President and principal of Jordan and Skala Engineers (Norcross, GA), a firm that has delivered quality engineering services to its clients for more than 65 years.
By Liisa Andreassen
Milam first started with the firm in 1993 when there were only three employees. Since then, he’s helped it to grow to 300. He’s worked in multiple capacities and closely supervised expansion of the company’s design services throughout the years to include low voltage systems (communications, security, and audio/visual systems). He’s a highly respected leader and committed to helping the next generation of engineers.
“I’ve witnessed the retirement of three company presidents and growth from 13 to 300 employees,” Milam says. “When a business leader’s exit creates opportunity for others in the organization to lead, you have the structure to succeed. A clear challenge is to promote and cultivate leadership potential in high-performers before an exit occurs (planned or unplanned).”
A conversation with Tim Milam.
The Zweig Letter: Your bio on the Jordan and Skala website states you are “committed to developing younger staff to become the next generation of leading engineers.” Can you provide a few examples of what you and your team are doing to ensure their growth?
Tim Milam: Our company employs college students through cooperative education programs (available at most universities that have engineering schools), which is a program I personally benefited from when I was a student at Georgia Tech. The experience exposed me to the building design industry, allowed me to graduate with experience, and afforded me invaluable opportunities to build relationships with business people and mentors. Earning a wage in my college years was also a plus. Since we continually struggle to find qualified people to work in our field, it’s imperative that we develop younger staff in a manner that they’re well engaged in their work and feel confident that they can build a career with our company.
Training our younger staff has always been important to us, but our processes for doing so were too inconsistent (in both recurrence and quality). A couple of years ago we launched a training initiative (aka JSE University), whereby our leaders prepare and facilitate educational content via recorded video combined with live Q&A sessions. These are conducted in-person and virtually. Our HR department keeps us on task with scheduling the sessions and logging employee participation. While our work is never done in this area, we believe that we’ve created an easily repeatable process that we hope will boost the development and engagement of our employees.
TZL: How do you anticipate COVID-19 permanently impacting your firm’s policy on telecommuting?
TM: Our experience over the last year will have a lasting impact on our policy for teleworking. We will soon launch an updated policy intended for the post-pandemic era and it will allow for much more flexibility (in-office and home working) than pre-pandemic.
TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”
TM: I’ve always enjoyed being “in the business,” meaning the engineering work itself in coordination with co-workers and clients. I wasn’t certain that I would like stepping away from the technical side of what we do, but now that most of my time is spent “on the business,” I’m certainly glad that I enjoy it.
TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?
TM: There are a lot of words that can be used to answer this question, but the one I’ve heard most consistently is “response.” Engineers are smart people, but they become most trusted by delivering prompt responses to matters that are time-critical.
TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?
TM: Our company is not family-owned, so in that sense, work and family are separate. Like many other careers, families sacrifice togetherness when our employees work (and travel) long hours consistently. Our leaders strive to observe and control causes that bring long hours upon our employees.
TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?
TM: A collaborator.
TZL: When you identify a part of your business that is not pulling its weight in terms of profitability or alignment with the firm’s mission, what steps do you take, and what’s the timeline, to address the issue while minimizing impacts to the rest of the company?
TM: I’m proud of our staff’s alignment to our stated vision and mission. However, profitability of a team or office fluctuates for many reasons, most notably a regional slowdown. Our leaders routinely monitor their backlog and report to one another on a monthly basis. We’re fortunate that technology improvements allow for work to be shared and produced between offices with little problem.
TZL: How often do you valuate your firm and what key metrics do you use in the process? Do you valuate using in-house staff or is it outsourced?
TM: We valuate our company on an annual basis, with metrics including assets, liabilities, and earnings (profits). We recently have decided to outsource this task.
TZL: You’ve been with the firm since 1993. What did you start out doing and what’s the most significant change you’ve seen during your time with the firm (i.e., technology, project evolution, etc.)?
TM: I was hired to be a lead electrical engineer, and for approximately five years, I spent much of my time designing the electrical systems for Home Depot retail stores, mainly for projects in the southeast U.S. The advancement of technology has been tremendous in our field since my younger days. When I was a co-op student, I produced the work product via manual ink drafting on mylar. Now, our young people are rendering our designs using software that incorporates three dimensions (but they don’t get to use the electric erasing machine that I had!). Another huge change is the massive development of codes (building, electrical, mechanical, and energy). While the buildings we design are safer than ever (these codes often drive our design process), engineers have to be good “critical readers” to navigate the challenges of code-compliant design.
TZL: Ownership transition can be tricky, to say the least. What’s the key to ensuring a smooth passing of the baton? What’s the biggest pitfall to avoid?
TM: Over my time of employment here, I’ve witnessed the retirement of three company presidents and growth from 13 to 300 employees. When a business leader’s exit creates opportunity for others in the organization to lead, you have the structure to succeed. A clear challenge is to promote and cultivate leadership potential in high-performers before an exit occurs (planned or unplanned).
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
TM: One of my business partners is fond of the phrase “building a career.” We certainly want this to be such a place for all our employees. As we’ve grown in size, we’ve changed in many ways – recognizing the need for a hierarchal structure (i.e., positions that can be attained with experience and talent), promoting the importance of mentorship/training, and creating opportunities for relationship-development among us.