CEO of French & Parrello Associates (Wall Township, NJ), an engineering and environmental services firm that provides innovative solutions to clients across multiple markets.
By Liisa Andreassen
It was more than 30 years ago that Tardy began what would turn into a lifelong career. While pursuing an undergraduate degree in civil engineering at Rutgers University, he worked as an intern at French & Parrello Associates and has since risen to company CEO. He received a master’s degree in geotechnical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley, but this initial focus has now greatly broadened.
“I was always eager to learn, and French & Parrello Associates offered me an opportunity to improve my knowledge base and skill set. They constantly offered new opportunities and challenges,” Tardy says. “Ultimately, my longevity at FPA is directly related to the people and work atmosphere. There’s a team environment, and the people are friendly with a high-level of integrity.”
A conversation with Steven Tardy.
The Zweig Letter: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?
Steven Tardy: Trust is earned through always acting with integrity and in the best interest of the client. It’s always important to understand the needs of the client and the factors influencing their decisions. Having a client-focused approach is a core tenet to our business philosophy, and meeting and exceeding our client’s expectations has been integral to the success of our firm.
TZL: What skills are required to run a successful practice? What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?
ST: There are many skills important to running a successful practice. First, it’s important to recognize that consulting engineers are businesspeople and engineers. The importance of the engineering aspects has always been clear to me, even as a student. On the business side, financial acumen, proposal preparation/sales, and customer service are paramount and are generally learned on the job. It’s important to have a clear understanding of the customer’s needs.
TZL: What benefits does your firm offer that your people get most excited about?
ST: In addition to traditional and professional benefits, our firm offers a number of work-life integration benefits that are very popular. We have flexible work schedules, and during the summer months we have “Get-Away-Fridays” where we close the office at 1 p.m. It’s our most popular benefit and contributes to our staff’s work-life balance. In addition to an annual holiday party, we have several other corporate events, including Super Bowl and St. Patrick’s Day luncheons, beginning and end of summer cocktail parties, a golf outing, and an “Employee Recognition Week” in November.
TZL: Did you ever imagine that the internship you held 30 years ago would lead to a lifelong career? What’s most motivated you to stay with the firm and what do you hope today’s interns will get out of their experience that you once did?
ST: I don’t recall having a long-term vision when I started in May of 1987. However, there was a well-established hierarchy, from intern to director, and advancing to the next level was always a secondary goal, with constantly doing a good job being the daily focus and the primary goal. I was always eager to learn, and French & Parrello Associates offered me an opportunity to improve my knowledge base and skill set. They constantly offered new opportunities and challenges.
Ultimately, my longevity at FPA is directly related to the people and work atmosphere. There’s a team environment, and the people are friendly with a high-level of integrity.
As for today’s interns, I expect that they will take the opportunity to learn from their assignments and the opportunities offered.
TZL: Since you’ve been with the firm, what’s the most significant change you’ve seen that’s really affected the “big picture” of how you do business (i.e., new technology, new skills, etc.)? Please explain.
ST: A lot has changed. There were no computers or cell phones. If you were in the field and wanted to call the office, you needed a payphone and a pocket full of quarters. Then came the calling card followed by the 800 number. Next there were pagers, cell phones, and then finally smart phones. The change has been remarkable.
The impact of the computer was just as significant. We went from everything being hand-drafted to the use of CAD-based drafting and design; from letter writing to emails and text messages.
Needless to say, the internet has also had a huge impact. In the 1980s, if you wanted information, you either got it from a book you owned or a mentor and their accumulated resources. Now, access to information is tremendous, and this has been revolutionary to the way we market ourselves and develop business.
Fast forward to today, even the pandemic has led to changes in the way our teams coordinate internally and externally using virtual communication tools, which will likely stick around for many years to come. The bottom line is technology is constantly changing, and we are constantly adapting with it.
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?
ST: We try to identify staff with management potential early in their careers and begin to gradually increase their level of management responsibilities, including staff oversight. We provide mentoring and educational opportunities in-line with their progression and potential. Being a successful manager requires experience, and that takes time and effort. We like to expose staff to management topics early in their career to develop them as quickly and completely as possible.
TZL: Have you had a particular mentor who has guided you – in school, in your career, or in general? Who were they and how did they help?
ST: Yes, I’ve had several mentors. I was fortunate to be mentored by a very talented, old-school engineer right out of college. His name was Sam Kleinberg. Sam set a framework for my technical development and encouraged me to explore my passion for engineering across a diverse range of disciplines. Later, I was mentored by Jim Heller, Argo Parrello, and Larry French – three of FPA’s founding members. Jim and Argo not only helped me further my technical knowledge, but also taught me about the financial aspects of running a business, as well as related legal considerations. Larry French educated me on business development and political matters.
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?
ST: We valuate the firm yearly. We use the principal’s reporting method, which considers the firm’s book value, yearly revenue, and earnings before distribution. The valuation, which is prepared by in-house staff, is based on a five-year weighted average of standalone calculations for each of the past five years.
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?
ST: We have just completed an internal ownership transition, from the original owners to other staff. The one essential factor for a successful internal transition is time. An orderly, internal ownership transition should not be a light-switch event. Our transition took 10 years for the stock sales, with payments for the stock purchases requiring an additional seven years to complete the process. That adds up to a total of 17 years. The process will be continuous, as several “new” owners are approaching the beginning of their sales period. The biggest pitfall would be to not have a structured plan with adequate time for implementation.
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
ST: Beyond having competitive salaries and benefits, providing opportunities for growth are essential. The growth opportunities of interest to staff will vary by individual and will change over the course of an employee’s career. A young staff engineer may initially only be interested in working on unique and challenging projects; however, this may transition to advancements in title and authority, and perhaps ownership opportunities.
With the help of our HR department and strategies like internal surveys and open dialogue, we’re able to keep a finger on the pulse of our staff and adapt to their evolving needs and professional ambitions.