President and CEO of RJN Group (Wheaton, IL), a firm that is passionate about the environment, committed to community, and devoted to the welfare of its employees.
By Liisa Andreassen
Prior to becoming RJN Group’s president in 2017, Jeff Plymale served as the company’s executive vice president and COO. The board chose him to step into this position based on his track record of strong leadership and innovation – both inside and outside of RJN. He’s been with the company since 2000 and has held multiple management positions including business development, strategic planning, geographic expansion, product development, and management of multiple large-scale condition assessment programs around the country with municipalities under federal consent decrees.
“As an ESOP, all employees get to build their future and reap the rewards as owners,” Plymale says. “As a destination, RJN offers employees the opportunity to shape their career, have a voice, and build their legacy.”
A conversation with Jeff Plymale.
The Zweig Letter: What’s the greatest difference between your role now and your role as executive VP and COO?
Jeff Plymale: My appointment as chief operating officer was coincidental with the former president announcing his retirement. Under a compressed five-year timeframe, we formed an Executive Management Team (EMT) that fulfilled the role of the president. Once I became president, my duties remained the same, but the full weight of the position hit me as the last line for decisions. It now rests on me to lead with a vision and set the company tone for expectations and values. It’s often said that it can be lonely at the top, and that’s certainly proved true.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?
JP: Delivering shareholder value for our employees is number one, which takes a clear vision and accountability.
TZL: How are you balancing investment in the next generation – which is at an all-time high – with rewards for tenured staff? This has always been a challenge but seems heightened as investments in development have increased.
JP: We’re committed to developing all levels of staff through training, expanded responsibilities, and mentorship. For succession planning, we’ve bolstered our investments in our junior staff and the next tier of leadership. We have an Associate Partner program, which takes on the responsibility of the “voice of the employee,” where rising leaders participate on the strategic planning, 401(k), and other business committees. Our 100 percent ESOP culture embodies investing in our employees, with ownership rewards for all.
TZL: How has COVID-19 impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting/working remotely?
JP: Coincidently, we recently adopted a telecommuting policy and our intent was to gradually expand participation as we gained experience and refined it. Little did we know that within two months, all of our staff would be putting telecommuting to the test. When the crisis hit, we expanded the policy, outfitted staff to work from home, and bolstered our remote capabilities. I’m proud of our staff and their focused efforts to adjust quickly to this new environment.
TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”
JP: As the dynamics of the management team changes, so does my focus. With a full complement of executive managers, I am able to spend more time on the business. Over the last two years, the needle has pointed more toward “in the business” as we integrated new senior leaders and I put on my mentor hat. It was swinging back to “on the business” until COVID-19 hit, but this is gradually fading.
TZL: RJN Group’s tagline is “Engineering Infrastructure for Tomorrow.” How do you ensure that you’re keeping up with, and ahead of, what the future holds for water management?
JP: Water quality is and will remain a driving force for utility providers and our economy. Since the late 1970s, RJN has been regarded as a pioneer in the water environment. Our engineers developed one of the first work-order systems, along with hydraulic analysis and asset coding methodologies, which are the foundation of current industry standards. Our professional staff stay ahead and often lead the charge as leaders in various industry organizations, serving as presidents, committee members, and experts on research forums. We remain curious of new and evolving engineering approaches, construction methods, and technologies to advance our practice for the benefit of our clients and the environment.
TZL: Trust is crucial. How do you earn the trust of your clients?
JP: Deliver – be early, accurate, and thorough. Be the consultant you’re hired to be – listen, respond, and honor your agreements.
TZL: Artificial intelligence and machine learning are potential disruptors across all industries. Is your firm exploring how to incorporate these technologies into providing improved services for clients?
JP: Our clients are deluged with all kinds of data. What they really want is statistical and analytical data to act on – and they want it now. In our wastewater flow monitoring business alone, we deliver more than 14 million data points per day.
We’re now diving deep into “smart” systems and integrating our software with cutting-edge technologies from around the globe to enhance our client deliverables. ClarityTM is an online tool we built for utility owners that delivers live hydraulic and condition assessment data. It provides event notification, statistical, and analytical outputs so clients can immediately make informed decisions.
TZL: Is change management a topic regularly addressed by the leadership at your firm? If so, elaborate.
JP: We’ve had two competing agendas that have caused a tremendous amount of change over the last six years – growth and retirement. We nearly doubled in size while transitioning eight executive leaders, including three C-suite and six board members. The EMT provided a means to mentor and pass the baton smoothly.
We’ve launched into five new geographic territories and diversified our service offerings. We continue to adapt our organizational structure, institute new standards, and improve our onboarding process in anticipation of change.
TZL: Over the years, what do you think is the most important skill or trait that you developed or have that made you successful as president? Why?
JP: I’ve always been passionate about fostering growth for others to help them realize their potential and play to their strengths. As president, you can’t run a company alone – you need a strong team. I’ve never shied away from cross-field promotions that match the passion of an employee with the needs of the company.
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
JP: It’s our culture that keeps employees here for the long term. As an ESOP, all employees get to build their future and reap the rewards as owners. As a destination, RJN offers employees the opportunity to shape their career, have a voice, and build their legacy.
Our success is centered around strong financials, smart growth, and cultivating remarkable people. We offer long-term stability and a flexible work-life fit in a culture of inclusion where all employees are appreciated and respected. By giving our employee-owners the freedom to grow and the opportunity to reach their full potential, we hope RJN becomes their final destination.