President and CEO of CALYX Engineers + Consultants (Hot Firm #26 for 2018), a 224-person firm based in Raleigh, North Carolina.
By Liisa Andreassen
As president and CEO of CALYX, recently acquired by NV5, Jill Wells Heath sets the strategic direction for the firm, executes the company’s vision, and cultivates the firm’s business relationships and alliances. In 1993, Heath started with the company as an outside CPA consultant, and then as its contract CFO. In 2003, she became its full-time CFO; in 2006, president; and in 2008, the company’s 15th anniversary, she became CEO.
In reaction to CALYX’s $36 million cash and stock acquisition by NV5, Heath says, “This is a wonderful step forward for CALYX. We will provide NV5 a strong and successful presence in the southeast, and NV5 will provide us the opportunity to build upon our service offerings, project opportunities, technology, and talent.”
A CONVERSATION WITH JILL WELLS HEATH.
The Zweig Letter: Have you ever closed an under-performing office? If so, tell us about it.
Jill Wells Heath: Unfortunately, I have had the terrible experience of closing an office. When the economy took a turn in 2008, we were forced to downsize and closed our offices in Jacksonville, Florida, and Columbia, South Carolina. The economy was the driving factor. Offices are expensive to have and maintain, and closing them was necessary. But the experience left me with internal scars.
TZL: When did you have the most fun running your firm, and what were the hallmarks of that time in your professional life?
JWH: This is the best time! When your company is doing well, it’s fun to run. Trust me, I’ve run it in the best of times and the worst of times. 2018 has been CALYX’s best year ever – hands down. And because we’re doing so well, an amazing company, NV5, has acquired us, which just sets us up to do even more. The future is bright.
TZL: How do you promote young and new leaders as the firm grows?
JWH: We often promote from within, and we’ve had much success doing it. Our environmental group manager in North Carolina worked his way up through the group, as did our utility services program manager. Our growing GIS team is young and amazing. We always look inward.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?
JWH: To take care of my people. It’s my job to care for, and encourage, everyone here at CALYX.
TZL: With technology reducing the time it takes to complete design work, how do you get the AEC industry to start pricing on value instead of hours?
JWH: We are involved with ACEC, which advocates for the engineering industry on this very topic. To price on value, we must unite as an industry to create a shift in the perspective of our clients. We sell intellectual capital and therein lies our value. Yet, our value is too often dictated by our time spent and hourly rate. Yes, technology is increasing efficiency, but the value is in our deliverable, and demand for our services is high. I truly believe that together, we can bring about change.
TZL: There is no substitute for experience, but there is pressure to give responsibility to younger staff. What are you doing to address the risk while pursuing the opportunity to develop your team?
JWH: We welcome the drive and inspiration that our young employees bring to the table. We maintain a mix of new and established talent so that we can properly mentor, teach, and monitor. We have an excellent QA/QC process for all services. We consider it our responsibility to help the next generation rise to the top.
TZL: Engineers love being engineers, but what are you doing to instill a business culture in your firm?
JWH: CALYX is a transparent company. We share our financials and discuss them companywide. You know, engineers can be entrepreneurs. Ours take an interest in the success of the company and feel a responsibility to keep it thriving, and it shows.
TZL: Diversity and inclusion is lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?
JWH: At CALYX, half of our leaders are women. That’s not frequently found in civil engineering. We believe that diversity makes us better and we strive to instill it when we’re building our company, or putting a team together for a project. We’re committed to creating a diverse environment and are also proud to be an equal opportunity and affirmative action employer.
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
JWH: What aren’t we doing? It’s a top priority for CALYX. We’ve created an amazing culture which has landed us on Best Firms to Work For, Family Friendly, and Healthiest Employers lists. We spend as much time on retention as we do on recruitment. Just last year, we had an independent firm conduct an anonymous employee opinion survey. They were amazed when we had a 91 percent overall satisfaction rating. That rarely happens in our industry. As a result, we have a large core of key staff with 10-25 years at the company.
TZL: Benefits are evolving. Are you offering any new ones due to the changing demographic?
JWH: Yes. We are always looking for ways to improve our benefits package. In recent years, we have implemented biometric screenings, health coaching, a telemedicine program to receive care without physically going to the doctor, nutritionist counseling, and more. It’s important to help employees stay healthy and balanced.
TZL: Are you currently pursuing the R&D tax credit?