Founding principal of PK Electrical (Reno, NV), a women-owned, small business electrical engineering and design firm founded in 1996.
By Liisa Andreassen
Purcell wears many hats. She’s the Electrical Engineer of Record for many projects, oversees and does project proposals, marketing, financials, mentoring, hiring, quality control, customer service, and meets with clients. She’s also the author of Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.
“As a woman engineer and a business owner in a field that is strongly dominated by men, I know what it is like to be the only woman in the room and not feel included,” Purcell says. “That shouldn’t happen to anyone.”
A conversation with Karen Purcell.
The Zweig Letter: What measures are you taking to protect your employees during the COVID-19 crisis?
Karen Purcell: Everyone has been working remotely since mid-March. As we re-open the office, guidelines regarding social distancing, in-person meetings, sanitizing work areas, etc. have been issued. Additionally, any employee who does not feel comfortable coming back to the office may continue to work from home.
TZL: What are the three to four key business performance indicators that you watch most carefully? Do you share that information with your staff?
KP: Our key performance indicators include proposal dollar amount per month/quarter/year; percentage of won/lost proposals; revenue growth company wide and by office; revenue diversity (what industry is the revenue coming from) and profitability. We do not share actual dollar amounts in terms of revenue with our staff. The metrics that we share with our staff are mostly in terms of percentage.
TZL: How far into the future are you able to reliably predict your workload and cashflow?
KP: I’m sure we all wish we had a crystal ball to help us determine and predict workload and cashflow. For workload, about six months to a year, and for cashflow about three to six months.
TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”
KP: I would estimate that I spend about 90 percent of my time working on the business. We had a business coach several years ago who stressed the importance of spending the majority of my time on the business. I think that this has helped with the success of our firm as well as our ability to sustain during the Great Recession.
TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?
KP: Family is why I do what I do. For the most part, they are separate. I feel that it’s better to keep the two separate so that you can focus on the family when you are with the family and on the business when you are at the office.
TZL: Are you using the R&D tax credit? If so, how is it working for your firm? If not, why not?
KP: At this point we are not. However, we are looking into this.
TZL: How are you staying in touch with your clients during this pandemic?
KP: We are communicating with our clients via the phone, email, Zoom, etc. to check in with them to see how they are doing and letting them know that we are fully working and available for whatever they need.
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?
KP: Our firm is valued once a year. We typically use Zweig Group’s numbers to determine the company value. This year we intend to have the firm professionally valued.
TZL: What financial metrics do you monitor to gauge the health of your firm?
KP: We look at our proposal dollar value to help us estimate our future revenue, our actual revenue, and the dollar value per employee based on revenue. This helps us ensure that we aren’t under- or over-staffed based on our actual and projected revenue.
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?
KP: Early on I recognized some key staff who I felt were knowledgeable in our field, knew how to provide amazing customer service, could handle difficult situations, lived our company values, and most importantly, were people that I wanted to be in business with. We are a relatively small firm (less than 40 staff) and started our transition plan six years ago. We have three other shareholders (besides myself) that I will be transitioning the company to and we are all working on the transition plan together. I am very open and honest with my timeline, our company metrics, and really every aspect of the business. I value and respect their opinion. The greatest pitfall to avoid, in my opinion, is to wait until it’s too late to start the transition planning.
TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
KP: One of my early failures was not terminating employees fast enough. For example, if they weren’t a good fit for the company and our core values, or if they didn’t have the technical knowledge or ability to learn the required skills, they probably needed to go. I was afraid of the uncomfortable situation. Not only was I costing the company money by keeping the employees on, but it was affecting staff morale, and I wasn’t helping the “to be” terminated employees be successful at something else. Our motto now is hire slow, fire fast.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?
TZL: Diversity and inclusion is lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?
KP: I believe very strongly in providing a workplace that is both diverse and inclusive. Being mindful, aware, and non-judgmental are all important. As a woman engineer and a business owner in a field that is strongly dominated by men, I know what it is like to be the only woman in the room and not feel included. That shouldn’t happen to anyone.
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
KP: We provide an environment that is welcoming, professional, fun, and flexible. We don’t micro-manage, we provide opportunities and benefits that let our employees thrive both inside and outside of the office, and we aren’t afraid to invest in our employees. We recently had a couple of employees come back to us after they left several years ago because of our culture and environment.