Culture carrier: William Nugent

Dec 13, 2020

President and CEO of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. (Northbrook, IL), a global firm that’s committed to helping clients solve, repair, and avoid problems in the built world.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

William Nugent joined WJE in 1976 and has since completed more than 500 investigation, testing, and repair design projects. He has presented lectures on structural failures, seismic performance, and cladding problems and repair techniques.

“Our stated vision is to be a group of extraordinary people working together to set the standard in our business. Accordingly, we seek to employ people who have the potential to become extraordinary WJE professionals and who have the drive to work together to set the standard in our business and thereby make a positive difference in our world,” Nugent says.

A conversation with William Nugent.

The Zweig Letter: Since you joined the firm, what are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen?

William Nugent: One significant change is the increase in our size. When I started, we had about 30 employees; today we have more than 700. However, by far the most significant change I’ve seen is our increasing use of advancements in technology. When I started, we hand-drafted initial reports, relied on main-frame computers for our significant structural analysis work, and used pay-phones to call-in from the field. In our structural laboratory, we made strain and deflection measurements by hand or recorded them electronically one gage at a time with a voltmeter. The advent of desktop computing, electronic data acquisition systems, the internet, and – more recently – tablets, smartphones, and related technologies has changed the way we do business. It’s widened our capabilities, enhanced our efficiency, and generally made things much easier.

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

WN: We earn our clients’ trust by trusting our employees. Unlike many companies, we have very few rules and policies. Rather, we stress five core values: consummate professionalism, shared destiny, technical excellence, exceptional service, and fiscal responsibility. These are the principles upon which we strive to base all our actions. Above all, we encourage our employees to simply do what’s right.

We’ve found that our employees respond well to the freedom that our trust-based culture provides, and they take seriously the personal responsibility that it requires. We regularly see them do extraordinary work to serve our clients, which across time has helped us develop a large and loyal client base.

TZL: How has COVID affected your business on a daily basis?

WN: As you might guess, the most significant daily change has been our virtually across-the-board transition from working in the office to working from home. In addition, when it’s been necessary to do certain work on job sites and in our laboratories and offices, our staff have adopted new daily practices (social distancing, frequent hand washing, and wearing masks) to help protect everyone’s health and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. As an organization, we’ve also remained flexible, adapting internal systems and processes where needed to better support our employees and our clients. In particular, we’ve continued to enhance our already strong suite of technology and communications tools, including Zoom, Skype, and Teams.

The good news for us has been that even though many daily practices have changed, our ability to deliver distinguished work product and exceptional service to our clients has not. Since the pandemic first hit, we’ve continued to do business from our homes, the field, and our offices and laboratories in accordance with government guidelines almost without interruption.

TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?

WN: First let me say that I consider the opportunity to fill a key leadership role at WJE an honor and a privilege. I work hard every day to be worthy of that honor and to continue to earn that privilege. Beyond that, I think it’s most important to ask what type of leader others consider me to be.

In that regard, I hope I’m seen as a values-driven leader who cares profoundly about the success of our company as well as the success and well-being of every one of our employees. I also hope that I’m seen as someone who has high expectations of himself and others; who puts the good of the company and others first; who is strong in his convictions, but still open to new and/or better ideas; who believes almost anything is possible; and who, above all, always strives to do what’s right.

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?

WN: For starters, we work hard to select the right people to be our managers. We believe that our front-line managers’ number one responsibility is to help the people they manage succeed. Almost all of our people managers have worked in our company for at least 10 years or more before they’re asked to become managers. This gives us a great opportunity to observe their behaviors and understand their talents. We often say that we’re always looking for people who have the “WJE manager gene” – people with selfless motivation and the innate ability to work with a variety of different individuals to help them succeed.

Individuals selected to be our front-line managers initially go through a two-day “now that you’re a manager” internal orientation class. Once in the role, all our managers attend semi-annual two-day workshops to further develop their management/leadership knowledge and skills. In addition, we encourage each of our managers to develop and maintain informal relationships with other managers. We refer to it as “managers helping managers.”

Across time, we’ve been fortunate to have exceptional front-line managers. Their diligence is one of the reasons we have such a strong and positive culture and a very low staff turnover. In fact, more than half our employees have worked at WJE for more than 20 years.

TZL: If you had to pick one thing that you’re most proud of during your career with WJE to date, what springs to mind?

WN: Almost from the day I started working at WJE, I realized that our founders had sown the seeds of a very special culture. It was founded on values, based on trust, centered on people, and focused on excellence. It’s a culture that across time has helped set us apart as a great place to work, a sought-after professional services provider and a leader in our business.

TZL: Does your firm work closely with any higher education institutions to gain access to the latest technology, experience, and innovation and/or recruiting to find qualified resources?

WN: WJE has always had partners in higher education, and we’ve continuously nurtured and grown those partnerships. This has allowed us to consistently find a diverse group of talented new employees who are passionate about problem solving, want to contribute to our unique culture, and are ready to make a real difference in their professions.

The foundation of these partnerships is our “campus champions” program. It builds on our employee alumni relationships with professors and other university staff to help connect us with students who have the character, commitment, expertise, and enthusiasm we seek in all our staff.

Besides maintaining these important relationships, we support the respective universities’ engineering and architecture departments by attending career fairs, presenting guest-lectures, hosting student groups in our offices, and providing tours of our Janney Technical Center laboratories. In addition, we often collaborate with various universities on significant research projects. One of our company’s core tenets is to contribute to the betterment of our professions. Our partnerships with leading universities reinforce a shared commitment to expanding our industry’s knowledge.

TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?

WN: The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to be humble. I’ve made my share of mistakes, some more consequential than others, but thankfully none so serious they couldn’t be remedied. These failures and many other experiences have helped teach me humility. Working with so many intelligent colleagues has shown me how much I’ve yet to learn. And working with so many supportive people has made me realize how my success is as much due to their help as it is to my own efforts.

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

WN: “WJE culture carrier.” I came to the role of CEO almost 23 years ago. At the time, I had already worked at WJE for 22 years, several of those directly alongside our founders. That background helped me gain an understanding of the culture bequeathed on us. Since day one, I’ve tried to do everything I can as CEO to enhance our culture and help promote an understanding of its elements and value throughout our company. I believe that more than anything else maintaining our special culture will ensure our success for generations to come.

TZL: WJE is committed to helping clients solve, repair, and avoid problems in the built world. Is there a specific project that really stands out for you? Can you provide some of the details of what the problem was and how it was solved?

WN: One project that really stands out was the reconstruction of TWA Flight 800. In the summer of 1996, Flight 800, a Boeing 747 aircraft, was on its way from New York to Paris, and exploded about 12 minutes after take-off. All 245 passengers and crew were lost. The National Transportation Safety Board immediately began an investigation to determine the cause of the disaster. Working with the U.S. Navy, they soon recovered close to 100 percent of the wreckage and placed it in an abandoned aircraft hangar on Long Island.

WJE was subsequently retained by the NTSB to reconstruct a 100-foot section of the aircraft’s fuselage, including the passenger cabin, fuel tanks, luggage compartments, and wing stubs in that section. No aircraft reconstruction of that scale had ever been done before, and it was hoped that successfully doing so would provide investigators some key clues needed to determine the cause of the crash. Against a tight deadline, three WJE technicians and five WJE structural engineers, including myself, devised a plan for the reconstruction. We then spent eight non-stop weeks on Long Island physically performing the work ourselves. The completed reconstruction helped the NTSB conclusively determine that the explosion had originated in the plane’s central fuel tank likely ignited by a spark from frayed electrical wiring.

Afterwards, WJE was retained to move the reconstructed aircraft to NTSB’s facility near Dulles Airport where it has been used for years to train new generations of accident investigators. For WJE, and for all of us who participated, the project was unique, challenging, and extremely rewarding.

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

WN: We’re committed to creating the most fulfilling work environment in our business: one that is based on trust and personal responsibility; one that encourages open communication, continued learning, innovative thinking, and teamwork; and one that provides each individual, regardless of position, a combined opportunity for personal, professional, and financial growth that is unequaled in our business.

I believe the main reason staff “stick around” at WJE is that they enjoy the high expectations as well as the substantial rewards that our environment provides.

Click here to read this week's issue of The Zweig Letter.

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.