Growing an Evergreen Company Takes Grit
Vicki LaRose, Civil Design, Inc.
August 13, 2019
In 2000, four years after founding my engineering firm, Civil Design, Inc. (CDI) in my basement, I partnered with two fellow engineers to broaden the services and project scope of the work I could take on. Under the umbrella of my business, we worked together for several years—they were moonlighting while each working for other firms, and I was able to work at home and raise my young family. At the time, it seemed a practical solution for all of us.
Then we had an opportunity to take on a project inside the St. Louis district, which required we move our office space out of my basement. I emerged kicking and screaming from the house—I had loved my years working from home—but the move proved advantageous for growth, and we soon had a team of eight employees. But, as we expanded, we grew into a tangled mess of a dysfunctional partnership.
As our team grew, it became clear that we needed to implement infrastructure and programs to support our employees. We couldn’t just run things by the seat of our pants any longer. People were depending on us.
Taking on this responsibility felt natural to me. I've always been focused on people and trying to give them what they need. My partners, on the other hand, were focused primarily on profit. I would try to bring up issues related to employees or bring them into other management conversations, and they refused to engage. We started to clash and became siloed.
Without input from my partners, I sought other advice and insight—and it was a good thing I did. I learned that, given our partnership structure (each of my partners had bought into my company with a minimal investment when we initially joined forces) I should have a buy-sell-agreement in place. I spent months creating an agreement, and I handed it to my partners in end of 2005 with an employment agreement.
The firm was designated as a woman-owned firm from the beginning because of the advantages and incentives around minority- and women-owned firms in the engineering space, and the agreement outlined that I owned 60 percent of the company, and they owned 20 percent each. They had each bought in with very minimal investments, and they were aware of their minority ownership from the get-go. But they both bristled at the agreement.
From that point forward, they both started acting like entitled owners who didn't have to show up for work. In fact, it came out later that they spent the bulk of each day playing ping-pong. I had no idea that they weren’t pulling their weight because I was on another floor of the building trying to keep the business running and growing. Always a hard worker, I was pushing myself, trying to get through what felt like an impossible situation for the benefit of the employees.
Within a few months of their signing the buy-sell agreement, the three of us were hardly talking. Early in 2006, one of the two partners came to me and told me he had some financial problems and wanted out. I realized that buying that partner out would mean that the remaining partner would acquire an additional five percent of the company, which was crazy to me. Our relationship had degraded to the point that it was just a mess.
So, in November of 2006, I took a week to really think through what I needed to do to save the company; it was the longest week of my life. It was very painful—literally. I came down with shingles from the stress.
I can still remember the day that I came home after being diagnosed with shingles. I was crying and talking to my husband, and I said, "I really hate my company." And as I said the words, it dawned on me how bad things had become. If I hated my company, how did my employees feel? I knew then, definitively, that something had to change. I decided that not only did I need to buy out the partner who had requested that, I had to fire my remaining partner.
It was a traumatic time. But I never considered not persevering, not seeing it through. That has always been my way. My childhood was difficult, and from an early age I just had to persevere. If I didn't stick to my gut and persist, I wasn’t going to get anywhere. That's all I've ever known. So, though this situation was incredibly challenging, I didn’t know any other way but forward.
Having made the decision to assume full ownership of the firm, I was worried about how the change would affect morale. Would employees be worried about the future of the company?
I knew I needed to be able to say to the team, "We're going to stand on our own two feet. When these two are gone, we're going to be okay." If not, I knew I could lose people and, potentially, the company. So, I gathered several of our senior project leaders, and we went off site for a two-day strategy and coaching retreat. We needed to be able to define who we were, what we stood for, and where we wanted to go as a company. With the help of a professional coach, we were able to create our four core values over those two days: continuous learning and growth; mutual trust and respect; personal ownership; and, responsiveness. Those four values still guide us today.
Having done that work, I was able to come back to the company, share the news of the partnership change, and know that we would be okay. And, we’ve been more than okay in the now 13 years since. We are a thriving Evergreen™ company, employing 75 people across offices in three states and poised for continued growth.We are attracting top talent because we are guided by People First policies and embrace a culture that emphasizes quality of time spent working versus quantity—we want people to work in a way that allows them to be happy and well, to spend time with their families, and to avoid stress as much as possible. I believe if our team members go home happy and I have done my job helping them create a happy home, then the CDI influence will hopefully help their kids think about working for an Evergreen company themselves.
As we move forward, the lessons of those early years are clear and present for me. Had I vetted my partners to know if they shared my People First values, I would have seen from the beginning that our visions for the company were not aligned. Now, when I interview employees, that’s what I’m looking for first: engineering skills are essential, of course, but anyone who joins our firm must first share our commitment to People First and to maintaining the unique culture we have developed.
I wouldn’t want to live through the trauma of that partnership scenario again, but I am grateful for the key learnings I received. Now, when I take the long view and consider what I want for the company and for our employees, I feel confident that the culture we have created will see us through any future challenges.
Vicki LaRose is President of Civil Design, Inc.