for the more interesting things that we do. So we had all these goals and what we wound up doing, since it was a recession, was we packaged it to be a yearlong celebration.
Instead of being your typical engineers and “let’s have a cocktail party in the office one night”, we did at least one thing, and sometimes several things, every single month. We posted the activities on our website; we engaged clients and our team. We held four client seminars that provided AIA learning units and ASLA credits to those who attended. I think we had budgeted 40 people for each of the four seminars, and we had more than 100 at one of them. It was tremendously successful and based upon our savvy advocate concept. We focus on what the client needs. They came and learned. One session was on land surveying; one was on green/complete streets from our transportation group; one on sustainable site design for our civil group; one on storm water master planning; and the last one was on leadership and ownership management transitions. That was to help us too, but we were targeting the next-generation principals who make teaming decisions. That “beginning with the end in mind focus” and informing how you go about doing things has been very successful for us.
Lisa: We engaged many people within the premise of the 20th anniversary celebration. We ended the year with a visioning session and had a wonderful speaker come in and help us with that. We tend to open up our planning sessions to a cross section of the firm so we do not have just a top-down planning session. We look for people who are going to contribute to the process. We have a plan, put the plan in place and have quarterly check-ins where everybody in the company is invited to come. We meet in the training room over lunch and have an action plan that supports the strategic plan that we update quarterly.
Judy: Routinely, we have half of the company attending.
Lisa: Yes — half of the company shows up and we have an action plan that supports the strategic plan of the company. We look for volunteers to take on different roles and try to stress that to be a leader you don’t have to be in a management position — you can do things as a junior engineer that are of leadership nature. It’s really encouraging to see those people come to the quarterly check-ins and, as Judy mentioned, that our marketing plans support our strategic plan. Within the marketing plan, there are individual goals for different people within the company and, depending on one’s position and what he or she likes or doesn’t like, we craft the goals to his or her strengths.
We don’t expect somebody who may write really well and have a strong technical background to be out greeting people at an evening event, so we try to play to what each employee is passionate about so he or she feels engaged and contributes to the overall success of the company. We work hard to communicate that — we are very transparent and have an open-book management. Our financials are shared with the entire company, so people really know where we are and where we’re headed. That is the way we have run the company for 22 years.
Judy: We have many brainstorming sessions with people — it doesn’t come just from the top down, where Lisa and I decide we are going to do something. No, we have conversations about it to engage people so they understand what we are trying to accomplish, and they are part of how we go about doing that.
Lisa: And then we support them. We put our money where our mouth is. We know if Nitsch wants to be considered a specialist, we need to do the research to support that effort. We are always trying to think about how we can be on the leading edge of a new service or technology that supports the services we provide. We have brainstorming sessions, figure out how we can accomplish it and then actually support that effort.
Cynthia: How do you continue to challenge and grow your own individual thinking?
Judy: One of the things that I think we do really well is helping people become better at what they do. Instead of taking the things you are mediocre at and improving them to be average, we take the things that you like to do and you are good at and become really great at them.
We do a lot of training and we encourage people to go to conferences. One of the things that we have done for many, many, many years is we have book clubs in the office for different groups. We have done Ford Harding’s “Rain Making”, I think three times. One of the favorite books is one that Lisa brought in called “The Leadership Moment”. One that resonated with me recently was “Aligning the Stars”, which is a reminder that any rainmaker needs to spend 10% of his or her time on star-making — you need to bring people along. We don’t just sort of sit with the status quo — we always have huge to-do lists and know what are we trying to do or how are we going to get there. We try to get people credentialed as well; for example, 92% of our civil engineers are LEED Accredited Professionals. Three-quarters of our transportation engineers are LEED Green Associates. We encourage our people to get their professional engineer license or PLS. We support them financially. We try to help people become credentialed, responsible professionals. We are not one of those firms where the president is the only one that stamps drawings; everybody is responsible for his or her own projects.
Lisa: I love to learn and I think anybody who says he or she is not continually learning needs to step back and think about what that really means. For me personally, to continue to challenge and grow, I throw myself in with other leaders across different industries. I am trying not to stay solely within our industry. I think you get greater exposure when you are with different people from different industries. So I am trying to do that more in my role as president and CEO. One of the things I did as ACEC Massachusetts president was to establish a senior leadership round-table conversation in which we bring together the senior leaders in Massachusetts and facilitate the conversation around a “hot topic” we want to discuss.
We share high-level information at those meetings, which has been really helpful. I also like to attend EFCG’s conference in New York, because I love its survey that covers all across our industry. Of course, ACEC is always something that’s important to go to, but within the company, we definitely have targeted places we send people. We have sent people to programs here in Massachusetts that ACEC puts on for developing leaders. One of them is called Odyssey, which focuses on becoming more self-aware of your leadership style and emerging leadership abilities. I personally attended the Senior Executive Institute training from ACEC at a national level, which was industry-specific. I am always looking for a new challenge and a new way to surround myself with different people and try to create those opportunities for our staff to do the same thing.
Cynthia: How will industry firms need to change and innovate to be successful in the future?
Lisa: Everybody knows of the huge consolidation of firms within our industry. We have been approached many times to be bought, but for right now, we like what we are doing. With the consolidation of the huge mega-firms, the midsized and regional firms need to look at their differentiators and what is going to make people hire them instead of the bigger, full-service firms that can provide everything under one roof, probably at a cheaper price too. So for us it’s how do we maintain our specialty boutique firm. We are in a new world. People may think we are going to go back to the way things were before the recession, but that is not going to happen. We all need to rethink the future; things are never going to back to what they were. Our clients are looking for ways to do things smarter and cheaper. The firms that can help facilitate clients and help them figure out how to get funding, how to do Private-Public Partnerships, and how to be wiser with their funds are the ones that are going to succeed. You can’t just approach projects and clients the same way because they have too many more and different constraints on their funding than they had in the past. It will be a challenge moving forward. How we respond to that as an industry is going to be interesting.
Cynthia: We would like to thank you for your time and sharing how Nitsch Engineering strives to be different from other engineering firms by thinking outside the box.
Cynthia Paul is a managing director at FMI Corporation and a practice leader for business development. She works with industry leaders to help create a strategic vision in order to position their companies to capture market share and grow profitably. She may be reached at 303.398.7206 or via email at email@example.com.