Change Leader Interview: Success with an Unconventional, Decentralized Engineering Business
The president of Atlas Civil Design, A.J. Whitaker is a registered civil engineer and land surveyor with more than 20 years of experience in large-scale single and multi-family residential, commercial, industrial, municipal, medical/healthcare, and mixed-use projects. He has served three years as Chapter President of the American Council of Engineering Companies.
In his spare time, A.J. maintains a blog at Engipreneur.com, where he helps entrepreneurial engineers apply practical, and often counterintuitive, business strategies to their engineering careers.
I2: Tell me about your company, Atlas Civil Design. Why did you start the company, what are its main focus areas, who are the range of clients, and what are they typically seeking from your services?
Whitaker: I started the company in the first part of 2013, and we are a full-service civil engineering firm. We have a land-surveying division as well that operates independent of my team. We focus primarily on commercial land development in Southern California. That means we’re doing grading, drainage, utilities–everything associated with commercial land development, including medical, multifamily, senior housing. We tend to avoid public works and single-family residential, because it doesn’t lend itself as well to our particular business model. We do everything outside the building. Utilities grading, stormwater, everything site related. We stop at the building.
I2: I saw your business model described as unconventional. Could you describe why it’s unconventional and why that’s worked for you?
Whitaker: One of the first things people see as unique is that we operate with a decentralized business model, meaning that we don’t have a central office where everybody shows up every day to work. The vast majority of our team works out of their home office for the most part.
We employ a combination of employees and independent contractors for our production work. That’s been ingrained in our culture and business model from the beginning. We do it on the survey side and the engineering side, and it’s worked very well for us. I had originally anticipated some pushback from some clients, but it has actually been a boost to our services that we can offer clients.
We’re not limited by whom we can hire. I like to say that I can go out and hire the “best and the brightest,” because they don’t have to live within a drivable commuting distance from our office. When we’ve got projects in Los Angeles, I can put together a team of experienced engineers who have done projects in Los Angeles. When I have projects in San Diego, we have a San Diego team that works on those.
I don’t have to have branch offices or people who can commute to our office. I actually go into those markets and find top talent who are interested in more work, life balance, who are self-motivated and driven, and don’t need the traditional office environment to be their best. It’s been a great model for us so far.
I2: What are some of the benefits of your business model that you planned and thought would be beneficial, and what are some of the unintended benefits that you didn’t expect as you’ve moved along?
Whitaker: The obvious benefits were lower overhead costs. We’re not paying rent every month. I don’t have plotters. Everything we do is digital and in the cloud. Those cost savings then get passed on to our clients in the form of lower fees. We can be very competitive in the marketplace. I can pay my people more as a result of that, so we can attract better people. I think those are some of the obvious benefits.
There’s clearly an attraction for individuals who are looking for more work as well as life balance to get rid of their commute. It’s a big attraction. I’ve brought on our San Diego project manager, who left a job where he was commuting a couple of hours a day and wanted to spend more time coaching his kid in basketball–increase his family time–and he couldn’t be happier with the current situation.
For unintended benefits, I anticipated pushback from clients, but it’s been surprising that we get none. In fact, I’ve learned that some of our clients actually have the same business model. They’re working out of their home office.
About a year ago, we presented to an architecture team who had an “old school” guy in the office. He was one of the principals, and he really didn’t like what he was hearing when he started digging into our business model. His opinion was you’ve got to show up in an office everyday to do your job. The irony there is that he’s now using us on his projects, because he sees that we turn out a high level of service and can get the job done.
One of the real unexpected benefits is that we have been able to bring in some really talented people as a result of this business model, people who otherwise may not consider us because we’re a startup; we’re small, and they’re looking for growth opportunities. When they see the other benefits that go into this–that we’re interested in pushing the boundaries as to what we can do; we don’t do things just because they’ve always been done that way–I think there’s an attraction to that. We’re seen as very progressive in that regard. We offer employees a lot of flexibility. We have an unlimited vacation policy. They work from their home office, and I think overall they’re a much happier group than people who I’ve worked with in the past in a traditional office environment.
Another benefit is the security. People perceive job security as something they have working for a bigger company. However, because of our model, we have a combination of employees and subcontractors. A lot of our workforce is in business for themselves, and they have the flexibility and freedom to go out and get work from other sources if things slow down on our end. There’s not this fear of “when am I going to get laid off?”
On the flip side, we can grow our team much quicker without having to bring on a bunch of full-time employees and pay those salaries. There’s a lot of benefits to it, both expected and unexpected. It seems like new ones emerge each day.
I2: What parts of the technology did you see in civil engineering that led you to believe it could work for that particular industry?
Whitaker: In 2007-2008, I sat down with the guy who is currently my business partner on the survey side, and we just saw “the cloud.” The conference-calling technology, the screen-sharing technology–that was all coming to the surface back then. Then the cloud-based technology that let us share files in real time over the cloud, synchronized with local workstations so we could work in CAD. All that was happening, and it just opened our eyes to the possibility that we don’t need to come to the office everyday. We can create a workforce that is largely remote. I can trace it back to then.
It’s a combination of technologies, and we certainly use many of them. We’ve got cloud-based file servers; everybody’s on Skype everyday on my team. We’re using Join.me for screen sharing. I think from a technological standpoint, we’re very progressive.
On the survey side, we’re using 3D laser scanners on all our topographic surveys and then storing the point-cloud data in the cloud for our users. On the civil side, we employ technology such as SITEOPS to get our foot in the door much earlier in the project lifecycle, doing cost-optimized models for our clients.
We’re pretty technology savvy, I like to say. We pick and choose; we’re not just about the latest and greatest. We’re about leveraging technology to our advantage.
I2: Could you explain what SITEOPS is, how you decided to become an expert in that particular technology, and why that particular tool?
Whitaker: I was introduced to SITEOPS back in late 2008, and it was impressive. The fact that we can come in and do optimized grading design within a few minutes, as opposed to several weeks. It’s all based on cost, so you can see the immediate impact of moving a retaining wall or a building or a parking lot. It’s a conceptual design tool that optimizes grading models and generates real-time earthwork estimates and costs.
For me, I saw it not just as help in the design side, but as a phenomenal business-development tool. I thought if I could get on top of this, go into a client meeting, give them a 30-minute demonstration, we’ll get their business. That’s exactly what we did.
We started the “traveling road show” during the recession years, visited all the major commercial land developers in Southern California, and did probably close to 200 presentations in that timeframe. We made a ton of connections and landed a lot of work. I’ve brought that technology with me through the companies that I’ve been with since then. At Atlas Civil Design, we use it as a business-development tool to get our foot in the door early with these projects and also to help guide our design process to more-efficient designs.
I2: Do you think SITEOPS is evolving with your needs, or do you think you’ll need to integrate other tools to stay current with the technology?
Whitaker: SITEOPS is just one tool in our toolbox. It’s used for initial conceptual design. At some point, you’ve got to leave SITEOPS and go in to CAD; you’ve got to get into Civil 3D to do your plans.
SITEOPS was acquired by Bentley a couple of years ago. I know they’re constantly making improvements to the technology, but I think its core function for us has been getting in early on projects and pointing us toward a more-efficient design.
I2: Is your company relatively agnostic as far as which products you use?
Whitaker: As an industry in land development, civil engineering, site grading, utilities and drainage, AutoCAD Civil 3D is sort of a “go-to standard.” I think Bentley has struggled to get into that market. They’re more transportation oriented, public-works. Most of our team is using AutoCAD products.
Having a combination of employees vs. contract workers, I have to be careful. I don’t dictate products to my subcontractors. They’re free to use whatever tools they have at their disposal to put together the plans. That shifts our focus a bit from “how do you do this” to “what does the end product look like” and “does it meet our quality standard?”
I2: Could you describe what you would call an entrepreneurial engineer compared to a regular engineer? What were your goals in starting your Engipreneur.com blog?
Whitaker: The same qualities that make a good entrepreneur transfer to an engineer, whether in business for himself or working for a company. Things such as the impact that efficiency has on the bottom line, to use those new technologies to leverage what you do: the importance of business development for every person in an organization, and the role that we play; the client service, how that impacts your ability to get new projects done. I think there are aspects of being an entrepreneur that carry forward and benefit engineers. That’s what drove me to start the Engipreneur blog, to share some of my experiences and perspectives on how you can employ some of these practices and mindsets into being a better engineer.
I2: Could you describe a couple key projects that you’ve worked on?
Whitaker: One of our earliest projects is the Playhouse Plaza Project in Pasadena, right on Colorado Boulevard in downtown Pasadena. It’s a five-story office complex with a retro design. We teamed with Gensler Architects on that and IDS Real Estate. It’s just a beautiful project.
It had a lot of different aspects and challenges from the civil standpoint. The stormwater, we didn’t have a lot of site area to work with, so we ended up using some progressive stormwater technologies in it.
Wesley Palms is another great project we’ve worked on in San Diego. It’s a renovation of a 35-acre senior-housing complex, consisting of about 80 different one-story cottage buildings. We ended up doing a full stormwater treatment system, consisting of about 80 bio-retention basins on that campus.