Independent environmental firms are increasingly rare, but out on the East Coast, CEO Eileen Pannetier has succeeded by sticking to her small-firm roots.
By Liisa Andreassen
Prior to founding Comprehensive Environmental Inc. (Best Firm #3 Environmental for 2016), CEO Eileen Pannetier worked for a national A/E consulting firm. It was there that she first developed her vision for CEI’s culture – an independent company where professionals could realize their ambitions without sacrificing their personals lives.
“I wanted to remove the barriers that large businesses can often create and provide our engineers and scientists with challenging work, professional support, and opportunities to grow technically and within the firm,” she says.
CEI recently inked an important contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was featured in Stormwater magazine, and presented at the 27th Annual Nonpoint Source Pollution Conference in Hartford, Connecticut. The firm has five offices in four northeastern states, and has grown to about 30 people. Having struck out on her own in 1987, it’s apparent that Pannetier has achieved what she set out to do, even if there is still work to be done.
A conversation with Pannetier.
The Zweig Letter: How have you seen CEI evolve since its founding?
Eileen Pannetier: In 1987, when I first did the incorporation paperwork for CEI, I’m sure I did not suspect that so many consulting firms today would be on a consolidation binge and that small firms would be as rare as they are. My goal was to offer a great place to work where professionals of all types could make a difference while working on challenging projects, but still have a life after-hours. What I did suspect was that many big firms had already lost sight of the client and their best interests in the struggle for utilization in the post-construction grants days. For younger folks, those days were full of 90-percent construction funding, by the government, for water and wastewater projects, and when that ended, life in all engineering/environmental firms likely got a lot harder. Enduring a couple of recessions since then, CEI has slowly and organically grown to about 30 professional staff who serve the northeast. Our services have grown and expanded from water supply and water quality projects for municipal clients to hazardous waste, stormwater engineering, water treatment facility design, sustainability, geotechnical, and wastewater for major federal and state agencies.
TZL: Do you have advice for others who want to strike out on their own?
EP: An MBA would have helped me to start, along with more knowledge of financial planning and accounting for service firms, but the most important characteristic is enthusiasm and an understanding that you will have to work a lot harder than you ever have before.
TZL: What are your key strengths? What are the key strengths for an effective leader?
EP: Persistence and determination. When things don’t go well, look to what you personally can change or fix, or examine your outlook, rather than finding fault with others. Never be afraid to self-evaluate and correct as needed.
TZL: How would you describe your leadership style?
EP: I have high expectations of myself and others, and I also jump in when needed. I am trusting of staff who have proven themselves.
TZL: To date, what has been your greatest challenge and how did you deal with it?
EP: Hiring the best staff did not come naturally to me, and it took a long, hard look at failures to learn how to trust my “gut” in hiring. Once that happened, bad hires have been rare. The last recession was also tough, but we got through without any layoffs by tightening belts, working harder and self-funding payroll on a couple of occasions. If you don’t believe in your business, then the banks won’t either.
TZL: What is your vision for the future of CEI?
EP: To continue to grow as an independent firm in service areas and geographically. We’ve been able to do this through the years while managing to avoid the growing pains and pitfalls that others have fallen into when growing too fast.
TZL: Tell me about a recent project you are especially proud of and why.
EP: There are many, but if I had to select only one of the leading contenders, it would be a project with EPA Region 1 where CEI’s engineers are constructing innovative nitrogen treatment units on Cape Cod as a pilot for municipalities facing MS4 permits in coastal areas and the Connecticut River among others. It was featured in Stormwater in May.
TZL: How have you helped your firm to outperform some competitors?
EP: We have extremely low project manager turnover rate. This allows us to provide the consistency, technical quality, and responsiveness that our clients expect.
TZL: Is there any news you care to share about CEI projects or anything else?
EP: We are extremely excited to have just been awarded, as part of a joint venture, an IDIQ contract to provide the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New England Division with architect-engineer services for hazardous, toxic, and radiological waste projects within the North Atlantic District. This five-year, $2.5 million contract is the result of more than a year of planning and a significant step in our efforts to increase our federal service sector.
TZL: Are you married? Children? Pets?
EP: I am married with two adult children and four “fur-kids:” two Humane Society cats and two German Shepherds.
TZL: What’s one thing most people at the firm don’t know about you?
EP: My great, great aunt was the first French journalist to interview Sigmund Freud and she also greeted Charles Lindbergh when he landed, according to a family history journal.
TZL: Best vacation spots?
EP: Bali, Indonesia, and Alaska are two of my favorites, but I also enjoy many of the U.S. parks and the Caribbean.
TZL: What is the last book you read?
EP: I’m the type of reader who will stay up all night reading any “entertainment” book, so I rarely do so. Instead, its business books all the way. I have no problem putting those down at bedtime! My most recent favorite is by Scott Burnam, Drafting and Analyzing Contracts: A Guide to the Practical Application of the Principles of Contract Law.
TZL: What’s the best piece of work-related advice you’ve ever received?
EP: Whenever you think everything is going superbly, beware of “drinking your own Kool-Aid.”
TZL: Who is a leader you admire? Why?
EP: There are two West Point graduates – Army Capt. Kristen Griest and Army 1st Lt. Shaye Haver. They are the first women to pass the 60-plus day Army Ranger School. That took a lot of determination, strength of body, mind, and purpose! They are real groundbreakers for other women in the future.
TZL: When you’re not working, what types of activities do you enjoy?
EP: Family, photography, and gardening. I’m also a complete news junkie.
TZL: What’s your favorite lunch?
EP: As long as I can eat it outside on a sunny day, it doesn’t matter.