Improve and grow: Jeff Gilliland

Sep 30, 2019

Founding principal of J2 Engineers, a multi-discipline firm looking to double its 2018 net service revenue by 2023.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

Jeff Gilliland was into his 20th year as a professional civil engineer when, in 2007, he decided to join forces with Jim Bishoff to found J2 Engineers. Today, Gilliland describes his role as a navigator – one who’s focused on the end game.

“Family is an important part of our culture,” Gilliland says. “We want our employees to be focused while they are in the office so they can have time to dedicate to their family, friends, and their personal health outside of work.”

A conversation with Jeff Gilliland.

The Zweig Letter: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”

Jeff Gilliland: Currently, I’d say it’s about a 50/50 split. I’m an engineer first and foremost, but I also enjoy the business side. Due to our recent growth and the diversity of the needs in our business, my role changes daily. In 2011, we had five employees and now we’re up to 50. I enjoy my role as a leader and a mentor to our young engineers. My involvement in their training is how I assure that my vision for this company passes on to the next generation of engineers. I also enjoy working with clients through the planning and preliminary design phases. This is where my expertise can have the biggest impact on a project.

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

JG: My family has played a huge role in my career. Their love and support have been instrumental. I have always worked long hours, so I have been committed to making the most of my time spent with family. I use my 30-minute drive home to decompress and transition my energy so I can focus on being a husband and dad when I get home. My family, in turn, has been very involved with J2 from the start. My wife initially handled human resources items as well as any client and employee social events. Our three children, now 29, 27, and 21, have all worked in some capacity at J2. Our son, Joey, currently works as an administrative assistant. There’s overlap between work and family, but it’s all good. It’s balanced. Family is an important part of our culture. We want our employees to be focused while they are in the office so they can have time to dedicate to their family, friends, and their personal health outside of work. Again, it’s about balance.

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?

JG: When I started working in this industry, firms hired very talented hand-drafters to put ink on Mylar and calculations were performed using calculators and nomographs. Today, we rely on computers and work to get the most out of our design software. As a small start-up firm, CADD gave us the ability to do more with less, to be more productive. We host lunch and learns and encourage mentoring so our engineers are properly trained to maximize the benefits of the software in our workflow. I was fortunate to get exposed to “old school” methods that help me understand what the computer is doing. I think the real disrupter is not understanding the basic principles that are the foundation of our field.

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

JG: We started 12 years ago at the start of the economic downturn. We were nimble and focused on client relationships. We worked hard and made sure to foster a positive environment for our employees. We are a better firm today because of our perseverance through those tough times. In our efforts to always improve and grow, we’re hitting new market sectors (we just added landscape architecture) and are placing a real emphasis on marketing and business development. We’re strong believers in the doer-seller model and are launching a business development training series this May.

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?

JG: It’s part of our strategic plan to be a Best Firm To Work For every year. We take on a variety of interesting projects, and training and mentorships are paramount to our culture. We have a good ratio between senior staff and down through the chain. Our mentors help new employees work through real issues and encourage development. We recently signed up for an on-site project management class with Zweig Group. Our goal is to make everybody better along the way.

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?

JG: For about 12 years, we’ve worked closely with Virginia Tech’s Land Development Design Initiative. The program focuses on educating students about our industry and exposing them specifically to land development design. Our involvement has led to recruiting success. Last year we hired six graduates – they’re fantastic people!

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?

JG: We outsourced our first valuation in 2017. We have also purchased Zweig’s Valuation Survey and use the Z-Formulas in the publication. Moving forward, we will use the Z-Formulas to update the valuation each year and outsource a valuation every three to five years.

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

JG: We follow net service revenue closely, and we’re looking to double our 2018 NSR by 2023. I recently attended Zweig Group’s financial management seminar, Learn the Language of Business, and it gave me valuable insight that will help us implement open-book management. We’ve set up widgets in our accounting software to provide our managers with information to track the financial performance of their projects and the overall company. The next step is to implement the open-book management approach for the entire company.

TZL: Ownership transition can be tricky, to say the least. What’s the key to ensuring a smooth passing of the baton? What’s the biggest pitfall to avoid?

JG: We are working to foster an environment where staff will want to become owners. We believe a clear path to ownership, along with implementing the second phase of the ownership model, put J2 on the path to a prosperous future. Biggest pitfall? Postponing OT planning. Start working on it now and give yourself time to work through it.

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?

JG: We focus more on profitability rather than utilization. We emphasize working smarter and efficiently to provide our clients with an excellent product. Having adequate staffing is critical to handle the workload and supports our efficient practice.

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

JG: Learn from the mistakes and move on. You’ll get better with each lesson learned. It’s important to know how to cope with failure and to bounce back.

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

JG: Facilitator – create an environment where people can be successful.

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.