President and CEO Ulteig (Fargo, ND), an employee-owned engineering consulting firm with locations in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Colorado, Montana, and Iowa.
By Liisa Andreassen
Ulteig, founded in 1944, delivers comprehensive engineering/design, program management, technical services and field services across the Lifeline Sectors® of power, renewables, transportation, and water. Ulteig leverages its expertise throughout the country with a wide range of public and private clients. Jaeger is responsible for driving a strategic vision forward and for promoting company growth.
“We are a 100 percent employee-owned company and that means that I, and the rest of Ulteig leadership, have a responsibility to be as transparent as possible about finances, strategies, and results,” Jaeger says. “We survey our workforce often, and I’m proud to say that our transparency always gets high marks.”
A conversation with Doug Jaeger.
The Zweig Letter: I see that Ulteig recently acquired Pacific Power Engineers. Tell me a little about that. What was the impetus? How did the acquisition go? Challenges? What were some of the most important criteria for acquisition? Culture? Services?
Doug Jaeger: Our goal was to advance the steps of our accelerated growth plan; M&A was just one tool to leverage. Pacific Power Engineers is a well-established and renowned power systems engineering firm in Sacramento, California. With the acquisition of PPE, we addressed three of our key strategies in one place:
- We added expertise in services we didn’t have.
- We added capacity to our current service offerings, and
- We expanded our geographic reach and service area.
A top priority was finding an organization with a strong cultural fit too. As we evaluated PPE, it became clear that our two companies’ core values and cultural beliefs were exceptionally compatible. The transition has gone smoothly, and I’m convinced it’s because of a well-executed integration plan and our shared commitment to client service and talented employees.
TZL: How has COVID-19 impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting/working remotely?
DJ: Fortunately, through investments in technology and an already-established flexible work environment, we seamlessly made the transition for the large majority of the company to work from home.
One of the specific steps we’ve taken to support employees is to provide a level of flexibility by establishing new time codes for when normal working hours may be affected by the coronavirus. For example, if employees need to take time to help their loved ones or care for children who are home from school, they can use the new codes on their timesheets instead of taking vacation hours.
TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”
DJ: Prior to the COVID crisis, the lion’s share of my focus had been on the business, to develop and implement our accelerated growth strategy and to engage in research and dialogue/knowledge gain around market dynamics and trends. That said, I also spent a significant amount of time working on leadership development and growth as well as client engagement.
The pandemic shifted some of my emphasis to working more in the business on crisis management and business continuity priorities. Fortunately, the organization is prepared to weather the storm from a position of strength, but it still means my focus must shift to ensure we are appropriately adapting to the new landscape.
TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?
DJ: On the whole, I’m a big believer in balancing work and life, and my family is a major contributor to that balance. My oldest son graduated from college with a degree in civil and environmental engineering and is now working in Los Angeles as a transportation planning engineer for major mass transit projects. I’d like to think my career had some positive influence on that.
TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?
DJ: I have described my leadership style as visionary, influencing, trusting, and outcome-based. I’ve been told by my team members that I am consistently a transparent and dependable leader who can be counted on to tell it like it is (even if the feedback hurts) and to take the right road forward (even if it’s the difficult one).
I’m a growth guy. I like to invest my time and energy in growing people and growing organizations. My proudest accomplishment as a leader at Ulteig has been to see the entire organization rise to a level of growth that was beyond expectations.
TZL: What, if anything, are you doing to protect your firm from a potential economic slowdown in the future?
DJ: Ulteig takes a very disciplined approach to creating and following our strategic plan. Having said that, we also do routine contingency planning, which of course these days has taken on more urgency. During the pandemic, we’ve taken a three-pronged focus:
- Employees: Because we made an investment several years ago in an IT architecture, the move to 100 percent at-home workforce went smoothly, and service to our clients has continued seamlessly.
- Clients: We have doubled-down on communication with our clients and leveraged technology in creative new ways to help respond to challenges they are facing.
- Enterprise: The leadership team is leveraging our contingency plans to navigate through the developing economic conditions and ensure business continuity.
TZL: Ulteig is consistently the recipient of top workplace awards in the various locations where it operates – what are some of the factors that influence this recognition? What makes the culture at Ulteig so compelling?
DJ: The fact that we’ve made our culture an important element of our operations is a big reason for Ulteig’s outstanding retention rate, which was more than 90 percent in 2019. We are a 100 percent employee-owned (ESOP) company and that means that I, and the rest of Ulteig leadership, have a responsibility to be as transparent as possible about finances, strategies, and results. We survey our workforce often, and I’m proud to say that our transparency always gets high marks.
Flexibility has been identified by employees as one of the most valuable benefits of working at Ulteig. We encourage employees to work with their managers to create schedules that will meet the needs of our clients and each of our employees’ unique circumstances.
We also have a highly active company-wide culture committee, staffed by volunteers from all our locations. They focus on building a positive work environment and employee engagement through fun internal activities and community involvement.
TZL: It is often said that people leave managers, not companies. What are you doing to ensure that your line leadership are great people managers?
DJ: Our managers care about their employees and invest in them. Leadership development is a vital component to our future success – we equip our managers with the tools they need to keep their teams engaged and productive. We are developing a customized Manager Development Program that will launch this year to ensure each manager has the training and opportunity to be a successful leader at Ulteig.
We are providing deeper employee engagement data and feedback to managers, to help them focus their efforts on the areas that will have the biggest impact. We’re also strengthening employee development with a more comprehensive “roadmap” to ensure employees have the resources they need to grow within Ulteig. The roadmap includes promoting “career aspirations conversations” between employees and their managers to help them build more effective career development plans.
TZL: What novel approaches are you bringing to recruitment, and how are your brand and differentiators performing in the talent wars?
DJ: An important differentiator for us in the market is our strong internship program that allows aspiring engineers to do real project work, something not all companies provide. We also fund scholarships at several engineering schools. Many interns and scholarship recipients join Ulteig as employees after finishing school.
Thanks to Ulteig’s strong culture and highly-engaged workforce, our employee-owners are enthusiastic advocates for our company. In 2019, almost 40 percent of our new hires were referred by current employees. The number of applicants for open positions keeps growing each year, as does the size of our workforce, which grew by 40 percent in 2019.
Ulteig’s brand is synonymous with its Lifeline Sectors® of power, renewables, transportation, and water. Since we support these vital components of infrastructure, we’ve been classified as part of the essential critical infrastructure workforce that Americans depend on during the pandemic response. This puts us in a unique position during this challenging time – we can offer meaningful, purposeful work, which can be particularly attractive to top talent in a difficult labor market.
TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?
DJ: We’ve partnered with diverse professional organizations and student groups for years, but we recognize that there’s more to be done. Ulteig is strengthening its D&I strategy by diving deeper into understanding current barriers, setting and executing our D&I priorities, and engaging all employees and leaders in our efforts. In 2020, Ulteig is launching a new initiative called “cultural mindsets” to stimulate employee-driven solutions toward a more innovative, inclusive, and authentic culture.
TZL: You’ve spent the last 25 years in leadership roles in and around the energy and technical service sectors. What are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen in these sectors?
DJ: In the electric power sector, the movement toward zero-carbon and the significant engagement of renewable energy has been transformational. At the same time, in the broader technical service sectors (including transportation and water), we’ve seen major investments in automation and data management for system planning, operations, and design.
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
DJ: We’re in the middle of a three-year strategic plan that maps out the specific steps we’re taking to grow the business (paying particular attention to our current economic climate). 2019 was our 75th year of operation and it was our best year in terms of financial performance and growth. This is what employees want to see as they consider their long-term commitment to the organization. I’d like to think we’ve got some pretty compelling reasons for employees to stick around!