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Businessexcellence September 07 52 Executives from Ayres Associates tell Martin Ashcroft how a policy of employee involvement and motivation compensates for the national shortage of engineers Everyone I talk to who employs engineers complains about the same thing. There just aren’t enough of them to go around. For many, it’s the No. 1 challenge. It doesn’t seem to matter what kind of engineer or which industry sector; whether it’s mining for metals, drilling for oil, manufacturing, construction—they all seem to be short of engineers. If engineering is your specialty, and if you’re a growing business with the ambition to be a national player, it’s a serious issue. Ayres Associates is a multi-specialty architectural/ engineering consulting firm, in which transportation-related engineering is the largest revenue generator, followed by photogrammetry (a remote sensing and mapping technology in which objects’ geometric properties are determined from photographic images for use in projects such as utility route location), wastewater, storm sewer, dams and related water resources, and water supply. Other disciplines include river engineering/levees, architecture, environmental management, and survey. The company employs hundreds of engineers. Every business has to make itself attractive to customers and shareholders, and many profess to the ideal of making themselves ‘employers of choice’, too, but when push comes to shove, how serious they are about that is often a matter of conjecture. At Ayres Associates, however, you have to believe it’s true. Firstly, the shareholders are the employees. Around 55 percent of the company’s stock is directly owned by individual employee investors who comprise around a sixth of the workforce. The remaining 45 percent is owned by the Employee Stock Ownership Plan, whose members are other employees who meet certain eligibility requirements. It’s easy for an executive to tell a reporter that the company values its people and puts them first. It’s not quite so easy for the reporter to verify this, unless the company puts its money where its mouth is. In this case, money and mouth are clearly aligned. In 2005, during a period of declining performance caused by the national economic downturn, executive management and vice presidents at Ayres Associates took a five percent pay cut to demonstrate their commitment to improving financial performance. As profits began to improve, pay cuts were not necessary at other levels. So Ayres Associates includes in its mission statement the desire to be recognized as the employer of choice in the engineering/ architecture industry, partly because it needs to fish for engineers in ever declining stocks, but also because it knows that engaged and motivated employees are a dynamic asset. One way it pursues this is by encouraging everyone to share their ideas on how the company is run. Opportunities include annual employee satisfaction surveys, in which over 75 percent typically participate, and an open-door policy that invites employees to take ideas and concerns to supervisors and up through the management structure as far as the president. “The company’s open-door climate minimizes the feeling of hierarchy,” says president and chairman Patrick Quinn, who has been with the company in various roles since 1972, “cementing the sense of

September 07 Businessexcellence Ayres Associates 53 ownership that employees at all levels feel toward their work.” To help address the shortage of engineering graduates, Ayres Associates sponsors or participates in several educational events for middle and high school students to expose them to the engineering/architecture field and to the company. “We constantly need to find ways to set our firm apart from our competitors and become the employer of choice for those seeking employment,” he continues. ”To that end, we maintain a competitive benefits package that includes health care coverage, 401k, employee stock ownership program, and flexible work schedules.” These kinds of benefits are not uncommon today, of course. Most reputable employers have one or more of these in their armory, but Ayres Associates takes it a step further. The company provides all employees with opportunities for company-paid training, and because it has multi-disciplinary operations, employees can explore different technical specialties, adding to their job security and to the skill base within the workforce. With offices in different geographic regions, there are also opportunities to move to other parts of the country, although Quinn stresses that no employee is ever forced to relocate. Employees attend quarterly staff meetings, where they can ask questions and give feedback, and also participate in peer reviews conducted by executives from other engineering firms. There is recognition for individual attainment through regular awards based on effort and achievement. Executive vice president David Frick is in no doubt about Quinn’s contribution to these initiatives. “The company tries to maintain profitability for the benefit of shareholders, who are the employees. Pat is not the kind of person who’s after financial success for his own benefit. He puts in his effort and expects others to do the same and as such believes that the financial success of the company should be shared by all. “Pat doesn’t set himself apart from the staff,” continues Frick. “He has a hands-on, in-thetrenches type of approach. He runs the company more on a collaborative, not a dictatorial basis. When he has an idea, he seeks buy-in. He brings it to others and makes his case.” Another of Ayres’ objectives is to be recognized nationally by clients and competitors. Incorporated in 1959 by former B-24 bomber pilot Owen Ayres in Eau Claire in west-central Wisconsin, the company has grown from five employees engaged in general civil engineering to a multi-specialty professional services firm employing over 400 in 18 offices in eight states across the Southeast, Midwest, and West, specifically Wisconsin, Minnesota, Florida, Georgia, Colorado, California, Arizona, and Wyoming. The first expansion took place in Wisconsin in the 1970s through acquisition and new office openings across the state. Neighboring Minnesota then became another focal point for growth. In the 1980s Ayres Associates turned its attention to Florida, where the opening of a project office initially served as a base for a statewide project to study onsite wastewater treatment systems and their impact on the environment. This project led to others, and the firm now has six offices serving “The company markets all of its service lines throughout its geographic reach, which has resulted in the diversification of our services wherever we do business”