Culture setter: Ernesto Aguilar

Nov 11, 2019

CEO of Ardurra Group (Tampa, FL), an engineering consulting firm with a focus on the positive.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

Aguilar is a seasoned professional engineer with nearly 30 years of experience in all aspects of management and operations of an engineering consulting firm. As CEO, he’s focused on driving strategic growth and acquisitions, managing operations, engaging staff, and ensuring quality project delivery. He has worked at some of the fastest-growing firms in the U.S., and has experience managing national private, public, and private equity portfolio companies in the AEC industry. His experience includes sourcing, valuation, and integration and merging of acquired companies.

“You have to balance patience and results,” Aguilar says. “Patience has to be part of the equation. Success doesn’t happen overnight. If you push people too much, they’ll move on. Don’t be impatient.”

A conversation with Ernesto Aguilar.

The Zweig Letter: What are the three to four key business performance indicators that you watch most carefully? Do you share that information with your staff?

Ernesto Aguilar: Utilization, effective multipliers, and backlog. We share this information with managers who are responsible for business units. We want the rest of the staff to focus on the jobs at hand.

TZL: How far into the future are you able to reliably predict your workload and cashflow?

EA: Nine to 12 months.

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

EA: It kind of fits together. Family needs to always override work stuff, but they’re often intertwined. Some days, I may need to work late, but then another day, I may work until early afternoon and then go for a swim with my son in the pool. I’m flexible and know when to cut off, but still need to get things done. My kids are now 18 and 16, but when they were younger I signed contracts with them that if they ever wanted me to leave work early or not take a business trip because they had a personal reason – they could override my work. My daughter put this to the test one day for a music recital and I honored the contract and postponed the work trip. They know they take priority.

TZL: What, if anything, are you doing to protect your firm from a potential economic slowdown in the future?

EA: Seventy-five percent of our work is public. It’s a bit more stable than private and not as cyclical. I believe that when the next recession comes (and it will), dollars will flow into infrastructure projects to boost economic output.

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?

EA: I never realized this statement was true until it happened to me. I do believe that people follow people. Ardurra is comprised of eight different companies. Some of the companies are made up of employees who followed their managers. These are people who have built companies and by nature are just good. We focus a great deal on human resources and have an Employee Council that helps to establish and maintain culture. It also meets on a quarterly basis to review how to improve leadership styles.

TZL: What novel approaches are you bringing to recruitment, and how are your brand and differentiators performing in the talent wars?

EA: We’ve been very fortunate that many staff members have come to us via word of mouth. We’ve started project management and leadership programs and people want to know that we have their best interests at heart. For example, Ardurra Leadership is a program that takes 10 staff members through a year-long educational and networking experience that will help them develop their careers. We’ve established a culture where people do not want to leave. We’re very proud of being a Best Firm To Work For, and that’s attracted people too. We have an aggressive recruitment bonus program that ranges from $1,000 for a lower-level position to anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 for a higher-level position. We also have an internal recruiter. We’re very on top of our culture and when someone leaves, the board is made aware of it and the reason for leaving is closely examined. We have not lost a key principal from the acquired companies.

TZL: When you identify a part of your business that is not pulling its weight in terms of profitability or alignment with the firm’s mission, what steps do you take, and what’s the timeline, to address the issue while minimizing impacts to the rest of the company?

EA: We try to focus more on the positive. If part of the business is not doing well, we address it quickly. Don’t drag it out. So far, it hasn’t been an issue.

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?

EA: Once a year we hire an outside valuator. We use comparables, revenue, growth, and profits.

TZL: What financial metrics do you monitor to gauge the health of your firm?

EA: Cash flow, accounts receivable, and backlog. I examine cash flow daily, and the other two monthly.

TZL: You want high utilization for profitability, but that means employees are fully loaded with assignments. How do you balance growth, utilization, new clients, and new hires?

EA: We identify where people’s roles should reside based on their strengths – business development, operations, or technical. We also have some seller-doers who straddle more than one of these roles. We assign utilization goals based on these roles. You have to understand the differences in people and figure out where they can be best utilized.

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

EA: You have to balance patience and results. Patience has to be part of the equation. Success doesn’t happen overnight. If you push people too much, they’ll move on. Don’t be impatient.

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

EA: Culture setting.

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.