A celebration culture: Donna Newell

Nov 13, 2022

President of NTM Engineering (Dillsburg, PA), a civil engineering firm that specializes in water resources design, bridge design, and engineering instruction.

By Liisa Andreassen

Newell first started thinking about engineering while in high school. She excelled in math and science, and had opportunities to attend events focused on STEM careers. In her junior year of high school, she was invited to an engineering event at Penn State University Park and that weekend solidified her interest in civil and environmental engineering.

Today, she’s one of the founders of NTM, a civil engineering firm that specializes in water resources design, bridge design, and engineering instruction for public and private sector clients.

“After working in the field for 10 years, I had built a small group of water resources staff and felt there was a market for the specialty area of water resources, permitting, and structures work related to the transportation arena, so with the support of my partners, John Newell (husband), Jeff MacKay, and Rachel Tereska, we decided to take the leap to start our business,” she says. “That was 15 years ago.”

Mentorship matters. Newell shares that there were many people along the way who influenced her decision to become an engineer and entrepreneur, most notably her graduate advisor and professor of civil engineering, Arthur Miller. She met Miller in her junior year of college and he became an advisor, mentor, friend, colleague, and inspiration. Throughout her career, she could always reach out to him and he would listen and give great advice. But more importantly, he taught Newell to understand that life is what you make it.

“Anytime I talk with him, he says, ‘life is good,’” Newell says. “It doesn’t matter what’s going on – he chooses to see the good in every situation. He also told me not to be afraid to surround myself with people smarter than me.”

Newell has done this and says it works. More than 20 years ago, she worked for a firm and tried to develop a small specialty water resources group. She interviewed two potential candidates – both had better GPAs than her.

“I could have been intimidated,” she says. “I wondered how I would manage them and if I would be a good mentor. Would I be able to help them develop their careers? But I remembered Miller’s advice and I hired them. Together, we’ve challenged each other and achieved great things. Six years after I hired them, they became my partners at NTM.”

External and internal challenges. Since founding the business, Newell shares that – like any business – there are changes and challenges.

For NTM, externally, there’s been a definite shift in client expectations regarding how quickly a project can be designed and it’s a constant challenge to balance staff resources and projects to meet clients’ needs.

“While we work to meet expedited work schedules, we are always upfront with clients on schedule issues that are not feasible and/or will be out of our control,” she explains.

For example, one of their primary services is related to state and federal permitting. While NTM can control how long it takes to get the permit documents compiled, they are not in control of the review time that the agencies may take.

“We work with the client to build reasonable review times into the schedule, but try to make sure that the client understands that the review time on the agency side can fluctuate,” she says.

Internally, staffing is one of the top concerns. Newell says that it’s challenging to find staff for all markets now. And, while NTM strives for an employee-focused culture and offers a great benefits package to hire and retain good staff, it is and likely will continue to be one of their top challenges.

“We look to hire people who have solid technical skills coupled with people skills, who are also focused on delivering quality,” Newell says. “While it’s important to have strong technical staff, you can’t teach attitude – so a good attitude is an important part of our selection.”

After a staff member is hired, they’re assigned a peer mentor in addition to their supervisor. The peer mentor is intended to be someone to connect with about process-related items and just to help get familiar with firm standards, etc.

Creating a culture to celebrate. And once in, staff tend to stick around.

“In an industry that emphasizes the importance of safety and regulations to the public, it’s important to make sure our employees have an environment that is not only supportive, but to also allow time for fun,” Newell says.

NTM offers flexible, hybrid work schedules and respects their employee’s private lives. They strongly believe in sharing their corporate success and make great efforts to reward personnel for their contributions to NTM’s growth and exemplary reputation, including annual bonuses based on meeting strategic firm goals. They hold monthly celebrations where they acknowledge special days and accomplishments and also host planned events that tend to be less of a corporate event and more of a fun get together. Throughout the year, there are numerous food-related contests, including chili, soup, and dessert cook-offs. Halloween gets its own potluck celebration, complete with office decorations and costumes.

“We’re determined to continue providing an engaging place to work while offering our employees project work that’s challenging to their professional capabilities,” Newell adds.

To ensure project managers and supervisors are working together and providing strong leadership to staff, NTM instituted a two-part session of supervisor training. They brought in an outside consultant to facilitate various team building and communication exercises with their supervisors. This training allows the growing firm to continue to develop internal relationships within technical groups and across the offices. They’ve also established an internal quarterly newsletter to keep communication open.

NTM believes that community involvement is very important and helps opens employees’ eyes to local issues. They support and encourage staff to serve on community and professional committees, volunteer with local charities, and help the community be a better place to live and work. Their personnel have presented seminars or served on committees for elementary, middle and high schools, as well as colleges, churches, and professional societies. NTM also hosts school-age kids for job shadowing in its office, with the ability to let them experience each service area that NTM offers.

As they celebrate their 15th year anniversary, NTM has made it their mission to find “15 Ways to Give Back” over the course of the year. So far, they’ve supported New Hope Ministries Back-Pack supplemental nutrition program, planted trees in South Philadelphia for the Philadelphia Horticultural Society, cleaned debris and overgrown vegetation in the Codorus for the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association, donated to Keystone Human Services to support Susquehanna Service Dogs, sent supplies to Ukraine, and volunteered with ClearWater Conservancy.

“We’re proud of the work that we do and the ability to give back to our communities,” Newell says. “We also allow each employee four hours of paid time to provide community outreach to an organization of their choice.”

Diversity is also a key part of the NTM culture. With a multicultural staff, they’ve held various activities throughout the years that recognize and honor other nationalities, etc. Additionally, they offer three paid floater holidays each year that employees can use on days of their choice. This allows the employees to celebrate their ethnic and cultural beliefs throughout the year.

A strategic plan. NTM’s owners and senior managers updated the firm’s strategic plan to outline NTM’s mission, vision, and high-level goals for the next five years. This process also included employee surveys and a management self-audit. A company-wide meeting was held to review the results and plans for the company’s future.

In April 2022, NTM acquired Lotus Environmental Consulting, LLC. Lotus brought their full range of environmental consulting expertise to complement NTM’s well-established civil engineering services. NTM leadership has maintained an open and direct line of communication and Lotus employees were paired with NTM employees at the start of the acquisition, so they had an established person to reach out to for any questions. Updates are given monthly to all employees, and social events, company lunches, and trainings have been organized to help build a cohesive team.

So, it’s clear. While, small businesses are sometimes challenged with managing growth, NTM carefully and continuously monitors workload and capacity to ensure that commitments are carried through and project milestones are met. The principals share the belief that sharing their knowledge base and delivering quality work is paramount to success – a philosophy that resonates throughout the firm.

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