CEO and president of MKN (Arroyo Grande, CA), a firm specializing in water, wastewater, and water reuse engineering for public agencies.
By Liisa Andreassen
After serving as a project engineer, project manager, branch manager, and ultimately a senior operations manager and vice president for a Fortune 500 consulting engineering firm, Nunley started MKN. His team provides forward-thinking water, wastewater, and water reuse solutions to public agencies and private clients throughout central and southern California.
“Technical expertise, communication skills, and the ability to motivate and organize others are all necessary for success, and I aspire to improve my abilities in all these areas,” Nunley says. “These are also the skills we look for in our company’s leaders.”
A conversation with Mike Nunley.
The Zweig Letter: Your firm specializes in water, wastewater, and water reuse engineering for public agencies. What are the most notable concerns/needs for clients now compared to when you started the firm nearly 10 years go? Any significant changes?
Mike Nunley: I think the greatest challenge we face is climate change; it will affect water supply and wastewater facilities across the state. The impact on wildfires and drought conditions has already been significant. It will require investment from federal, state, and local resources to mitigate risk and relocate or harden critical infrastructure. We have worked with several clients to develop climate change adaptation and mitigation plans for their facilities. Our firm also helps clients secure and manage grants and loans to reduce impact on ratepayers, and we provide staff extension services, design, construction management, and all other services necessary to help them fund and implement projects.
Another major challenge is the retiring workforce and need for water operators, engineers, and utility professionals at all levels, who have jobs that are much more complicated than they were even 20 years ago. The move to One Water from the formerly separated fields of water, wastewater, recycled water, and stormwater are resulting in new certifications, skill sets, and responsibilities. Our firm focuses on partnering with our clients to deliver the resources they do not have in-house. For many of our clients, we provide staff extension, program management, and project management services to help meet their needs. In other cases, we provide the design and construction management team they cannot staff internally.
TZL: How do you anticipate COVID-19 permanently impacting your firm’s policy on telecommuting?
MN: We’ve seen our senior staff adapt very well, so we plan to continue allowing remote work. This opens more opportunities to recruit staff too. The greatest challenges have been with entry-level engineers. They really need to interact with senior staff to learn and grow. We are trying to encourage the staff who need support and mentoring to be in the office, while still allowing flexibility to accommodate their own personal needs and challenges, especially during the pandemic.
TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”
MN: I find it is a challenge to balance the work required to manage a rapidly-growing firm while still managing my own deliverables for clients. I would say it is 50/50. I started the firm because I love engineering and I continue to work on projects for clients. I have personally worked for some of these agencies for 15 to 20 years, so I have history on their facilities and programs. I also enjoy working with junior staff and taking part in their development and find that projects are the most efficient way to train staff and share knowledge.
TZL: What skills are required to run a successful practice? What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?
MN: Technical expertise, communication skills, and the ability to motivate and organize others are all necessary for success, and I aspire to improve my abilities in all these areas. These are also the skills we look for in our company’s leaders. Prior to starting out, I wish I had a stronger background in tax planning. I’ve learned on the job and have also hired an experienced accounting firm and tax credit specialist to lead these efforts. It’s made a big difference in our financial success.
TZL: Are you using the R&D tax credit? If so, how is it working for your firm? If not, why not?
MN: Yes – the past few years we’ve pursued R&D tax credits. It has made a huge difference in the tax liability for firm owners, which directly benefits the company.
TZL: Does your firm work closely with any higher education institutions to gain access to the latest technology, experience, innovation, and/or recruiting to find qualified resources?
MN: Yes, we are a platinum sponsor of the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s Civil & Environmental Engineering Department and are involved at Fresno State University and University of California at Irvine. We use these as opportunities for finding interns, entry-level hires, and for partnering with faculty on projects as opportunities arise.
TZL: Have you had a particular mentor who has guided you – in school, in your career, or in general? Who were they and how did they help?
MN: My first boss and mentor was a water treatment engineer at a consulting firm in Blacksburg, Virginia. He was an excellent mentor and routinely redlined my work, provided constructive feedback and detailed guidance, took me out in the field, and gave me a strong interest in treatment. I had a great experience working with him and learning how he managed projects and clients.
TZL: While I understand you do not have a crystal ball, what are the greatest challenges you see ahead? How do you plan to meet them?
MN: I think the greatest challenges ahead for all of our industry’s firms is the increased demand in the water resources infrastructure market coupled with competition for staff in California. We continue to pursue innovative strategies to recruit and retain staff. We’ve been aggressively recruiting to stay ahead of our clients’ needs, implementing staff referral bonuses, highly competitive benefits such as wellness stipends and education reimbursement. Additionally, a little over one year ago, we began employee engagement programs to entice and retain team members.
TZL: How many years of experience – or large enough book of business – is enough to become a principal in your firm? Are you naming principals in their 20s or 30s?
MN: While many of our principals are in their 40s and older, we have principals in their 30s too. We aren’t tied to an arbitrary experience level – I look for leaders in either operations or technical practices who can operate independently, meet clients’ expectations, and are excellent outside representatives of the firm.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility?
MN: To guide and support my team, so they can support our clients.