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SSOE, Inc.

SSOE, Inc.

Balancing lifestyle with growth

By Maggie Koerth-Baker, Contributing Editor | August 11, 2010
This article first appeared in the 200705 issue of BD+C.
Working Right, Living Right at SSOE
• 16 locations worldwide: Toledo (HQ), Cincinnati, and Lima, Ohio; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Chicago; Durham, N.C.; Irvine, Calif.; Kalamazoo, Midland, and Troy, Mich.; Nashville; Phoenix; St. Paul, Minn.; Seattle; and Washington, D.C.

• Will add 150 positions in Phoenix office over the next three years.

• Projects in 32 countries and 48 states.

• Privately owned; 15% of employees have ownership rights.

• Contributes pro-bono civil and site work for qualifying nonprofit organizations.

• IT goal: 100% BIM on design work by 2009.

• Flex-benefits system allows employees to buy and sell up to 40 hours of vacation time.

• Provides annual profit-sharing; 2007 budget: 8% of base compensation plus bonus, based on company performance and board approval (six-year vesting).

• In-house training and development, from “arc flash hazard awareness” to “employment law” to “time management.”

• Tech Path provides a separate career ladder for employees who choose not to pursue a management role.

• Sponsors a scholarship and a Distinguished Lecture Series at the University of Toledo, in the name of founder Al Samborn.

• Uses 15 different recruitment methods, including direct mail.

All too often, architects, designers, and construction professionals find themselves working for a company whose philosophy can be best described as “work first, live … well, later ” Bucking that trend is Toledo-based SSOE, Inc., where the key word is “balance,” and the business trend is “growth.”

Founded in 1948, the Ohio firm specializes in the design of industrial and commercial facilities and processes. Recent projects include the Toyota Tundra assembly plant in San Antonio; an 18,000-sf, $7 million expansion of the Herrick Medical Center, Tecumseh, Mich.; and Freedom Fuels, a 30 million gallon per year biodiesel facility in Mason City, Iowa—one of 10 biofuel projects currently under way. Projects like these have spurred SSOE to achieve three consecutive years with greater than 15% revenue growth; in 2006, the firm actually grew by 30%.

This trend has led to growth within the company as well. Since 2004, SSOE has added seven new offices, including one in Shanghai that's poised to take advantage of the burgeoning Asian manufacturing market. Already under way in China are a 20,000-sf plant for Owens Corning, a 180,000-sf facility for the International Textile Group, and phase one of a 2.1 million-sf Ford Research and Engineering facility in Nanjing.

Over the last three years, SSOE has expanded its staff by 50% and entered eight new geographic markets. It was ranked #14 among E/A “Giants” in 2006 by Building Design+Construction, with $65 million in revenues. Total revenues for 2006: $90 million.

Retention, retention, retention!

Over the course of 2006, SSOE maintained a 94% voluntary retention rate. One of the key tenets of SSOE's philosophy is the Total Employment Value Proposition—the idea that money isn't the only way an employee should be compensated for hard work, and that training and development need to be an integral part of every employee's experience.

Several years ago, SSOE surveyed employees to find out what they wanted and needed that the firm wasn't already giving them. As a result of survey feedback, within a year SSOE added vision coverage to its health plan and expanded 401(k) investment options from two to seven. In the 401(k) plan, the firm matches 50% of employee contribution up to 6% of eligible salary earnings.

The big employee-suggested change was the flexible benefits program. It works like this: Instead of getting a pre-planned, one-size-fits-all benefits package, SSOE employees get an account of flexible credits that can be applied to three different health insurance plans, long-term care insurance, increased life insurance coverage, or other benefits.

That way, employees who are already covered by their spouses' insurance can use their credits toward other benefits. By the way, the third-party survey that originally led to flexible benefits is now conducted on an annual basis, so that SSOE can stay up-to-date on the changing needs of its staff.

Health awareness at SSOE is managed through a company-sponsored program called Working Well. This innovative system takes a holistic approach to health management, beginning with an initial employee health assessment that identifies each individual's health needs, risk factors, and areas where they might need health and lifestyle coaching—for smoking cessation, weight loss, cholesterol control, or management of chronic conditions like diabetes, asthma, or kidney disease.

The firm provides flu shots at no cost, while an unusual lunchtime program helps employees better understand complicated topics like picking the right healthcare plan, how to save money on healthcare, even how to find the right medical specialist. During the fourth quarter of 2006, 55% of the employees enrolled in Working Well were able to eliminate at least one of their lifestyle-based health risk factors.

Winning the talent war

Like most E/A firms, SSOE is keenly interested in finding new talent and developing the talent they already have. To fill the more than 100 open positions it has each year, SSOE offers employees up to $1,250 for referring potential hires. Starting last year, the firm ran an additional promotion, whereby any employee who referred a candidate—regardless of whether the individual ended up being hired—was entered in a raffle, with prizes ranging from an HDTV to a new laptop.

The firm's participation in Ohio's Third Frontier Program has been productive, too. This co-op program reimburses a portion of the wages paid to technical students to try to encourage them to work in the state. SSOE is one of the leading participants in the program, with 73 internships in high-tech areas. Last year, then-Governor Bob Taft visited SSOE to thank the company for its commitment to Third Frontier.

Once hired, SSOE employees can expect a high standard of continuing education. The firm spends an average of $1,156 a year per staff member on training, which according to management consultant ZweigWhite is 15% higher than the national average for A/E firms. Tuition reimbursement up to 75% is available.

The firm also features a well-organized mentoring system, pairing new hires with trained “buddies” who help integrate the new employees into their jobs and the firm's culture. Executives benefit from 360-degree reviews and regular coaching sessions, acknowledging that even those at the top still have something to learn.

SSOE also makes room for nontraditional career paths. For instance, SSOE knows that there's really no such thing as a retired engineer, so they give older employees plenty of options to stay involved with the firm. One retiree was even able to move to another state, while consulting on special projects and helping out during peak workload periods from his new home. A dozen retirees have taken advantage of this program.

Another program, called Tech Path, is designed to retain talented architects and engineers who are not interested in managerial work to still advance their careers. Tech Path employees are eligible for promotion to master status (with compensation equivalent to department manager); they are also eligible to become principals of the firm.

SSOE is also deeply committed to making sure that its employees aren't consumed by their jobs. The firm extends the creative staffing arrangements already popular with retirement-age employees to those whose family commitments make full-time work impossible. In several cases, this has enabled employees whose spouses or significant others were transferred to another city to make the move while still working remotely for SSOE. Working mothers have also benefited from this program. One employee currently works nine-hour days and one half-day a week in order to spend longer weekends with her child.

Under CEO Tony Damon, SSOE's growth is definitely looking up, creating a positive work environment that seems to be just right for its more than 800 employees.

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