President of DY Consultants, a nationally-recognized aviation consulting firm based in New York City.
By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent
Yap has spent the past 35 years using his expertise as an airport planner and a civil engineer toward developing DY Consultants, a nationally-recognized aviation consulting firm. He works with his team to provide solutions to some of the more sophisticated problems facing airports today, while designing and managing the most complex engineering projects. His firm has provided services to some of the nation’s largest airports, as well as the general aviation community.
“We do have a vision to transform the company toward ‘self-sufficiency,’ where the company is not dependent upon any one person or one group of individuals, including myself,” Yap says. “We understand that this approach is important to our sustainability and long-term health. We’re well on our way to meeting this goal.”
A conversation with Dennis Yap.
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?
Dennis Yap: That’s easy – in order of importance: 1. Quality, 2. Quality, 3. Quality, and 4. Quality. That’s been my approach from the beginning. It’s what distinguished us from our competitors when I was a “one person” firm and today as a 50-person firm. As long as you provide excellent quality services and deliverables, everything else will work itself out. We discuss this openly with staff and address matters of poor performance and celebrate client accolades.
TZL: How far into the future are you able to reliably predict your workload and cashflow?
DY: Workload is more predictable than cash flow. We typically project out a year’s worth of minimal workload for our planning and engineering staff as we often manage the programs and have a good understanding of the needs of our repeat airport clients. Much of the services we provide are funded by public monies, such as federal and state grants which are planned a year in advance. Cashflow has several variables. When working with projects funded by grants, there are many factors that impact the reliability of timely payments, including the efficiency of our clients being reimbursed by the governing agencies. In addition, there’s a level of unpredictability when working with private clients, as well as working as a sub-consultant to a prime consultant, which is often impacted by their cashflow.
TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”
DY: At this stage of our growth, I find myself working full-time “in the business” while I’m in the office, with a significant amount of attention working “on the business” when I’m away from the office. As a “hands-on” owner, I’m not proud that this is the case now. We do have a vision to transform the company toward “self-sufficiency,” where the company is not dependent upon any one person or one group of individuals, including myself. We understand that this approach is important to our sustainability and long-term health. We’re well on our way to meeting this goal.
TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?
DY: Family and friends have played a tremendous role in my career and in DY Consultants. The characteristics that have been instilled in myself and how our company operates has been described as personable and flexible with a hard work ethic. The perspective I’ve gotten from my parents, my wife and kids, my friends, my employees, and my colleagues have all contributed to where I am today – technically and as a person. I also include employees in this group because they’re family to me too.
TZL: Artificial intelligence and machine learning are potential disruptors across all industries. Is your firm exploring how to incorporate these technologies into providing improved services for clients?
DY: As airport planners and designers, the industry is growing at a pace I’ve never experienced. The techniques involved in solving complex issues at airports necessitate the ability to automate and analyze information quicker than what was expected in the past. DY has made a concerted effort toward advancing technology with a commitment toward R&D. One example is our ability to analyze massive amounts of data and using it to solve complex problems, such as maximizing efficiencies in the airspace, on the airfield, and at the terminals at the busiest airports in the world.
TZL: What, if anything, are you doing to protect your firm from a potential economic slowdown in the future?
DY: There is no doubt that this wave we’re riding will come to an end. We’ve taken a diversified approach within the airport industry. Our business plan and our marketing approach consider opportunities from additional types of clientele and expanding our reach geographically while exploring additional services we may be able to provide, to address upcoming industry needs.
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?
DY: I’m a big believer in developing young professionals into managers. Being young, driven, hardworking, and creative is what makes up the DY brand. One of the challenges we have is to develop talented individuals within our firm, who have proven to be technically smart and loyal individuals, into great people managers. The company does provide leadership training to our management group with a focus on team building, inspiring and motivating staff to meet their personal and corporate goals.
TZL: How are you balancing investment in the next generation – which is at an all-time high – with rewards for tenured staff?
DY: This has always been a challenge, but seems heightened as investments in development have increased. We are a young company. The average age of our group is mid-30s. I’m a big supporter of providing everyone equal input when it comes to the growth of DY, and I have and will continue to invest in our staff, regardless of age. The needs of the “next generation” or the millennials are different than those of the baby boomers and I totally understand that their needs and the types of rewards that resonate with them may be different from others. At DY, the quantity of investment is equal across the board, but the type of investment and rewards may be different.
TZL: What novel approaches are you bringing to recruitment, and how are your brand and differentiators performing in the talent wars?
DY: Our approach toward recruitment relies heavily on word of mouth. We’re fortunate to have a great reputation and our marketing department does a great job in getting the message out to colleagues – domestically and globally. We advertise in traditional trade journals, on social media, through our website and use talent research firms, but often talent comes to us through discussions with either colleagues in the industry or with DY’s existing staff.
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?
DY: We have and will continue to work with universities, locally and nationally. Unfortunately, the number of higher education institutions that focus on airport planning and engineering is limited. DY has promoted the advancement of this topic in some of the engineering schools in our region. For example, our planners have coordinated through the ASCE to hold brown bag lunches at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering to introduce students to airport planning. Another example of collaboration with the universities includes our use and coordination with Virginia Tech on the use of aviation software used for reducing delays at airports.
TZL: Is change management a topic regularly addressed by the leadership at your firm? If so, elaborate.
DY: We recognize that change is essential to company growth, especially when it comes to providing professional services to airports. We ourselves are going through an interesting time in our corporate history, and, for us to move into the next stage of our development, we need to make adjustments. We’ve established a committee of core individuals to convene quarterly to discuss the “New Direction” we look to instill as we move forward. This includes engaging outside ideas from management firms experienced in this field to developing an advisory board that may include a network of industry leaders.
TZL: What financial metrics do you monitor to gauge the health of your firm?
DY: I look for reports to confirm that we are invoicing more than we’re spending with an acceptable level of profit built in. I review four reports each month:
- P/L statements (accrual and cash) – Review of revenues vs. expenses
- Utilization reports – Ensuring staff is productive
- Individual project financial reports – Ensuring we’re staying on schedule and within budget
- Monthly projections – Upcoming months’ anticipated financial projections
TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
DY: To make decisions as quickly as possible. I recognize that even a wrong decision is better than no decision. I’ve been in situations where I’ve let circumstances continue, which has impacted us financially and operationally. When the problem is left alone it’s been detrimental to company growth.
TZL: Research shows that PMs are overworked, understaffed, and that many firms do not have formal training programs for PMs. What is your firm doing to support its PMs?
DY: We are particularly sensitive to this issue – for everyone. I’m a hard worker and need to pay particular attention to the fact that our staff is extremely motivated and driven. I know the concept of providing rewards to those who work hard helps, but I also know that overworking for an extended period of time is not sustainable. The leadership training we provide our managers addresses issues such as time management, handling work-life balance, and providing them as much support as possible with available resources.
TZL: How many years of experience – or large enough book of business – is enough to become a principal in your firm? Are you naming principals in their 20s or 30s?
DY: My barometer is based on the amount of contribution they’ve made to the company, their commitment to maintaining our excellent reputation and taking it to the next level such that all individuals within the firm will benefit and our clients will get a level of service that is more than expected. A person in their 20s or 30s is certainly capable of being a principal at DY.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?
DY: Create an environment of self-sufficiency and sustainability.
TZL: Diversity and inclusion is lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?
DY: As a Minority Business Enterprise, we take diversity seriously and appreciate the benefits that come along with it. The majority of DY’s staff is made up of international professionals from around the world with a large percentage of them being minorities and women. Although a sensitive topic these days, I find it irresponsible not to include talent that will make a positive contribution to our team, regardless of their ethnicity or gender.
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
DY: Our group is a family and we work hard to create an atmosphere and environment that is conducive to providing a great product to our client, but more importantly benefiting our staff with experiences they cannot get anywhere else. It’s not unusual to walk in the doors of DY and see a celebration for a personal birthday or major success. I believe our team recognizes that each individual plays an important role in our firm and they are able to advance their careers faster at DY than anywhere else.