Better together: Erin Inman

Nov 15, 2020

President and CEO of Primera (Chicago, IL), a mid-size, full-service, woman-owned engineering design and consulting firm.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

Inman joined Primera in 2003 where she was tasked with building a power delivery team. Since joining the company, Primera has more than doubled in size and her mission is to maintain a culture of growth through empowerment.

“When I started my career in engineering, there were not a lot of women in STEM, so I’ve always been passionate about helping to change that,” Inman says. “I’m humbled to have mentored a number of women who have gone on to leadership positions in other companies and even started their own firms. I’ve also been active in numerous organizations that support women in engineering and joined the Advisory Board for Girls 4 Science when it was just getting started.”

A conversation with Erin Inman.

The Zweig Letter: You purchased the company from the previous owners in 2016. What was the main impetus for doing that? What was involved in the decision-making process?

Erin Inman: I joined Primera in 2003 because I loved the entrepreneurial spirit and the focus on quality at the firm. The former co-founders Michael DeSantiago and Pedro Cevallos-Candau empowered people to learn, grow, and lead. I knew that this was the kind of company where I could make a difference. This is the same inspiration that continues to drive me today and that drove me to buy Primera. When the founders started planning for their retirement, there was obviously talk of what came next. As the utilities division manager and part of the executive management team, I took part in that conversation. I took a lot of pride in the division we had built, and I was interested in taking that over completely. I talked to Michael and Pedro about purchasing my division, but they did not want to split up the company. There were offers from large firms, but after some discussion they were not planning on keeping the company together, so they asked if I would be interested in buying the whole company. I had a passion for Primera and a belief that I could help take it to the next level. After discussing it with my husband and doing some research on the feasibility, we decided I could make it work. Honestly, things moved pretty quickly from there. The company was, and is, better together.

TZL: How has COVID-19 impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting/working remotely?

EI: We’re incredibly fortunate that we’re able to work effectively from home. We made the decision on March 12 to move 100 percent of our staff to working from home. Prior to the pandemic, we offered a flexible work environment, but our formal policy only allowed people to work from their home one day per week. Because a large percentage of our workforce takes public transportation and the continued concern for community spread, we plan to continue working from home for quite some time yet. We’re currently developing a policy for life post-COVID and will probably have some percentage of employees who continue working remotely indefinitely. We have clearly seen that we can be quite productive and successful working from home.

TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?

EI: There’s a lot of overlap between my work and family life. My husband Bill is the CEO of Hitchcock Design Group, and Primera frequently partners with them on projects. With both of us being in the AEC industry, we read a lot of the same books and have a lot of discussions about business trends and challenges. It’s great that we understand one another’s work and can be supportive of each other, but we also know how important it is to disconnect and unwind to keep from getting burnt out. We make time for ourselves and our grown children that doesn’t include or involve work.

TZL: Trust is crucial. How do you earn the trust of your clients?

EI: Trust is essential for a service firm – internally and externally. We build trust everyday by living our purpose statement, which is to connect with our employees, our clients, and our communities. We value relationships and they are built on trust. It starts with being open, honest, and humble. It can be hard to tell a client we aren’t the best fit for a project or we missed something, but if you want to build lasting relationships, those relationships have to be rooted in integrity and authenticity.

TZL: Are you using the R&D tax credit? If so, how is it working for your firm? If not, why not?

EI: We are using the R&D credit, and it’s working very well. Reducing our taxable income has had a positive impact on our bottom line. That impact allows us to reinvest in our firm which is critical to our growth. We’ve been able to make several key hires and expand our Mid-Atlantic office.

TZL: Working with women and children to further STEM skills seems to be a passion of yours. Please give me a few examples of what you are doing on this front and what the outcomes have been.

EI: When I started my career in engineering, there were not a lot of women in STEM, so I’ve always been passionate about helping to change that. I’m humbled to have mentored a number of women who have gone on to leadership positions in other companies and even started their own firms. I’ve also been active in numerous organizations that support women in engineering and joined the Advisory Board for Girls 4 Science when it was just getting started. I regularly speak to organizations that support women and girls; I think it’s important to share my journey, answer questions, and provide advice and inspiration. As far as STEM education, that is something that Primera has long supported through mentorship, volunteer opportunities, and charitable donations. After buying the company, I wanted to make sure we solidified that commitment. Last year, we launched the Primera Foundation – a 501(3)c dedicated to giving children in our communities the opportunity to impact our world through STEM. In our first year, we sponsored scholarships for two engineering students. This year, we’ve added two more and will provide mentoring and internships. While we are still in our infancy, I’m excited about the opportunity to help expose more and more women and children to STEM education.

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?

EI: Shortly after I bought Primera, I enlisted the help of an outside consultant to build very robust hiring and performance review processes that work hand-in-hand and center entirely on people. It’s important to me that we are all great people managers. We developed a list of 25 character traits that define what makes us “Primerans.” Those traits drive all aspects of our recruiting and professional development. For engineers, technical skills are critical; but as “Primerans,” soft skills carry equal weight. To develop an ownership culture, we need to be open and honest, kind and compassionate, as well as trustworthy and accountable. The focus on soft skills has been an adjustment, but we’ve seen people become more self-aware and growing into really good people managers. It’s completely changed the kind of conversations we’re having. That’s fantastic.

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?

EI: When I bought the firm in 2016, I did a valuation. After that, we’ve been doing them annually since 2018. As part of Primera’s succession planning, we set out on a slow transition to employee ownership. Our ESOP trustee hires a valuation firm every year to do an independent valuation. The independent firm looks at our last five years of financials, revenue, EBIT margin, backlog, budgets, forecasts, opportunity pipeline, and competitors.

TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?

EI: Empower people to lead.

TZL: Has the culture of the firm changed since you purchased it? Has it remained the same? Please describe the greatest changes that have taken place since then.

EI: Primera’s culture was a big factor in why I decided to buy the firm. People have always been the most important asset, and I did not set out to change that. I would say that the culture has evolved in the last four years, but it’s still centered around people, kindness, knowledge, and teamwork. The greatest change is that I set out to take the entrepreneurial spirit and really ingrain it into our culture. I want to empower people to think and act like owners, and I have really started to see that take shape over the past two years as we have kicked off an ESOP program and started practicing open-book management, which teaches employees about our financials.

TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?

EI: Throughout my career, as a woman in a male-dominated field, I’ve frequently found myself the only woman in the office, on the project, or in the meeting. It can be intimidating and uncomfortable. No one should have to feel that way. Primera was founded as a minority-owned firm, and I’m proud that our staff is more than 50 percent minority and women. Even with that, I knew we still had work to do. The events of the past few months have shed a new light on that. From a personal standpoint, I’m focused on becoming a more inclusive leader and making our culture more inclusive. I’m committed to being better, and I’ve shared that commitment with the staff. I’m making myself personally accountable for walking that talk. We’re launching an employee-led D&I committee to help to ensure it’s ingrained in our firm. We’re also actively looking for opportunities to use our annual volunteer time off to directly impact the inequities in our community.

TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?

EI: We’ve put a lot of time and money into our hiring process to ensure that the people we hire are a good culture fit. While we know turnover is inevitable, we work hard to create a culture where people want to stay. Last year, as part of our plan to create and foster an ownership culture, we started playing the Great Game of Business. We not only share financials, but our employees are engaged in forecasting our revenue and expenses every week. We want everyone to understand how we make money, how each individual in the company can impact the financials, and how they share in the profits. It goes back to my desire to empower our people. A fundamental principle of the Great Game is that people support what they help create. It’s radical transparency, but it’s a hard thing to give up once you have it. We also constantly revisit our benefit offering to ensure that we are competitive. We offer a very flexible work environment, sabbaticals at milestone anniversaries, wellness programs, social events and opportunities, volunteer time off, and more.

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