Committed to Success

ENGEO Incorporated

Engineering firm ENGEO Incorporated is a provider of services in the areas of geotechnical, environmental, hydrologic and geologic engineering. Voted the fifth best place to work in the United States for the second consecutive year, the company is the distillation of a business model that has been tailored and implemented by CEO Uri Eliahu.

Getting to the top of your profession is no small feat. Decisively taking advantage of every opportunity that arises, ensuring that you outperform and outmaneuver your competitors, ensuring that the service you offer is as efficient and cost effective as your client expects – all this is done under the fiscal pressures that no company can resist or ignore. Needless to say, this is not easily done. To do so while creating a working environment that promotes and nurtures self-growth, that makes every staff member feel an emotional investment in the company and that fosters a real work-life balance by helping its staff to realize their professional and personal goals is remarkable, yet one company has managed to achieve this.

ENGEO Incorporated was founded in 1971 by three men, all of whom had previously worked for another company. While Uri Eliahu credits Bill Wigginton with being the main driving force behind this venture, his own father was what he calls the ‘junior partner’ of the trio. Mr. Eliahu himself has worked for the company for over twenty-six years, and the shift in structure can be directly attributed to him. Named as one of the most admired CEOs in 2010, he is quite clearly doing something right both in terms of his client relationships and his staff management.

ENGEO is an engineering company. However, where it stands out is in providing client-based, multi-disciplinary teams that cater to clients in a wide range of areas. The teams are specialists in such areas as geotechnical engineering, environmental engineering, engineering geology and geologic hazard abatement, to name a few. “In the broadest terms, we provide engineering and technical services in the area of earth sciences. That is very broad, but the wonderful thing about our type of work is that we get to touch every kind of project that you can imagine,” explains Mr. Eliahu. This opportunity to diversify its engineering reach is a positive aspect of the industry in comparison to more specialized areas such as structural engineering. “If you go into any area and you ask, ‘Who is the best geotechnical engineering firm around?’, a knowledgeable person would have an opinion. If you ask the same person, ‘Who is the best structural engineer?’, they will say that it depends on what you want to build. The point is, in other fields of engineering, the specialization is such that they tend to work on one kind of thing, whereas with us, we get to touch everything.”

From working with complex soil and engineering off-shore facilities to engineering dams, it is fair to say that much of the work that ENGEO does involves an element of risk. This is an unavoidable element of geotechnical engineering. However, it does provide an opportunity to ensure that the staff brought into the company are of the desired caliber. More important is that they have, as Mr. Eliahu puts it, ‘ENGEO-ness’. “I could talk for hours about that; it is our passion. We tend to hire graduates from the top institutions. There is not much to question about their technical ability. Our vetting and very rigorous evaluation process really has to do with their personal character, their nature, problem-solving abilities and, most of all, what we call ENGEO-ness.”

He admits that the company concept of ENGEO-ness has no concrete definition, “but we all know it when we see it. It is a certain enthusiasm. It is a can-do attitude. It is commitment to the success of others. Those who are truly committed to the success of others do well here. Those who believe that success comes at the expense of others don’t do well.”

Coupled with this investment in staff are the opportunities and growth afforded to each member of the company family. The true measure of this working environment is in the attraction and retention of top staff. ENGEO recently placed fifth in the national best places to work competition for the second year running. Mr. Eliahu attributes this in part to the servant-leadership model embraced in the company. This leadership philosophy involves the servant-leader sharing power and helping others perform and develop to the highest extent possible.

“This model has been around for thousands of years, but it has been supplanted by more modern top-down corporate structures. For certain applications that is very appropriate; for us, we feel that the opposite is appropriate. A servant-leader’s job is to bring out the best in people, to commit him or herself to the success of those people and to remove obstacles from in front of those people. I know that this sounds straightforward, but we really need to practice every day: commit ourselves to the complete – not just the professional – welfare of each individual.”

In addition to serving its staff, the firm has a commitment to serve communities, and few have been as hard hit as the city of Christchurch, New Zealand. Following devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, ENGEO was contacted by a firm that provides disaster response and needed high-level geotechnical engineering capabilities locally in the city. In short order, ENGEO established an office in Christchurch. Working alongside other firms to assess the damage and begin the process of rebuilding, the firm quickly found a kindred spirit in Geoscience – a company with geologic and environmental capabilities and a very similar culture. ENGEO and Geoscience have merged, and the combined firm has broadened to a new dimension with fifty-four staff members in the country.

As some of the work carried out by the company is a response to natural events, there is certainly a humanitarian aspect to their projects. This is something that comes through in every aspect of the business, according to Catherine Lewis, Director of Marketing and Business Development since 2001. “What we do in the area of response to an emergency is to carry out damage assessment, but there is also a strong desire in all of our family members to help our community,” she says.

Adds Mr. Eliahu, “When there is a human disaster, we are generally not the ones there within the first hours or days. However, we are definitely there to assess the damage but more importantly to help communities rebuild. That is perhaps one of the more gratifying things that we do.”

Notwithstanding the work that ENGEO does in assisting communities to rebuild, Mr. Eliahu stresses that this is a minor area in terms of the work that it does. “All of that constitutes probably less than ten per cent of our work. The vast majority of our work is preventive. To make sure that landslides don’t harm people and that levees don’t break, that earthquakes don’t cause fatal damage. Our work is more proactive than reactive.”

Being proactive, naturally the company looks to the future to further develop and grow its business. Mr. Eliahu sees opportunity where others might see a challenge. “We need to continue to find the markets that we can serve in our way. We are a very high-quality, high-service provider. We are attracted to challenges worldwide; we need to continue to find suitable geographic expansion opportunities.”

Mr. Eliahu does identify one area that is a challenge to the company and others industry-wide. “While ENGEO has attracted the best and brightest, the field in general struggles with attracting the best and brightest. Unlike thirty or forty years ago, we are just not as glamorous as Apple or Google and so the brightest kids tend to gravitate towards those high-tech fields.”

Ms. Lewis is ebullient when speaking of Mr. Eliahu, who was named as one of the most admired CEOs in the Bay Area in 2010. Her praise is honest and it is quite remarkable to hear such words bestowed on a work colleague. “Uri runs a tight ship but not in an autocratic way. He encourages all of us to be empowered – to feel an ownership stake in the company. His open door means he is always available to share ideas and explore the trends that shape business.”

This empowerment and desire to succeed for the benefit of the company and its staff is what is at the heart of ENGEO: an engineering company and so much more.

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