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Is my employer healthy?
3

Is my employer healthy?

Is my employer healthy?

(OP)
Here’s the Reader’s Digest version of my situation. I invite your comments on the health of the business model and the direction of the company. This discussion is independent of Covid.

My employer is in New England providing civil consulting engineering services including civil design, state and local permitting, storm water and septic engineering, surveying, traffic engineering, architectural services, and then there’s me with the structural engineering.

I’ve been with the firm for 25 years. I am the office’s sole structural engineer(PE). The firm has a good local reputation with repeat clients, despite increasing competition from neighboring areas. I run the technical part of my department largely autonomously. As an employee, things are pretty good with some minor gripes. What follows are my concerns. I just want to put out there that it is not all bad.

So here goes.
The firm has 12 employees. This includes two part time admins, one licensed surveyor, one site tech, four PEs and two soon-to-be PEs. One could describe the firm as “top heavy” with respect to the expensive PE and common business models. There’s no “workers” to support the PEs, really. With a big, beautiful office building, the firm has a fair amount of overhead.

The company is known to be expensive. The PEs get billed at similar rates equal to owners of other consultants. More and more often, the firm is loosing out to competitors on price.

The former owner is now a part-time employee with lots of info. A great way to transition into retirement. He deserves it. He sold the business to one of the employee PEs. This new owner appears to be loving the income and the company is running with the momentum established by the former owner. He was operating at a staff level engineer prior to the purchase. He has taken over the company but arrives late, leaves early, and doesn’t come in on weekends. He doesn’t appear to be doing anything to learn about how to run a business and doesn’t appear to be working to drum up more business. While waiting for the phone to ring, he complains about lack of work.
There are no sour grapes here; we all get along well.

Biggie: The architecture department has issues. It gets by but is rooted in basic, industrial “box-building” architecture. The architecture department will have major issues when the former owner fully retires in the near future. There isn’t the work to go full AE with the hire of an experienced, licensed architect. The architecture department was a happenstance “add on” to the company several years ago and is venturing into territory it doesn’t belong beyond industrial buildings because they are chasing dollars.

The summary, about me:
I’ve been working hard, including overtime while business has been slow. I’ve been successful and my clients are happy. I’m told little to no raises because the firm as a whole isn’t making the level of money the owners want. I’m floating the firm, financially.
NO other architects will hire me/us for structural engineering because we directly compete with them with our mediocre architectural department.
While I’m busting ass trying to make client’s happy, the mediocrity of the arch department may soil my name by association, I fear. This situation is only going to get worse with the departure of the old boss. The arch is in my office several times a day asking questions about architectural details just because I have experience he doesn’t. He fears asking the former owner. I’m not in a position to remedy this situation.

I worry about the health and business model of the firm it is unlikely to change. Maybe it will suffer until getting bought by a competitor. Hit me up with any questions. I couldn’t spell it all out here.

I look forward to your responses.


RE: Is my employer healthy?

Quote (VTengr)

I couldn’t spell it all out here.

It feels like you did and that deep down you know the answer to your question.

RE: Is my employer healthy?

I believe you know the answer to your own question, and I believe my assessment would be the same as yours.

RE: Is my employer healthy?

I agree, either have a 'come-to-Jesus' moment with the new owner(s) to explain what you feel and how you see where the company is heading. If that doesn't help (or you don't 'survive' the experience), you'll know that it's time to move on. Good luck.

John R. Baker, P.E. (ret)
EX-Product 'Evangelist'
Irvine, CA
Siemens PLM:
UG/NX Museum:

The secret of life is not finding someone to live with
It's finding someone you can't live without

RE: Is my employer healthy?

If you don't already have it, save up at least 3 months of income, find a lawyer, and set up shop. If you're single-handedly floating a firm of that size and working independently, it sounds like it's time for you to start realizing those profits. Loyalty is great, but don't fall on your new boss's sword for him.

RE: Is my employer healthy?

I think I would say that unless you're a special kind of individual (not in skill, but in risk), you should quietly start looking for another job. Some people (not me) are made to run their own shop and others aren't.
You're in a sweet spot, hiring wise. Enough experience to know what's up, but you have enough time left that it's worth investing in you. I'd say it's time to make the decision before it's made for you.

RE: Is my employer healthy?

I agree with the others; your long post indicates that you've thought deeply about this for a while and you know in the back of your head what the answer is. It's possible that talking to the new owner, or even the old owner, might help, but the odds are a bit long, I think.

We once hired a hotshot designer who was really good, for about 2 months; then, it was coming in around 10, taking 2-hr lunches, and leaving around 4. Admonishments from HR apparently had no effect and he was fired a short time later. Some people just weren't meant to run companies; the hardest part is figuring that out early enough to not get yourself into trouble. One piece of ammunition you can get is the year-over-year sales/revenue for your company and see what that's saying. Also, look at your win ratio for bids and your book to bill ratio.

Revenue is one story, but win ratio tells you how badly you are losing on bids, and too low a book to bill ratio tells you what you probably already know.

TTFN (ta ta for now)
I can do absolutely anything. I'm an expert! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKorP55Aqvg
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RE: Is my employer healthy?

Most likely, if they had you sign some sort of non-compete that stops you from working for another established firm, it's unenforceable.

RE: Is my employer healthy?

I assume you verified this, but someone coming in late and leaving early also could mean they work from home or are in meetings.

I guess you have a good idea of how much work is coming in and how unhappy old clients may be. So you see the writing on the wall. I'd talk to the old owner first since he has more experience and would feel less offended if you talk about the situation with the new owner. Then talk to the new owner.
Always have your resume ready. Always be on the lookout.

RE: Is my employer healthy?

For the last three or four years before I retired, I never left for the office before nine and always left for home before four. Being on the West coast, when you get up in the morning, the rest of the western world had already been at work for hours and my email was already filling up. Since I had my company laptop in my own docking station on my desk, I just logged in, check my mail, replied where I needed, made calls and so on and when I had caught up, I showered and headed for the office. Of course, I also missed the morning rush hour traffic. This is why I would leave before four so as to miss the going home rush. Of course, as soon as I got home, I would put the laptop back on the dock and check my mail that was starting to come in from the Pacific region. And I would check things before I went to bed just in case the real early risers in Eastern Europe was looking for help. And on top of that, I worked from home all day on Fridays. I had actually been doing that for years. When my wife's mother had a stroke, my wife retired early to take care of her. We finally moved her into our house and I worked it out with my boss that I could work at home on Friday to give my wife a day off. I would stay home and work and keep an eye on grandma and my wife could go out and have lunch with her friends one day a week. After my mother-in-law died, I just kept to my old schedule as I only ended-up working for another year or so.

John R. Baker, P.E. (ret)
EX-Product 'Evangelist'
Irvine, CA
Siemens PLM:
UG/NX Museum:

The secret of life is not finding someone to live with
It's finding someone you can't live without

RE: Is my employer healthy?

(OP)
OP here.

Thanks, everyone for the thoughtful responses.

Yes, this situation is not new and I’ve been dwelling on this for years. I’m quite sure that the new owner is only working on the company when he’s there. We are all pretty close in a small town.

I don’t see a resolution to the office situation. I’ve had talks with both owners about other issues in the office and they are firm and/or confident in their positions with respect to those issues. The direction of the company, how the new owner spends his time and money, and management of the company are off limits. Past conversations have led me to doubt my own feelings but there are co-workers (plural) that see what I see. This post is part of a reality-check effort.

I treat my desk as if it was my own. Some clients are calling me directly instead of going through the bosses. I work independently and stamp my own drawings. If I’m working that hard, like someone above said, I might as well be doing it for myself. As you might have guessed, I am considering going out on my own as a one-man show. It not about potentially more money, but more internal to me as a person and an engineer. I have the means and family support to endure the start up pains. Is it time?

Thanks, all.

RE: Is my employer healthy?

If you've got clients calling you directly ... especially if it's on YOUR phone as opposed to the company's phone! ... It's time.

I did that 12 years ago and never looked back.

RE: Is my employer healthy?

Assuming you are correct that the new owner is not working outside the office and that is why they show up late and leave early, then I think you are correct in that being a red flag. I am not sure its possible to verify the owners whereabouts but keep in mind they could be out visiting clients and trying to hustle up more business.

I have noticed over the years (I am 52) that some people come into an ownership position and are more interested in reaping the owner benefits instead of doing owner things. Rereading that is an awkward sentence but what I mean is its possible this person thinks they can ride momentum of the business and treat it like passive investment income. Do you have any idea of the structure of the deal to sell? Usually a new owners financial exposure will prevent such a scenario but if they bought the business with "found" money or they have little equity at stake then its more likely the new owner is not cut out for the position and the business will slowly die off.

RE: Is my employer healthy?

Another bit of speculation - the new owner is trying to ride the wave as long as it lasts, and will then either buckle down and lead the business himself or hire a qualified manager. You mentioned that he was a staff level engineer before ownership - that can mean a lot of things, but if you're saying he was just the back-room calculations guy then you'd better hope he's going to hire somebody competent - and sufficiently connected.

Neither case seems particularly healthy to me.

RE: Is my employer healthy?

Does it matter what he is doing with his mornings and evenings? If he is busily working those hours then they are ineffectively spent. That might be worse than not putting in the effort.

I faced an ownership transition a few years back with some similar concerns. There were talks of allowing others and me to buy in at tiny percentages. Around the same time I noticed the strong shift from focus on developing staff and delivering quality to building backlog. I'm confident the last few years were a charade to keep people from leaving while maximizing appearances to attract an outside buyer. I spent a lot of time debating with myself and others - basically laying out my case similar to your post. I finally concluded it was their company with which they can do whatever they please. The root problem was my fear of the unknown in leaving. It definitely took some time to adjust after leaving, but I now feel like a chump for putting up with a lot of the stuff there for so long. Best wishes in your decision.

RE: Is my employer healthy?

You know the answer. Bail.

RE: Is my employer healthy?

I think it's important to remember ownership transitions are painful in any circumstances, and are to some degree an unavoidable part of professional life. At some level you have to be patient while things get sorted out. If the new owners don't understand marketing, then they better get smart with it soon or things won't work, but it is reasonable to give them a bit of time. Starting your own practice is something you should do for positive reasons (i.e. you always wanted your own shop) as well as negative reasons (e.g. your old place sucks and you have no other options).

RE: Is my employer healthy?

(OP)
Thanks, again, everyone.

I appreciate all of the input. I’ve naturally done a lot of introspection on this issue and I’ve made damn sure that I’ve presented my story above objectively. I know how when you make a case or describe a situation, it is only natural to present it in a way that reflects your feelings. I’ve re-read all of my posts (several times -ha!) and still feel it is presented accurately.

If you’ll indulge me again-
I wouldn’t mind working for my to-be former employer(FE) as a sub consultant. One scenario is I somehow manage to leave my FE amicably and my FE allows me to wrap up my active jobs at the time and maybe hires me for additional work. Remember, we are like a family and we are in a small town. I’d love your opinions on how to manage that situation. I don’t want to be at odds with my FE.

Truth is, my FE NEEEEDS me. They have almost no one in the office to do what I do, even though the place is full of civil engineers. Other area firms are having a hard time finding structural engineers, especially on my level that can run a whole department. This gives my FE incentive to play nice with me...

...and that is a scenario that would ease the short term challenges of starting up on my own, which is my biggest concern. I can handle everything else, I think.

Thanks, everyone. This thread and your replies are extremely helpful.

RE: Is my employer healthy?

VTengr,

I've read this and far too many thoughts to write here. I own a small engineering firm in the northeast in a relatively small town/city area and focus on industrial process and associated structural and mechanical services.

In my opinion you should make plans to leave your present employer soon and here is my rationale. Over 10 years ago I was asked to help a multidisciplinary where the structural engineering manager left until they found a replacement. In a period of a few months I watched that firm disintegrate because the ownership was not active in marketing and client relations and one of the owners actually cost the firm work. 1-2 years before a senior owners had retired and there was a significant amount of overhead. That firm had what was essentially an add on architectural firm and as a hole the firm was expensive compared to their competitors. Other local firms were growing and keeping their costs low and firms from the larger cities were coming in and taking work at lower fees. Other local architects would not hire the structural, mechanical, or electrical disciplines of this firm due the presence of the architectural department and the architectural department brought in little of their own work and was used to supplement the other disciplines. The firm had work and was marketing itself for sale. I had the opportunity to sit in on a meeting with the most likely firm who would be the acquirer and basically they wanted the client list and a very few of the senior staff, withing 2 weeks the firm closed. What you wrote in your first post brought back watching that as an inside observer.

Regarding your latest question I don't think anyone can really answer your question without knowing the personalities. Even there is a close relationship your current employer (soon to be FE) may view this as an attack on the business; without knowing the personalities and relationships I don't feel comfortable providing advice on that aspect/specific question. My opinion is you need to be prepared to leave and find work on your own w/o counting on continuing the relationship. You need to have everything organized not done but organized so someone can pick it up and take over) so that when you provide notice if your current employer escorts you out the door someone can pick it up. If your current employer asks you to be their structural consultant then that should be a positive.

Patrick

RE: Is my employer healthy?

(OP)
Thanks, Patrick. Our stories are very similar!

RE: Is my employer healthy?

Choose the right platform to discuss this. this is engineering forum.

RE: Is my employer healthy?

Quote (Jessica Herron)

Choose the right platform to discuss this. this is engineering forum.
What are you talking about? This is absolutely the correct forum to discuss this in...

Dan - Owner
http://www.Hi-TecDesigns.com

RE: Is my employer healthy?

I agree with the ones who recommend starting your own business.

Everything stems from leadership. If the new owner gets there late, leaves early, is passive, and complains, then that's a really bad sign. Seems doomed, to be honest. It sounds like you would be fine on your own.

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