Conference call: Eileen Pannetier

Apr 24, 2017

CEO and founder of Comprehensive Environmental Inc. (Best Firm #3 Environmental for 2016), a 30-person firm headquartered in Marlborough, MA.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

A cornerstone of great project management? “Be available,” Pannetier says.

A conversation with Eileen Pannetier.

The Zweig Letter: What’s your philosophy on fee/billing and accounts receivable? How do you collect fees from a difficult client?

Eileen Pannetier: Making sure that we understand the clients’ needs is the first crucial step. We encourage project managers to build their communication skills and develop a good rapport with the client from the start. A good clear scope detailing any assumptions we’ve agreed to with the client is key. Next, we follow up with frequent, informative communication – verbally and in progress reports. It doesn’t happen often, but if there’s a problem with an invoice, we communicate immediately with the client to see if there’s anything that can be modified to ensure they get what they need.

TZL: What’s the recipe for creating an effective board? Is there a secret to effective ownership transition?

EP: CEI is an employee-owned company by a first-class group of principal engineers and scientists who were nearly all promoted from within. These people are the management team who participate in the shareholders’ and board of director meetings. Training and practice are our secret weapon in effective ownership transition. Principals mentor junior staff, work out backlog, and identify niche areas of marketing that they are interested in pursuing. Then the marketing and ownership folks provide them with uniform tools that have proven effective for CEI. The result is a team approach where everyone knows what their role is. The roles may rotate at times, and as a team, there is great coordination and forward movement of the company. Everyone pulls together. One vital aspect is identifying key skills that these talented team members bring to the group and cultivating those skills to help build and grow the firm.

TZL: How do you go about winning work?

EP: We put our existing clients’ needs first and it’s these clients that provide us with the best opportunity to win new jobs. New work from repeat clients makes up the bulk of our business and while developing effective marketing campaigns and establishing technical leadership in our industry is important, earning exceptional references and the respect of our existing clients is crucial to repeat work and winning new clients.

TZL: What’s the greatest problem to overcome in the proposal process?

EP: Making sure that you aren’t just competitive, but that you’re going to rank number one. Coming up with the best strategy and then turning it into a winning proposal is hard work. The proposal process can involve so many multifaceted levels of assessment and strategies, it can be easy to get off track. We are constantly checking in to see that we’re progressing as needed, and that our strategy and philosophy come through clearly.

TZL: Once you’ve won a contract, what are the “marching orders” for your PMs?

EP: It’s three-pronged:

  1. Establish a good channel of communication with the new client from the start
  2. Identify exactly what they’re looking for and how CEI can be of assistance
  3. Be available

TZL: How does marketing contribute to your success rate? Are you content with your marketing efforts, or do you think you should increase/decrease marketing?

EP: CEI’s success is based on our incredible staff, their innovative thinking, and custom client approach. Marketing is easy when you have excellent references and successful projects! However, we’re always trying to find ways to increase our marketing to grow the firm, and are continuously improving our strategy and efforts.

TZL: What has your firm done recently to upgrade its IT system?

EP: We’ve installed state-of-the-art videoconferencing centers. Although videoconferencing has been around for years, these new centers offer our staff crisp audio and video with a virtual conference room extension from just about any electronic device whether you are in the office, working from home, on a job site, or anywhere in between. These centers have helped us reduce travel time and environmental impacts while maintaining the open communication we feel is essential to a successful project team. We also upgraded our computer system and increased our on-call IT services and security to monitor today’s threats.

TZL: What’s the best way to recruit and retain top talent in a tight labor market?

EP: CEI provides several incentives to attract talented staff. They include:

  • Great clients
  • A solid mentoring program
  • A strong sustainability vision and team
  • A high degree of technology and innovation
  • Advanced learning and opportunities for growth
  • The ability to make a difference in the world
  • Control over their own destiny
  • Encouraging out-of-the-box thinking (it’s even rewarded)
  • A kid and dog friendly family atmosphere
  • Established pathways to ownership and advancement
  • Flexible working hours
  • A day-to-day sense of accomplishment

CEI also offers very competitive benefits and a solid support team at all labor levels. Being ranked as one of the Best Firms to Work For the last six years straight has also helped!

TZL: What’s the key benefit you give to your employees? Flex schedule, incentive compensation, 401(k), etc.?

EP: This depends on who at CEI you ask since our staff is made up of individuals from all walks of life. We offer low premium family health and dental plans, flex time, 401(k) match, professional development support, and a host of other benefits. We find that certain benefits are more important to some individuals than others which is why we offer a wide variety.

TZL: What’s your preferred strategy for growth, M&A or organic? Give us a synopsis of how your firm effected growth in the recent past.

EP: CEI will celebrate 30 years of business this April and it’s been 100 percent organic growth. By keeping our services and clients diversified we’ve been able to ride out the ups and downs of the industry while creating steady growth. Our staff is our number one company asset and it’s been their determination and industry innovation that has helped CEI grow.

TZL: What’s the greatest challenge presented by growth?

EP: We have to carefully consider large growth opportunities when presented to us since CEI is not a “hire and fire” type of firm where individuals are hired for a project and then let go when the project ends. We carefully consider each new hire as an important company investment – hopefully a long-term one. So we want to make sure we have the backlog to keep individuals busy long after those first initial projects.

TZL: What’s your prediction for 2017 and for the next five years?

EP: Technology is ever changing and we see great opportunities in the engineering and environmental fields using various new field, assessment, modeling, and remediation methods in the coming years. We are off to a great start in 2017 and look forward to what the next five years brings.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.