Northbound: Jim Croy

Mar 21, 2021

Managing partner and CEO of Croy Engineering (Marietta, GA), a multidiscipline consulting engineering firm that believes in engineering the extra mile.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

As Croy Engineering’s founder, Croy is an entrepreneur and businessman who brings an extensive public-sector background to the job and has assembled a dedicated and professional team of directors with more than 200 years of combined experience in engineering, planning and surveying.

“Croy is a train – we can speed the train up, slow it down, or even change the color. People get on and off the train. But the direction of the train never changes: We go north,” Croy says. “As the leader, it’s my job to keep the train on the tracks and moving forward.”

A conversation with Jim Croy.

The Zweig Letter: Tell me about your transition from Cobb County DOT to founding Croy Engineering. What was your inspiration/vision for starting the firm?

Jim Croy: From 1992 to 1999, I served as the director of Cobb County DOT. I left the role to go work under then Governor Roy Barnes as the director of the State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA) and deputy director of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA). When Governor Barnes was not re-elected in 2003, I left state government too.

I wasn’t sure what my next role would be, but I’d always had jobs that involved independent decision-making and I knew I would need to have this ability in the next position I accepted. Although I was approached by various firms, I chose to take some time off to decide my next step. During this transition time, I had the opportunity to help a friend at his firm – MSE. When he put the firm for sale soon after, I decided to buy it. We became Croy-MSE in 2005, and a couple of years later transitioned to Croy Engineering.

My vision and inspiration for purchasing the firm and starting Croy was simple: I didn’t want to work for anyone. I wanted the ability to do what I’d always done – be an independent decision maker. And, I’d say it’s worked out well. I bought the firm with 17 employees and one location in Marietta, Georgia. Fifteen years later, we have 120 employees and six offices across four Southeastern states.

TZL: How has COVID-19 impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting/working remotely?

JC: Telecommuting and working remotely were not general Croy policies pre-COVID-19. However, we wanted our employees to feel comfortable and safe during this time, so we added both options into our culture/retention “toolbox.” That said, I’m a firm believer that the best way to communicate is spoken. Engineers can be involved in a lot of different things and a lack of physical interaction and speaking face-to-face can be detrimental to determining a project’s objectives, challenges, or solutions. So, while both telecommuting and working remotely are available to employees, we still encourage in-person interactions when safe and possible.

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

JC: You earn trust with anyone by being honest. Our company is solutions-oriented, and we have several long-term clients who have been with us since our beginning. I believe this is because we are honest with our clients about project goals, budgets, schedules, and public outreach, while also offering support and advice. Since many of our clients are municipalities, we understand the need to work within budgets, as well as successfully handle public perception and education for a project. By being aware of the challenges our clients are facing, honestly addressing these issues, and helping to alleviate them, we’re able to gain long-term trust. I would also add that we commit to doing what we say we will do.

TZL: Do you have a project that springs to mind as being a top favorite? Why? (i.e., impact, innovation, etc.)

JC: There are two projects that are my favorites – one past and one present.

The first is the East-West Connector in Cobb County, developed in 1997. This project faced significant historic, cultural, and environmental challenges, and involved extensive coordination with several agencies, including the U.S. Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Division. I’m proud of the many environmental and historical elements we were able to preserve (a good portion of the Silver Comet Trail was eventually developed in this area), while also providing a much-needed connection to West Cobb County.

The second project, which is currently under construction, is Windy Hill Boulevard. This project transforms Windy Hill Road from a six-lane roadway cutting through a section of the city of Smyrna into an innovative boulevard concept. This design allows through-traffic to continue without stopping, while giving local traffic separate lanes with access to businesses. This project not only provides traffic congestion relief for the area, but it does it in an efficient, safe, pedestrian-friendly way that encourages curb-side development and redevelopment.

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

JC: I often use the expression “northbound train.” Croy is a train – we can speed the train up, slow it down, or even change the color. People get on and off the train. But the direction of the train never changes: We go north. As the leader, it’s my job to keep the train on the tracks and moving forward, as well as to care about the employees and their families who are on the train.

TZL: Is change management a topic regularly addressed by the leadership at your firm? If so, elaborate.

JC: Yes – our leadership regularly discusses change management in three ways:

  1. Technical and personal impacts. This discussion includes making sure we have the right people in place, along with determining what other resources we need (such as technology, equipment, and software).
  2. Client management. Since many client interactions are now virtual, we need to make sure we’re connecting and supporting our clients with the right tools – adjusting our approach to match their changing needs.
  3. Change in the industry. Our leadership team regularly discusses what we need to do to prepare our firm for fluctuations and impacts on the economy, as well as the possibility of another recession. Our efforts to address this national impact include making sure we have the right resources in place and are sharing work across offices.

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?

JC: I believe you start planning an exit strategy from the beginning. At Croy, I wanted to build a company that people would want to invest their time and sweat equity in to help grow. Passing the baton includes taking the time to ensure that the people who are going to have certain leadership duties are the right people for that job. For example, 12 years ago, I hired a non-engineer as our CFO, and it was one of my best decisions. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t an engineer – I needed someone who understood the financial side. Getting the right people in place on the right timetable is critical.

The biggest pitfall to avoid, however, is not having all the right people on the same page. And, that takes time. My advice is to invest time and effort into making sure your key leadership team is all on the same page and don’t drift their separate ways. You’re all going on the northbound train.

TZL: What’s been the most interesting firm evolution since its founding? Why?

JC: The most interesting evolution at Croy has been our expansion into new markets and service areas. While my background is in transportation, Croy is a full-service firm. An interesting evolution for me has been the ability to be involved in other areas of engineering (aviation, water, and landscape architecture, for example).

I believe this evolution is not only interesting, it’s vital to our success. For example, expanding into new markets and locations helped us to weather the Great Recession better than many of our competitors. Our diversified markets, clients, and service offerings enabled us to share work between offices and employees depending on need.

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

JC: I don’t think there are failures – just opportunities that didn’t turn out right. My dad told me, “It will either work out or it won’t.” His point was to at least try. Never attack a problem without trying – or, trying something different. It may not work, but the lesson is to keep trying.

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

JC: The number one role of the CEO is be the head coach. There may be coaches running departments and various aspects of the operations, but the CEO is the leader. He sets the game plan, watches the clock, and keeps the schedule. It’s important to have the right people in place to accomplish the right things and the CEO makes sure it happens.

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

JC: A good friend of mine said, “Work oughta be fun. If it’s not, you have a problem.” It’s a motto we try to follow to keep our employees engaged. Sometimes this means doing small, impromptu things that help people have a good day such as ordering donuts, handing out lottery tickets, or bringing in a food truck.

We also believe work needs to be challenging; very few of our engineers do the same thing day-after-day. Finally, we reward people for their hard work. Sometimes this is a financial reward and other times it’s a kind word at the end of the day. Employees have a lot of different things going on in their world – it’s good to tell employees you appreciate them. I believe this is why we still have many employees who have been with us since day one.

TZL: How has COVID-19 affected your business on a daily basis?

JC: As I mentioned previously, COVID-19 has helped us begin to offer telecommuting and remote work options for our employees, increasing flexibility company-wide. However, it has also changed how we interact with and serve our clients. Many of our clients are working remotely as well and our communication has shifted virtually. While this works for informative reasons, it is a challenge to continue to build a trusting relationship over a Zoom call. Our team has needed to be more innovative to provide the same high-level of personal service to our clients now than in pre-COVID-19 times. Our managers have adjusted to how we support and assist our clients – whether through overnighting paperwork or talking more regularly via text and phone calls.

COVID-19 has also impacted our cash flow. Because many clients are working remotely or still adjusting to this “normal,” the turnaround on invoices and projects has been negatively impacted. However, because we have a trusting relationship with our clients, we can talk openly and regularly about these challenges to avoid issues.

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