F orty-six-year-old KJWW Engineering Consultants of Rock Island, Ill., recently hit the 500-employee milestone, but barely had time to celebrate. Since the start of this year, KJWW has hired 40 new engineering graduates, opened its first international office (in India), and doubled the space in its Naperville, Ill., office. That's on top of 55 employees the firm added last June with the acquisition of EME, LLC, an MEP engineering firm in Chicago.
This may seem like a lot of new, inexperienced hires for an MEP firm to absorb, but not for KJWW, which has doubled both staff and revenue in the last five years. It's just part of what company president Paul Van Duyne calls “The KJWW Way.”
“At some time in the '70s, the decision was made to recruit recently graduated engineers and to continuously mentor and train them to perform at the highest level,” Van Duyne told Building Design+Construction. “What was happening back then was that many engineers were leaving their firms to become consultants. By focusing on recent graduates, we could give a new hire a path to becoming a consultant here or following the traditional engineering route. To this day we use recruiting at the college level as our main source of new employees.”
That strategy has paid off in terms of employee loyalty. The average annual voluntary employee turnover at KJWW is less than 7%, compared to an MEP industry average of about 20%. Forty-one percent of all employees and 53% of the engineering staff have worked their entire careers at the firm. Five of the firm's eight principals have spent their entire career at KJWW.
KJWW is equally loyal to its employees. The firm has never incurred an employee layoff, even in the slowest of times. The firm plans to add at least 100 new employees this year and record another year of at least 15% growth. KJWW was ranked 19th among engineering firms in Building Design+Construction's 2007 Giants 300 and 75th by industry tracker ZweigWhite on its Top 200 Firms List.
“Our major market segments are healthcare and higher education, and both of these segments show a lot of growth,” Van Duyne says. “We're taking a larger market share.”
Doubling up on mentors
To attract and keep so many neophyte engineers, KJWW bases its entire corporate culture around training and mentoring. In the last three years alone, the firm has offered 1,233 technical training sessions and devoted 29,212 hours to employee training. The firm spends an average $2,718 per employee on training every year.
KJWW partners with Western Illinois University's Graduate Center to offer an extensive list of business development and engineering courses as well as in-house training from KJWW engineers. WIU professors come to KJWW's Rock Island office twice a week to teach classes that are videoconferenced to KJWW's six branch offices. All classes are open to all employees, including administrative staff and technical support. The firm has a dedicated corporate education department that oversees every class, course, and program taught at KJWW.
“We have also hired education specialists who orchestrate development of engineering skills, people skills, and soft skills,” Van Duyne says. “The idea behind having these specialists on staff is to streamline the whole process. Our engineers teach hundreds of classes a year, and with our education professionals available, they don't have to worry about orchestration and setup. They can still be full-time engineers and have the support to train and mentor their colleagues.”
The firm provides a tuition reimbursement program up to $3,000 a year for graduate work and $1,500 a year for undergraduate work. In addition to its traditional engineering education program, KJWW also has a design consultant program that's set up to teach the special skills consultants need to succeed, from presentation and listening skills to conflict resolution and negotiating.
Beyond formal, in-house education, all of KJWW's new hires get a mentor when they join the firm. Most new hires begin to mentor another new employee after two years. KJWW's system of “doubling” mentors has been crucial in allowing the firm to expand exponentially. Mentors provide quarterly reports on the engineers for whom they have responsibility. These reports become an important part of every employee's annual performance appraisal.
“Doubling has been wonderful in that you have engineer mentoring engineer directly,” Van Duyne says. “Everybody coming into a company like this and working on their first projects wants to have more feedback on what they're doing. By giving them a mentor who's recently gone through that same experience, there's more of a feeling of trust, and you get more of the questions that might not be addressed to a more senior engineer.”
That feedback extends to the company's Performance Incentive Points System, or PIPS. Employees rank themselves in five categories on PIPS report cards three times a year and review their rankings with their supervisors. Total points accumulated become part of the overall calculation for bonuses in an employee's annual performance appraisal.
“Talking is valuable,” Van Duyne says. “And talking to your supervisor can be a more pleasant experience if it determines your bonus opportunity, so it really works as a vehicle to start that dialogue between employee and supervisor. The categories are necessary to the success of the company.” Every KJWW employee does this self-ranking, including engineers, designers, CAD operators, and even administrative staff.
Getting into the spirit, batteries included
Even with more than 500 employees in four states and India, KJWW still has the feel of a small, family-run company, with a sense of openness between employees and management. For example, at the suggestion of employees, the firm instituted a system whereby employees can “do lunch” at company expense, whether or not company business is discussed—as a matter of fact, the less business, the better.
Nothing speaks more to the family environment of KJWW, though, than its two Christmas parties, held at a hotel near the Rock Island headquarters office. The grown-up party for employees started when KJWW was incorporated in 1961; the children's party got going in 1993, when Van Duyne's oldest son, who was 12 at the time, suggested it.
All children under the age of 13 are invited to the party, held the afternoon before the evening adults-only event. Each child receives a gift valued at $40 and hand-picked by Donna Van Duyne, the president's wife. In 2007, that amounted to 175 gifts. “We had to get a trailer to carry them all,” Paul Van Duyne recalls.
Donna Van Duyne uses a massive spreadsheet to track which gifts each child received over the years to avoid duplication and to make age-appropriate selections. The Van Duyne family members wrap all the gifts themselves—they even make sure there are batteries for gifts that require them.
For the grown-ups party in the evening, KJWW hires a local daycare provider to come to take care of the children at the hotel so their parents can enjoy the dinner and other festivities.
Van Duyne acknowledges that having a party at the holidays is not unusual, but he says he uses it as an opportunity for employees and their families to get to know each other better. “It's a way for employees from all the offices to get to know each other and be recognized,” says Van Duyne. “We want to be a company that helps its people succeed and rewards them for that success.”
—Jeff Yoders, Associate Editor