2012 Best Civil Engineering Firms to Work For

August 2012 » Features » BEST FIRMS TO WORK FOR
Practices at the top three firms provide ideas for improving employee —€“ and client —€“ satisfaction and retention.
Bob Drake
The Bowers + Kubota Team gives back to the community by volunteering for Adopt-a-Highway in Maui. The firm sponsors Adopt-A-Highway events on three of the Hawaiian Islands.
Clean-ups occur quarterly.

Each year, participants in the Best Civil Engineering Firms to Work For ranking document their best practices for building and maintaining workplaces that help recruit, develop, and retain professionals who, as a result of being satisfied themselves, can consistently satisfy clients beyond expectations. Common characteristics of the best firms include cultivation of a sense of "family;" generous health care insurance and retirement account benefits; competitive salary and bonus programs; professional development, mentoring, and advancement opportunities; wellness programs; business growth strategies; and honest and open approaches to dealing with adversity or problems.

It may be possible to identify some standard best practices of all or most of the firms highlighted this year (see table on page 16); however, each firm provides its own twists, in part dependent on firm size, management style, employee personalities, markets, and local culture. Read on to garner successful ideas from this year's Best Civil Engineering Firms to Work For.

First place: Bowers + Kubota Consulting
What do you do after ranking first in the 2011 Best Civil Engineering Firms to Work For? For Waipahu, Hawaii-based Bowers + Kubota Consulting, the answer remains the same as last year: Look for ways to improve. "Although we were honored to be selected as the Best Civil Engineering Firm to Work For in 2011, we remain committed to a continuous improvement philosophy," said Brian Bowers, president and CEO.

Established in 1980, Bowers + Kubota has 120 employees and focuses on construction management, program and project management, civil site design (pavement design, water distribution, fuel distribution), aviation planning, and architectural design services. Firm improvements during the last year began with a "bottom-to-top" strategic planning process. Bowers coached the process, but volunteer employees from all levels within the firm helped develop a mission statement – "Fulfilling our clients' vision with teamwork and integrity" – vision statement, and core values. The company is currently reviewing its goals and action plans to achieve those goals. Core values include quality, teamwork, "ohana"/family (ohana is a Hawaiian word for family), integrity, and wellness. According to Amy Matsushima, human resources manager, the bottom-to-top process engages employees, promotes employee buy-in, and shows the employee the value they bring to the firm.

"In addition to these work products, this effort has resulted in improved employee engagement and helped the current leadership identify future leaders, which will assist us in our succession plan," Bowers said.

The firm's award-winning wellness program, run by an employee-staffed Wellness Committee, has been another area of focused improvement. "We need to continue to emphasize the importance of healthy life choices and the link between wellness, happiness, and performance," Dexter Kubota, vice president, said. "We are trying to educate our team about the importance of a healthy lifestyle so that the employees and their families can have a higher quality of life. Our firm is typical of the health care crisis facing companies and we need to do our part to help reverse the dangerous trends in obesity and poor health-related choices."

Bowers + Kubota emphasizes the importance of "wellness" by sponsoring company hikes throughout the island. These events are part of the firm's wellness program.

Improvements to Bowers + Kubota's wellness program include an expanded yearly health fair, quarterly and annual awards, sponsorship of company sports teams, and an intranet tracking system. The company provides a $200 wellness reimbursement annually for gym membership, exercise equipment, shoes, etc.

The wellness program also has paid financial dividends that have allowed Bowers + Kubota to continue offering generous insurance benefits. The firm pays 100 percent of premiums for employee and family medical, prescription drug, dental, and vision insurance. Facing a 25-percent increase in insurance premiums, the firm leveraged its wellness program and negotiated with a new insurance company to provide an equivalent policy at a lower cost for 2012 compared with 2011.

"Our new insurance provider is now a full partner in our wellness program and has demonstrated their monetary commitment to support our firm in terms of decreased premiums and rebates to both employees and the firm for preventive actions and healthy choices," Bowers said. "This will assist us in continuing to pay 100 percent of health care premiums for employees and their families. This is a huge benefit for our employees and is consistently cited as a significant retention and recruiting benefit."

Another huge benefit is Bowers + Kubota's profit-sharing/401k plan. The firm provides a 100-percent company match of employee 401k contributions up to 3 percent of salary.

"For the past 10 years, the company has contributed 12 percent of payroll into the [profit-sharing/401k] plan," Bowers said. "In spite of the worst economy since the depression, our firm still contributed 12 percent in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. One of the firm's HR goals is to allow each employee the opportunity to retire financially secure."

Another area of focus for improvement has been staff development and mentoring. During 2011, the firm's fulltime HR manager met individually with each employee to discuss training and development desires and needs. According to Bowers, this resulted in a tracking process as part of each employee's career development. The goal is to have the HR manager meet with each employee at least twice per year to assist them in formulating a training and development plan early in the year and then check on progress in the third quarter.

A formal mentoring program also is in development. Employees were surveyed to collect information for matching potential mentors and protégées. The program was launched in July.

"Bowers + Kubota is a family oriented firm that strives for excellence in all we do," Matsushima said. "We do our best in caring for the employees and their families, as well as showing this same care in meeting the needs of our clients."

Second place: CRW Engineering Group LLC
Operating from a single office in Anchorage, Alaska, CRW Engineering Group provides site design, and civil engineering design services for transportation, water treatment/distribution, wastewater collection/treatment, bulk fuel, and hydrologic/hydraulic projects. The 31-year-old firm currently has about 50 employees and for the last five years has ranked in the top 25 Best Civil Engineering Firms to Work For, previously placing as high as fourth in 2011.

According to Michael Rabe, P.E., chief operating officer, "CRW maintains a small-firm philosophy even though it's one of the top engineering firms in Alaska. We have large, challenging, and cutting-edge projects that keep us stimulated and growing as professionals."

A key part of the firm's culture is termed "CReW," Rabe said. "At CRW, that's another word for family. Like all companies, CRW has had some difficult times," he explained. "Whether it is due to the death of an employee, illness, or an economic downturn, when it comes to adversity, CRW members always step up to the plate to take care of the CRW family. We view adversity as a time for everyone to reflect on our core values. Sometimes the solution is as simple as scheduling a pizza lunch, an impromptu Friday afternoon gathering, or tossing out the business format of the bi-monthly staff meeting and just telling funny stories so that we can all laugh together. Sometimes it's more serious like having grief counselors available to staff or financial advisors to help with managing the 401k in difficult times. It's about dealing with problems honestly and not hiding behind policies and procedures."

Best Firms to Work For judge Gerri King, Ph.D., noted the firm's direct approach: "Their 360-degree performance evaluation system and commitment to deal with issues and concerns immediately helps to ensure a satisfied workforce."

Other efforts to keep a satisfied workforce include providing opportunities for advancement. "Since our current ownership profile consists of relatively young individuals, we need to be able to provide additional ownership opportunities as well as advancement for mid-level staff," Rabe said. "In 2012 we have ratcheted up our business development and marketing efforts to increase ownership and provide more advancement opportunities for our staff."

Owners and employees come together to celebrate CRW's 30th anniversary.

During the last year, CRW invited eligible employees to an offsite luncheon to explain the process of becoming a future owner. In 2011, firm partners hosted a seminar for senior staff on ownership transition opportunities and responsibilities. Additionally, the firm initiated a "highly compensated employee" category to reward exceptional employees and is in the process of establishing a formal mentoring program.

As a multi-year participant, each year CRW uses feedback provided by the Best Firms to Work For employee survey to determine which issues to address in the following year. The anonymous data highlights what the firm does well and what employee concerns are. CRW picks the lowest-scoring category each year and makes that its top priority for soliciting further feedback and improving its working environment.

CRW offers "a true environment of compassion, help, and celebration for both employees and clients," Rabe said. That focus is reflected in CRW's mission statement: "Provide outstanding engineering services through enthusiastic employees, who work in a fun environment and recognize the importance of each and every client."

Third place: Kjeldsen, Sinnock & Neudeck Inc.
From sponsored employee family events to expanding into new market segments, Kjeldsen, Sinnock & Neudeck (KSN) is working hard not only to exceed clients' expectations but also to keep employees motivated during difficult economic times. "Maintaining morale is a big challenge in this difficult economy," admitted Stephen Sinnock, KSN president. "Everyone is anxious about what next month will bring. I think it is a combination of things we do at KSN that helps to keep staff morale high."

A Stockton Concert in the Park provided the venue for a KSN family outing, and offered support for KSN staff member Elizabeth Regan who performed on stage.

KSN is a 30-person, Stockton, Calif-based firm providing engineering and surveying services for public works infrastructure, transportation, commercial, industrial, institutional, and water resources projects.

Information is one key to maintaining employee morale. Regular staff lunches, provided by the company, allow management to make informal presentations on employee benefit updates and company status reports. Additionally, KSN will pay for staff's lunch if an employee wishes to make an informal presentation about a project, a recently attended seminar, a newly learned software program, etc.

A grant award program allows any employee to nominate any other employee for an instant $50 cash award. Award approval is all handled by staff; KSN principals are not involved.

Among fun, morale-building activities, several times during the year KSN sponsors family events such as attending baseball or hockey games or a family picnic. According to Sinnock, one of the staff favorites is the firm's Friday breakfasts. Each employee is assigned several Fridays a year on which he or she must cook or bring breakfast in for the entire office. The employee is reimbursed for all costs associated with the breakfast. "It has become very competitive as to who can prepare the best breakfast, and each week the breakfasts get more and more elaborate," Sinnock said. "Staff now looks forward to coming in Friday mornings to see what their fellow staff member has cooked up.

"All of the above builds a strong family team atmosphere at KSN, where employees not only get to know each other more personally, but staff also gets to know the members of everyone's immediate family," Sinnock said. "We share with each other not only everyone's personal successes, but also the successes of our families. This team building makes for a very close, cohesive, stable group that is better able to cope with the uncertainties of our challenging economy."

However, KSN's benefits go beyond teambuilding. Firm success is shared with employees through periodic and year-end bonuses and company contributions to employee 401k accounts, Sinnock said. The firm also is working to implement a transition plan that provides "meaningful and reasonable opportunities" for younger employees to become involved with firm ownership.

To increase firm success and opportunities, during the last year KSN hired a fulltime project manager with extensive experience in water and wastewater, as well as five part-time construction inspectors. The new hires have expanded KSN's services and expertise, allowing it to competitively pursue more opportunities in the water, wastewater, and construction management markets. This has helped KSN maintain a stable workload and staffing level, Sinnock said.

Mark your calendar for 2013
If your firm didn't apply this year, if you didn't make the list, or even if you are a ranked firm, you are encouraged to apply for the 2013 Best Civil Engineering Firms To Work For. The entry period begins in December 2012!

Rank

Name

Number of
employees

Year est.

Headquarters

Website

1

Bowers + Kubota Consulting

120

1980

Waipahu, Hawaii

www.bowersand
kubota.com

2

CRW Engineering Group LLC

58

1981

Anchorage, Alaska

www.crweng.com

3

Kjeldsen, Sinnock & Neudeck Inc.

25

1956

Stockton, Calif.

www.ksninc.com

4

Simpson Gumpertz & Heger

409

1956

Waltham, Mass.

www.sgh.com

5

Delta Airport Consultants Inc.

56

1978

Richmond, Va.

www.deltaairport.com

6

Wessler Engineering

55

1975

Indianapolis, Ind.

www.wessler
engineering.com

7

Foresite Group, Inc.

44

2003

Norcross, Ga.

www.foresite
groupinc.com

8

Tighe & Bond Inc.

194

1911

Westfield, Mass.

www.tighebond.com

9

West Yost Associates

65

1990

Davis, Calif.

www.westyost.com

10

Schnabel Engineering Inc.

297

1956

Glen Allen, Va.

www.schnabel-eng.com

11

Comprehensive Environmental Inc.

25

1987

Marlborough, Mass.

www.ceiengineers.com

12

Affinis Corporation

23

2001

Overland Park, Ks.

www.affinis.us

13

A. Morton Thomas and Associates, Inc.

273

1955

Rockville, Md.

www.amtengineering.com

14

GUNDA Corporation

27

2000

Houston

www.gundacorp.com

15

DKS Associates

104

1979

Oakland, Calif.

www.dksassociates.com

16

P.W. Grosser Consulting, Inc.

54

1990

Bohemia, N.Y.

www.pwgrosser.com

17

GeoConcepts Engineering, Inc.

50

1999

Ashburn, Va.

www.geoconcepts-
eng.com

18

Ruekert/Mielke

74

1946

Waukesha, Wis.

www.ruekert-mielke.com

19

Hattenburg Dilley & Linnell

49

2000

Anchorage, Alaska

www.hdlalaska.com

20

R&M Consultants Inc.

97

1969

Anchorage, Alaska

www.rmconsult.com

 

Judges

Gerri King, Ph.D

President
Human Dynamics Associates
Concord, N.H.

Saman Chaudry

Chief marketing and communications officer
GHD
San Francisco, CA.

Selection Process
To determine the Best Civil Engineering Firms to Work For rankings, corporate questionnaires and CEO, human resources, and employee surveys from all participants were compiled into a numerical score. Two judges then analyzed the qualitative responses of the top three ranked firms. This year's judges were Gerri King, Ph.D., president, social psychologist and organizational consultant, Human Dynamics Associates Inc., Concord, N.H.; and Saman Chaudry, chief marketing and communications officer, GHD, San Francisco.


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