Growth in AEC: Dave Witsken

Dec 17, 2023

Adrian De la Garza, CM&AA

CEO of UES, an industry leader with more than six decades of experience in geotechnical engineering, materials testing, environmental consulting, and more.

By Adrian De la Garza
M&A Advisor

Zweig Group had the privilege of engaging in a conversation with Dave Witsken, a seasoned industry professional who has been with UES (Orlando, FL) for nearly two years, where he shared insights into his role at UES and unveiled UES’ goals for the future.

A conversation with Dave Witsken.

The Zweig Letter: Who is UES?

Dave Witsken: UES is a focused engineering and testing firm with a rich history offering a compatible range of specialized services in environmental and earth sciences, sustainable infrastructure solutions, and geophysical technologies. UES has achieved remarkable growth and solidified its position as one of the fastest-growing and most respected engineering firms in the United States. With a team of nearly 4,000 certified and experienced professionals, UES is committed to upholding the company’s values, founded on serving, solving, and succeeding for employees, clients, and investors.

TZL: UES has been recognized as one of the most active strategic buyers in our industry. Can you tell us about UES’ M&A activity and investment strategy?

DW: The collection of our partner companies, now more than 25, has helped us realize the power of teamwork. When a company joins our enterprise, its history becomes ours and vice versa – that means its resume, its people, and its best practices. Our goal is to bring these together to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. This takes a lot of purposeful work, but the flywheel is turning and gaining momentum every day. We start off with the philosophy that each company joining the enterprise will bring something to the group that will make us all better, and to date, that has been the case. Of course, we also want to make sure that the enterprise and network can help accelerate partner companies’ growth, access to information and resources, profitability, etc.

Our goal is simple: safe, profitable growth and being the client’s partner, employer, acquirer, and investment of choice.

TZL: Can you tell us more about UES’ relationship with BDT Capital Partners? How has this relationship elevated acquisitions in the company?

DW: We are fortunate in that the senior leadership team, the board of directors, and BDT are additive to the vision, direction, and mission of UES, and all work well together in alignment. While we have a large number of employee-owners, BDT is our primary financial sponsor and a true partner. They bring forth valuable insights and enable access to resources, including capital, that have helped fund our organic and inorganic growth. They are also a partner in the strategy development and governance of the company. Oftentimes, capital structure can drive culture in either positive or negative ways. We are fortunate to be capitalized in a way that facilitates a great culture.

TZL: What is UES’ investment thesis, and what is the economic environment from your perspective?

DW: We believe there is value in a national brand for the services we offer and the industries we serve. For clients, we can serve locally and think nationally, which means that our national network provides local resources and local knowledge but is backed by a national company with scale that has access to a wider array of resources and the capability to invest in initiatives and technology that benefit our local teams and our clients.

For employees, the opportunity to network with team members across the company enables best-practice sharing, learning opportunities, and expanded career paths. Some of our employee networks are formal, which gives more employees a voice and an opportunity to collaborate on initiatives that impact the company or the industry, and others are informal. In the end, scale can be better for both clients and employees as long as we stay focused on customer and employee value propositions and avoid the tendency to allow bureaucracy to creep into the organization.

TZL: Tell us more about the collection of companies. How has this experience been, and how has UES evolved from this?

DW: Working at UES feels like being part of a constantly evolving company. With meaningful additions or process improvements every few months, our employees can grow without changing companies. The pace is inspiring. We spend a significant amount of time “connecting the dots” across the organization and bringing teams together. It’s truly fascinating to see how rapidly our culture is transforming and how people are embracing continuous learning. And, it’s actually a lot of fun! People genuinely enjoy being part of interconnected networks and learning and growing.

TZL: What would you like other companies to know about why joining UES could help their firm?

DW: When you become part of team UES, you’ll have immediate access to a national network of AEC professionals who are ready to help you and your business from day one. With more than 85 branches spread across the United States, we are a thriving company backed by supportive networks and a supportive PE partner, which are aimed at providing differentiated value for clients and employees.

One of the remarkable opportunities we offer is the ability for our team members to transition roles within the company, whether it’s to a new career path or moving between different geographical locations. At many companies, mobility is limited, but our deserving employees have the ability to venture into different areas of the business for personal or professional reasons. Our primary focus is to prioritize internal promotions and create clear career pathways for our team members to grow, and I’m thrilled to witness this vision enabling those opportunities for our team members.

TZL: What are the pain points for firms that join UES?

DW: Change is hard. We have acquired companies with decades-long histories and cultures. Confidentiality is important on both sides through an acquisition process, but it has the unintended consequence that many of the employees of the acquired company find out about a “prearranged marriage” on the day of closing. Suddenly, they find themselves with a new world of possibilities and more resources at their disposal, which sounds positive but can also be scary. As said before, change doesn’t always happen effortlessly; it takes time for people to adapt. Our goal is to have the integration process as something we do with an acquired team (not to them) at a steady pace, giving people time to adjust.

TZL: What are some accomplishments you have realized since joining UES?

DW: All of UES’ accomplishments are ours, not mine, and while our current team is proud of some of our recent accomplishments, given the company’s rich history, we’re also keenly aware that today’s successes are possible because of the efforts of many past team members. UES has grown both organically and through M&A, which has allowed us to invest to better serve our clients and to create more career paths for our team. Our workforce has expanded to nearly 4,000 employees, and last year, we served clients in 49 states. Our scale is allowing us to invest in exciting new technologies, from field and lab tools to new services that reduce cost and cycle times for our clients. This year, our team was honored to be recognized by Zweig Group for the third consecutive year as the No. 1 Hot Firm in the AEC industry.

TZL: There are obviously many ways to structure a merger or an acquisition, but there has been apparent success for UES. How does UES like to structure deals?

DW: Although we have a few different approaches, we like to structure all of our deals as partnerships where both parties are motivated to work together, grow, and provide better service to clients and a better employee experience for team members. Alignment and integrity are the foundation of our approach. Integrity and honor are important before, during, and after closing. We have heard a lot of sad tales from potential target companies, and we work to have a high “say/do” ratio throughout the process, and we expect the same in return. 

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.