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Celebrating 25 Years in Business – Interview with the President

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Celebrating 25 Years in Business –

An Introspective Interview with EARTHRES
Founding President and CEO, Jan C. Hutwelker

 

celebrating-25-years-in-businessEARTHRES is celebrating 25 years in business this year. Congratulations, that is quite the achievement. What void did you see in the marketplace that made you decide to start your own consulting business?

I don’t know that there was a void per se, but I did sense that based on my knowledge of the technical consulting field, there was room for client-focused consultants that had experience in industry. That is, for consultants that had been in their clients’ shoes at some point in their career and understood the business reasons for a technical project. I could tell that certain clients that I interacted with appreciated that I had business experiences that were similar to theirs and could better view projects from their perspective.


How has the landscape changed since you got into the industry?

It’s gotten more competitive. Early on at EARTHRES, a large part of our services was environmental and regulatory-centered. Also, our mining and solid waste markets were more niche markets in 1995. Now, 25 years later, the environmental market is quite mature, and even our mining and solid waste services are seeing more competition. EARTHRES has been adapting in all of our markets by expanding our breadth of services and becoming a more valuable partner to our clients. The other big change, in essentially all of our client markets, is the amount of consolidation that has taken place. This has reduced the number of clients and made it even more important that we distinguish ourselves through our level of service.


What challenges have you seen over the past 25 years, and how did you address and grow through those challenges?

There have been a lot of challenges.  But that is part of what keeps things interesting.  Our people have really been the secret to navigating these challenges.  We’ve been blessed with having a group of people that were able to take on those challenges and do whatever it takes to not only get through, but emerge stronger on the other side.  The economic downturns or recessions have been challenging because you really can’t control how the Nation’s economy is functioning.  I think that the diversity of our client base helped us through those times.  We had the dot.com bubble and Y2K scare that caused a recession that began in early 2001 and continued through the 9/11 attack and into 2003.  During that period, EARTHRES’s growth flattened, but we remained profitable and strong enough to rebound afterward.  Some of our markets were down, but others stayed strong.

Before the current COVID-19 pandemic, the Great Recession was probably our greatest challenge. It began in 2007 and continued officially until 2009. Early on, it had a significant impact on the housing and land development markets. EARTHRES was not directly in the housing market, so our business wasn’t immediately impacted. However, as time went on, our markets experienced a delayed impact in 2009-2010. Again, our revenue and growth flattened, but we were able to remain profitable without having to reduce our staff. When the economy rebounded, we remained fully staffed and saw significant growth in the following years.

Other challenges that we have seen are common to most businesses. We’ve been through changes in personnel and ownership in our clients’ organizations, and during the past ten years or so, have found it challenging to find new employees in a tight labor market. This is especially difficult for us because we are recruiting highly-skilled technical staff.


Today’s market is more saturated with environmental consultants.  How have you evolved to remain competitive?

Well, the most significant thing that we have done is to purposely grow our services to become more than an environmental firm. We are truly a multidisciplinary engineering firm now. That puts our service offerings on the same level as many larger national firms. The traditional environmental firm would normally cease to add value after the permitting stage of a project, whereas we are now able to support our clients through all stages of a project. That includes planning, permitting, design, construction, and operations. It is very efficient for our clients to have to manage only one consultant and to have a partner that understands the entire lifecycle of the project. It’s like having an in-house engineering staff without the overhead that comes with having their own specialized resources.

With all of that said, we are still a very capable environmental firm with a client base that is fully rooted in natural resources and earth science and engineering. Our company name is still completely relevant and appropriate.


What sets you apart from the competition?

I like to think that our people and our core values set us apart. We have always tried to take care of our teammates in our firm while treating our clients as true partners. We really do strive to put ourselves in our clients’ shoes and have tried to hire people with industry experience whenever we can. It’s a way to bring a client’s viewpoint inside of the organization so that we can better understand their priorities. We have always provided exceptional benefits to our team and worked to maintain a focused but low-pressure work environment that encourages collaboration.

I am excited to be moving the firm to an open book management culture with a team structure to facilitate the increased sharing of information across the organization. Our goal is to empower employees at every level to make more decisions and move to the mindset of employee-owners. I think that this will clearly set EARTHRES apart from much of our competition and improve our employee engagement and development process dramatically.


EARTHRES has been able to weather the current Pandemic. In an article that you shared, the writer recommended that we take advantage of our downtime during the pandemic to do a Start/ Stop/Keep analysis on how we are spending our time. Many of us found things that we no longer needed and started some habits that improved us. What lessons did you learn during the Pandemic; what things did you find that you could do without, and what things made the business better?

Unfortunately, we are not through the Pandemic yet. As a company, we have been fortunate that we are able to continue working remotely while many businesses in the country are shut down or operating at unsustainable levels. Probably the biggest thing that I have learned is to stop being so focused on the business and start being more communicative and engaged with the whole team. The practice of weekly huddles and company meetings helps to remind me that we are a team, and we must routinely share information about the business. This way, we can be sure that the whole team is aligned and working toward the same goal. During the Pandemic, we dramatically increased routine communication throughout the company. Out of necessity and the need for safety, we shared recommendations and protocols sometimes even daily to help reduce the risk to our employees while still maintaining an acceptable level of service for our clients.


How has client interaction changed since the Pandemic?

Client interaction was becoming increasingly difficult even before the Pandemic. In the last 25 years, I’ve seen a trend of increasing difficulty or obstacles to client interaction. With my clients, this has been the result of the recessions and consolidation of companies into larger organizations. The recessions tend to cause companies to contract and do more with less. That means fewer people and less spending. Then when the economy recovers, businesses are reluctant to add employees and expenses. The result is many managers are now doing the work of two or three people, and it leaves them very little time to interact with us as outside consultants. That is one reason why our model of partnering and offering multiple services is so beneficial to a client. It saves a lot of communication time when a client has only one consultant to manage.

Obviously, the Pandemic has further limited in-person interaction. Most of our project meetings and client visits are now virtual or over the phone. With some clients, that has been sufficient to maintain the relationship, but with others and especially new clients, the in-person meetings conducted within CDC guidelines are extremely important.

 

How do you see the market evolving in the next five years, and how are you poised to grow with it?

It’s never easy to predict the future, but I believe that observing trends over time can be a good indicator of what’s coming. In our business, I think we are going to continue to see competition for talent and further consolidation in our client markets. The business of resource extraction, both mineral and energy, and beneficiation is continuing to become more costly as regulations and public opposition increase. As a result, many of our smaller clients find it increasingly difficult to compete when operating at a small scale. Larger companies benefit from economies of scale when it comes to the operating overhead associated with permitting, compliance, insurance, and public relations. The same holds true for clients in the waste management business. I think this is one of the biggest drivers of consolidation that I have seen. The evolution of our services and brand to a multidisciplinary firm should have us positioned well to continue to serve those larger clients.

As our clients consolidate, we must continue to expand our network of relationships within those organizations. Involvement of the entire project team with the client will help to develop an understanding of the organization and their needs, as well as strengthen relationships with our clients’ teams. Having a client team will also increase the resiliency of those relationships as changes in our teams inevitably occur.

On the talent front, our country has experienced a long-term downward trend in the number of students entering education and careers in the STEM areas (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). The result is that graduates entering the technical field job market have more job choices with salaries that are increasing at historically high rates. At the same time, many of us who have been in these technical careers are nearing retirement along with the rest of the baby boomer generation. Advances in software and other technologies can reduce some of the demand for employees at an operational level, but it will take a commitment on our part to make sure that we are preparing the managers of tomorrow to deal with an increasingly complex environment for our clients. Our ability to distinguish EARTHRES as an exceptional workplace will be critical to our future success in recruiting and maintaining quality people in this increasingly competitive environment.

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