By Andrea Hansen
Photograph by Stuart Kasdorf
Jason Mewis, President of ENGCOMP, shares the challenges that this engineering firm has faced over the past five years, given the extended downturn in the resource sector. Although the company will soon celebrate its 15th anniversary, Jason still feels like the business is in the startup phase. And perhaps to the founder it always will, since the business has to continually adapt. Jason is optimistic that this experience has strengthened the business and the team but looks forward to a shift from the challenges of recent times.
Jason believes that by investing in a great culture and attracting the best people, he has insulated the business.
The business started with one civil engineer and a Costco desk, scaling up to 40 employees over the first 10 years. So how does a business sustain itself when the economy moves from a boom to more challenging conditions? Jason believes that by investing in a great culture and attracting the best people, he has insulated the business, and that’s a big reason they’ve made it through the tough times.
What is the advantage of building a good culture?
Creating a great place to work and a good culture was always part of the business plan, even though back then no one was talking about the importance of culture. We spend a lot of our time at work and we want people to look forward to coming to work on Monday.
We have a strong focus on team-building initiatives, a social club, corporate sponsored events, and a volunteering committee that drives team-building initiatives outside of work. There were conscious decisions to maintain that at the expense of making the most money at times. There are days, however, when I wonder if I should have tried to make more money to sustain the company when times were slower.
We operate in a volatile industry – there are times when we work hard and stressful periods when there is not enough work. Building our relationships beyond being colleagues helps us to band together when things get tough. We stayed together through the tough times and are ready for the next phase of growth with strong years ahead.
Was there a turning point in the business?
We had targeted and recruited key people for leadership positions and we had the right people on our team. The turning point was when we had to decide whether to focus on the services we offered to the scale of our current team or grow the team to suit the services we were already able to successfully sell. Up until that point, we could only service smaller projects and fewer of them at one time.
We made the decision to grow and to develop capacity. That led to 2012 being our most profitable year and our most challenging in terms of reputation and client satisfaction. The challenges of that year were the catalyst to invest in a project delivery process, which is now a key differentiator for our firm.
You have continued to attract key people to your firm. To sustain your culture and diversity of services, what do you look for in terms of character and competencies when adding to your team?
Communication skills. Being able to interpret what is being said is very important. Charisma and personality and the ability to interact with people are key because we want a diverse mix of people. The individual’s core competency and track record matter because we want to be able to leverage their experience and skill set.
Finally, work ethic must be there. As an example, we look for an individual who is naturally out there in the community contributing after hours and is self-motivated and driven without someone pushing them.
What has been the biggest challenge?
Business is never easy and I don’t expect to get to a place where it is. The biggest challenge is trying to balance the positive or fun elements of our culture with the pressure we’re under as a company to be the highest performing we can be. The market is demanding our services for lower fees and our costs continue to rise at the same time. It’s a challenge we need to solve together with our team.
All that being said, I think that merging high performance with the other elements of our culture is a natural evolution because it will continue to be a great place to work but will also allow our people to achieve their greatest professional potential.
What is your strength as a leader?
I’m fairly good with people, which I think is a strength but can also be a weakness at times. Business leaders have to lead. Sometimes my inclination is to collaborate more than lead. There is a need for collaboration, but I need to lead and make decisions when necessary as well. My leadership style is evolving and something that I am working on and will continue to work on.
One of my other strengths is being both an engineer and entrepreneur. Normally entrepreneurs and engineers tend to make decisions very differently. Pure engineers need to have all the answers to make a calculated decision. Entrepreneurs need to make decisions with whatever information is available and if it’s wrong, adapt. You need to keep moving forward in business
– there are no perfect decisions. But combining my engineering problem-solving abilities with my entrepreneurial mindset does create advantages, in my opinion.
How have you been able to recruit exceptional and highly regarded people?
It goes back to when I was working on my business plan and building a good culture. When your company’s core values resonate with people and they can see as professionals the potential to use their own skills and talents to help grow the company, people want to be part of it. You must be intentional and invest in the culture you want if you are to attract exceptional people looking for a change.
New people with extensive experience elsewhere affirm how our culture is unique. Professional satisfaction is the number one thing to generate and to enjoy yourself and find meaning in your work.
First published in the September 2018 edition of The Business Advisor.