President of R.E. Warner & Associates (Cleveland, OH), a 68-year-old full service, multi-discipline consulting firm that’s in growth mode.
By Liisa Andreassen
Beltavski has more than 35 years of management and engineering experience, primarily for heavy industrial and power generation and transmission facilities. And even after nearly seven decades in business, he says R.E. Warner & Associates is in “growth mode.”
“In general, people try to be optimistic when it comes to sales. Don’t let that happen,” Beltavski says. “Don’t hold extra manpower for a job you don’t have.”
A conversation with Ted Beltavski.
The Zweig Letter: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”
Ted Beltavski: The COO and I both spend a lot of time handling project concerns more than we need to. In fact, this question prompted a discussion between us to examine the situation at hand. We’re shooting for an 80/20 mix now.
TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?
TB: We have a good work/life balance. My wife and I have two kids in college and two in high school. This business can take over your time if you let it. I’m an early morning person, so I get in early and get out early.
TZL: What, if anything, are you doing to protect your firm from a potential economic slowdown in the future?
TB: It’s important to try not to be fragile. We work to spread out the business among clients – kind of like a mutual fund model. We got our start in the steel industry, but continue to examine new and emerging technologies (i.e., energy).
TZL: It is often said that people leave managers, not companies. What are you doing to ensure that your line leadership are great people managers?
TB: For the past four years, we’ve worked with a national company. The founder helps us to identify up and coming leaders. These people are called “Eagles.” There’s an analysis, follow-up, and much more. The program encourages equilibrium in all five pillars of a person’s life: spiritual, emotional, financial, mental, and physical.
TZL: What novel approaches are you bringing to recruitment, and how are your brand and differentiators performing in the talent wars?
TB: We are active recruiters. People are the lifeblood of any company. We work with local colleges and offer mentorships and internships. Twice a year, we present at local colleges on the topic of what an engineering degree can do for a student’s future. We’re active on social media and keep our finger on the pulse of “unicorns.” We attend professional gatherings and belong to professional associations. We bring energy and enthusiasm to the field and offer people three tracks: technical, project management, or executive.
TZL: Is change management a topic regularly addressed by the leadership at your firm? If so, elaborate.
TB: During the last four years, we’ve had a good number of long-term employees retire. They had a lot of history here and we work to get that knowledge transfer to happen as quickly as possible when new people come in. Introductions have to happen fast. It’s also about managing a change in relationships, because as many of these people retire, their contacts retire too. It’s something we are constantly working on and sometimes it can be like pulling teeth.
TZL: How often do you valuate your firm and what key metrics do you use in the process? Do you valuate using in-house staff or is it outsourced?
TB: We do it annually. We work with an accounting firm that preps for tax filing and valuation. It’s based strictly on book value.
TZL: Ownership transition can be tricky, to say the least. What’s the key to ensuring a smooth passing of the baton? What’s the biggest pitfall to avoid?
TB: We just went through this five years ago. It’s important to be very honest and to get young people bought in by giving them a lot of responsibility. They need to have a vested interest.
TZL: What unique or innovative pricing strategies have you developed, or are you developing, to combat the commoditization of engineering services?
TB: Pricing varies based on client. Some are lump sum and some are rate. We stay away from exceeding contracts. It helps to work with agents to negotiate terms of payment. For example, some clients will agree to pay for a job within three days. That’s great for cash flow and it also helps to win a lot of work.
TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
TB: In general, people try to be optimistic when it comes to sales. Don’t let that happen. Don’t hold extra manpower for a job you don’t have. And project managers have to get change orders.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?
TB: People development. I work to remove obstacles too.
TZL: What happens to the firm if you leave tomorrow?
TB: I’m 100 percent confident that the firm would carry on with no problem. I’m already working on an exit strategy, though I don’t anticipate leaving anytime soon. We have a finance committee of three and an HR committee of three – it’s all about learning and cross training.
TZL: Diversity and inclusion is lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?
TB: The future is bright. We’re seeing more diverse populations in classrooms and there are also more people in general. Engineering classrooms that used to be filled with 30 students are now filled with 90-100 students. It’s also not just about diversity in race/gender, it’s about diversity in skill set. We hold regular company sensitivity trainings to make sure people understand changes in the workplace.
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
TB: Culture. We do our best to be proactive and encourage a strong work/life balance. We all work together to pick up the slack for each other as needed. We care about each other and have each other’s backs. It’s a very supportive culture here.