People focused: Gerry Salontai

Apr 16, 2023

CEO of Verdantas (Dublin, OH), an environmental, engineering, and technical consulting company with global perspective.

By Liisa Andreassen

In mid-2020, private equity fund Round Table Capital Partners and an industry veteran CEO, Gerry Salontai, partnered to create a vision to build an engineering and sciences consulting company focused on the environment. Since then, it’s acquired five similar-sized companies, each with $10 million to $25 million in annual revenues, and combined them into a single organization aligned under one brand – Verdantas.

“We believe that was the first time in our industry that this many similar-sized and like-minded culture companies have been acquired and merged in less than 18 months to start a new company,” Salontai says.

Some outstanding accomplishments include:

  • Creation of structured operations and executive leadership teams.
  • Introduction of a common set of management KPIs, authorities’ matrix, and other operating guidelines.
  • Alignment under a single set of brand messages, core values, and visual brand assets.
  • Development of quality and safety programs drawing upon each company’s existing best practices.
  • Implementation of a common sales tracking program and goals.
  • Establishment of key/focus client and practice group programs to grow portfolio accounts.
  • Successful transition of 450 staff to common payroll, benefits, project accounting system, and incentive compensation plan.
  • Creation of a career pathing program and role leveling across the company.
  • Completion of a new multi-year strategic plan.

And all of this was accomplished while operating above 16 percent EBITDA profit on new revenues.

A conversation with Gerry Salontai.

The Zweig Letter: You started as CEO with Verdantas at the start of the investment made by RTC Partners. How did that come about? Where had you been prior to this move?

Gerry Salontai: After a long stint with one of the industry’s leading engineering firms, I went out on my own to start a consulting business. I sat on many boards for both private and publicly-held firms and then RTC approached me about a “thesis” they had to build an environmental company. The idea intrigued me. I liked the idea of starting out with a clean sheet of paper, so to speak. The notion of creating something from scratch excited me.

TZL: Have you had a particular mentor who has guided you – in school, in your career, or in general? Who were they and how did they help?

GS: I like to subscribe to the a la carte mentor approach – getting the best from the best people. That said, the founder of Kleinfelder, James (Jim) Kleinfelder, taught me not to overcomplicate things. He said to keep it simple and don’t create a lot of rules as they tend to create friction.

TZL: Since you’ve been the CEO at Verdantas, what are some of the more significant changes and/or impacts you’ve had on the firm?

GS: We’ve done something groundbreaking here. All of these firms are fully integrated. It’s been a highly collaborative and resource sharing experience where we’ve integrated all the systems, processes, and approaches while building one culture. I’d say that’s pretty significant.

TZL: What skills are required to run a successful practice? What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?

GS: Good people skills and solid business acumen. You also have to be a good listener and understand the pain points of both the people and the business.

TZL: What excites you most about Verdantas? Why?

GS: Being a builder of something and seeing it all come to fruition. We’re growth focused and elevating people to move into the next phase of the company is very exciting. I enjoy seeing people step up and there’s a great deal of opportunity for those who want to move up to do so.

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

GS: There’s a presentation I share with young professionals called, “Seek Failure.” It teaches the importance of taking on projects that will challenge you. Awhile back I was tasked with growing a company organically. I thought, “This is easy.” I did it too quickly and it didn’t go well. That taught me about pacing growth for new initiatives and also not to take on too many things at one time.

TZL: What benefits does your firm offer that your people get most excited about?

GS: Something we’ve found that does not exist at other firms is three personal holidays; many offer two, but not three. People like the flexibility this provides to take time off for anything they want – whether a religious holiday, school play, self-care day, etc. Overall, our time off for the total calendar year is in the top 25 percent. It’s healthy to offer as much flexibility as possible and people appreciate that.

TZL: Your vision states that Verdantas will be a place where people want to work. How are you working to meet that end goal? Is it working?

GS: Our turnover continues to drop. We track the numbers closely. I think having a “People First” culture is a large part of our success. We offer the complete package – from benefits and training to culture and engagement. We offer career mapping and people can move up, laterally, and even down if they choose to do so.

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?

GS: We do a great deal of training in this area. We instill creating regular touchpoints and check-ins. We’ve simplified the review process and no longer even call them reviews. There are no long Q&A forms. We keep it simple. We ask questions like, “How was your year?” “What’s next?”

The front-line leader program – Learning and Leading – teaches people how to lead small teams of four to five people. It teaches them how they can be their best together. It instills the importance of empathy and how to drive better engagement. We all learn and lead together.

TZL: What are some of the top items on your to-do list for the next five years?

GS: Continuing to build out the business for people and to refine the journey. The next few years will be focused on increasing our abilities within the U.S., and then begin thinking about international expansion. One day, Verdantas will be a global firm that helps clients to solve complex environmental and infrastructure challenges, supporting their strategic and overall sustainability and climate change resiliency goals.

TZL: How are you balancing investment in the next generation – which is at an all-time high – with rewards for tenured staff? This has always been a challenge, but seems heightened as investments in development have increased.

GS: We have a good deal of promotional opportunities. We make investments in internal project management and have created the Next-Gen Leadership program. People with eight years of experience are eligible. We’re in the middle of our first program right now.

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

GS: Being people-focused – on clients, staff, and the community. 

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