Principal and CEO of Enovate, a WBE/DBE/SBE firm that serves as a prime contractor as well as a subcontractor on city, state, and federal public agency and private projects.
By Liisa Andreassen
Áine (pronounced ‘On-Ya’) O’Dwyer has held a succession of progressive leadership roles throughout her career. She says that the best ideas “always develop through collaboration with our clients.”
“We’re a young company. Having started in this business as an intern and becoming a young vice president and CEO, I see tremendous value in brilliant, but not necessarily experienced, young minds,” O’Dwyer says. “I very much have this approach with Enovate. This mindset has won our company and employees multiple awards. Providing employees freedom to excel and advance without the confines of precedent is a great motivator and a great way for people to reach new limits.”
A conversation with Aine O’Dwyer.
The Zweig Letter: You became CEO and owner in 2017. What was the main impetus for that?
Aine O’Dwyer: Having spent 10 years working for a large construction firm, nationally and internationally, and working my way through the ranks there, I felt it was time to go out on my own and have my own firm. The success of those I surround myself with and the passion that they bring to their work day-to-day is what drives me to be a better leader and push the business forward.
TZL: How has COVID-19 impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting/working remotely?
AO: We’ve always had a very transient workforce from Enovate’s inception, whether that has been on a jobsite, in an office, or at home, and so the requirements around working with COVID have not felt drastically different for us. When I started the firm, we made sure to use the latest cloud-based platforms, so that we could continually collaborate and because of setting up this upfront infrastructure, our transition in mid-March to most of the company working from home was very seamless. Employees are doing a great job being productive and engaged during this period and I imagine there will be elements of how we’re currently working that will continue beyond the end of the COVID crisis.
TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”
AO: Having worked “in the business” for more than 10 years, it took time to transition from that to working “on my business.” I’m an engineer at heart and it’s difficult to not get pulled into the detail of the work that we do. Luckily, I’ve been able to surround myself with some great people who are doing a super job for our clients. This, especially over the past year, has allowed me to pull myself away from project operations to focus more on growing the business, working on short and long-term strategy, client interface, and corporate governance.
TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?
AO: When you own your own business, it’s hard to create a complete separation between work and family. Thankfully, my wife and I work in different industries. She works in the movie industry, which is just a little different to engineering and construction. What’s great about that is that I can bounce things off her for a completely different perspective which has often helped me think differently about strategic items over the years. I like having that input when it comes to the business. Conversely, I like to think that I also provide just as good input to her career, but I really can’t take any credit for the comedies that she creates.
TZL: Trust is crucial. How do you earn the trust of your clients?
AO: Having worked for a large corporation for 10 years, I know what it’s like to be in the client’s seat working with smaller firms. I have always kept this in mind when I work with our clients. What is important to them? What do they need? What do they not typically see in or expect from smaller firms like ours? We have a reputation for expertly addressing clients’ needs drawing on years of multinational experience delivering top quality engineering and construction solutions to clients. As CEO, I remain actively involved in the day-to-day operations of the company and our clients understand and appreciate this. Our approach is a collaborative process in which we are partners. We are on the same side of the table with them. We have gained the trust of our clients by demonstrating a responsive culture, transparency, and accountability.
TZL: The company is described as “old school with new school flair.” Can you explain that a bit?
AO: Born out of a construction company, the Enovate team has spent many collective years on federal, state, and county job sites as project managers, surveyors, field engineers, and superintendents; we know our way around a job-site and excel at complex construction and infrastructure projects, giving us “boots on the ground” experience. However, we are not only field-trained, we are educated experts with more than 55 licenses and certifications. As the driving force making Enovate an internationally-recognized company, I’ve gone from transitioning with the engineering group to leading it and further defined its strategy, pushing it forward to break barriers in construction technology and grow beyond its current capabilities. We know how construction projects work from living and breathing it – we bring field practices and state-of-the-art technology and software to ensure an economic, practical, and constructible solution is implemented.
TZL: How has COVID affected your business on a daily basis?
AO: Like many other industries, engineering and construction has had to reimagine how work gets done. With an unwavering focus on safety already in place, Enovate was likely more prepared than most to address the challenges of the pandemic. However, the uncertainty surrounding the duration and severity of the crisis makes it hard to anticipate next steps – our focus is on being proactive and having a plan in place for all possible outcomes. Our newly formed Crisis Management and Response Team has been extraordinary in helping navigate things to date.
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?
AO: I believe empowering employees is the best way to create longevity within the company. We’re structured so that each line leader has their own cost center and are responsible and accountable for their own budget, hires, new work, and managing existing work. This “mini-business” of sorts, within the larger framework of Enovate, creates and sustains great leaders and proficient managers. Leadership is empowered to make decisions that affect their business unit enabling them to act and react without bureaucracy. This approach then translates to the employees within the business line, and managers are very aware that the success of the business line is dependent on the great people that we have.
TZL: Does your firm work closely with any higher education institutions to gain access to the latest technology, experience, and innovation and/or recruiting to find qualified resources?
AO: Yes. I sit on the Industry Advisory Board of the NJIT Civil & Environmental Engineering Department and remain actively involved with the Albert Dorman’s Honor College mentorship and STEAM programs. This involvement allows me to see, often in real time, the latest developments that are coming out of NJIT. NJIT is an R1 Research University, giving it the highest rating for a research university it can achieve. They are very much on the forefront of research across all industries, often partnering with large private sector corporations. Knowing this, I can see the latest innovations and often see where the industry is trending. Of course, the university also has some fantastic students, many of which have either interned for us or worked full-time for us over the years.
TZL: What skills do you rely on most now that you gained from previous leadership positions?
AO: I came to the U.S. as an international student. The high bars of expectations in the courses that I took, as well as continually being surrounded by a collaborative work environment, set me up for my career ahead. Additionally, I was studying engineering while being a full-time student-athlete playing Division I Basketball during my time at NJIT. This helped create a strong structure of discipline and time management, which engrained in me the importance of limited time and efficiency. This proved invaluable as I moved through a succession of progressive leadership roles beginning as a field engineer and moving on to project manager, chief engineer, vice president, and CEO of the engineering arm of a large, privately-held construction firm, and then as owner and CEO of Enovate.
TZL: Are you naming principals in their 20s or 30s?
AO: We’re a young company. Having started in this business as an intern and becoming a young vice president and CEO, I see tremendous value in brilliant, but not necessarily experienced, young minds. I very much have this approach with Enovate. This mindset has won our company and employees multiple awards including: ENR National 2018 Top 20 under 4, ENR New York 2018 & 2019 Top Young Professionals, Building Design + Construction, Class of 2018 40 under 40, and more. Providing employees freedom to excel and advance without the confines of precedent is a great motivator and a great way for people to reach new limits.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?
AO: People – or taking care of our people.