Rowing together: Jim Walsh

Nov 28, 2021

President of Universal Engineering Sciences (Orlando, FL), a firm that has provided essential engineering services throughout the United States for nearly six decades.

By Liisa Andreassen

Prior to being named president of UES in February 2021, Walsh served as COO at Degree-One, a provider of HVAC, refrigeration, and food equipment services, where he significantly improved EBITDA and integrated several acquisitions. He’s also led WBG Consulting as president, focusing on management consulting and angel investments, and held many other executive-level positions.

“UES is recognized as an industry pioneer, with a sound business strategy and nearly six decades of success,” Walsh says. “I’m focused on maintaining and accelerating our commitment to our growth, as well as continuing the legacy values and culture which have made UES so unique, while incorporating new talent and new ideas into our family of businesses.”

A conversation with Jim Walsh.

The Zweig Letter: I understand that UES is moving into an exciting time where BDT Capital Partners will take a majority stake in UES. How will this change the dynamics of the firm? What are the major benefits?

Jim Walsh: BDT Capital Partners’ approach is to invest in well-run businesses for the long-term. We see their partnership as an endorsement of our growth strategy at UES, which focuses on organic growth in key areas of the country and adding new partners through acquisition. Day-to-day, our operations are unchanged. Our board of directors will remain chaired by former AECOM CEO Michael Burke, and continued involvement from BDT and Palm Beach Capital.

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

JW: Life is a journey. You need balance to be an effective executive. It’s a personal choice whether to integrate those parts of your life or keep them separate. You need to create the right balance for yourself. I enjoy fixing things. I do my own electrical and plumbing work. I brought a 1954 Ford 600 tractor back to life. These kinds of things bring me immediate gratification.

TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?

JW: We recognize our industry has a long way to go in terms of diversity and inclusion. Our focus is about adding diversity of thought and perspective to our team at all levels. That starts with recruiting talented young people into the engineering field, showing them the career path and growth opportunities that are before them, and, ultimately, retaining them within UES so they can grow with us. I think we’ve made some key strides in hiring more women to leadership positions within the company and are continuing to push for diversity in our candidate selection as we’re currently recruiting for more than 200 open positions across the country.

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

JW: Our work fulfills a critical role in this country – we help ensure safe construction, drive forward progress on major projects of urban revitalization, help to increase connectivity across the nation, and more. As we look ahead to the next decade and the U.S. invests significantly in much-needed repairs and infrastructure development, engineering services such as those we offer at UES are going to be in high demand and valuable to communities and civic entities across the country.

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?

JW: We take a great deal of pride in retaining our people. One of the ways to do this is by holding our own internal training programs, partnering people with mentors so they can see a clear growth path in their field, and helping engineers and technicians advance in their careers by paying for their certifications.

TZL: When you identify a part of your business that is not pulling its weight in terms of profitability or alignment with the firm’s mission, what steps do you take, and what’s the timeline, to address the issue while minimizing impacts to the rest of the company?

JW: We’ve made some recent hires to our leadership team that are helping to look across all our operating businesses and verticals and decide where we can flex or better pull levers to be successful. As it relates to our capabilities, our service line leader, Ron Harris, has been instrumental in that. It’s also opened our eyes to areas we can really focus on from a growth and differentiation standpoint, like our environmental consulting business. At a corporate level, we’re trying to build more consistency across the organization, and our new senior vice president of innovation and integration Kathy Kilmer will take a leading role in executing on that for UES.

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?

JW: This isn’t something I can comment on in great detail, but what I can tell you is we expect to be a $1 billion engineering and consulting firm within the next 10 years. We work closely with our partners and investors and board of directors on growth and valuation strategies.

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

JW: Over the last 30 years, I’ve learned that if you don’t get the buy-in and ownership of your people, you will not be successful. You’ve got to win their hearts and minds. The strength and power of rowing together in the same direction cannot be underestimated.

TZL: During the course of your career, you’ve managed the integration of multiple acquisitions. What are some key lessons learned that you’ve learned as a result of that work?

JW: The work really starts with our people. My job and the charge I implore on our leadership team is to seek out great partners who want to stay involved in their businesses, and then provide the tools, resources, and scale that help our partnering organizations better grow and operate their businesses within the UES family of companies. We have to do that by enabling strong leaders in our 60 (and growing) branch offices across the country, and working with each partner to retain the people-first aspects of their culture that have made UES such a differentiated brand in the engineering space for many years.

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?

JW: There is equal opportunity for all, and this outcome is earned. We really look at performance, not tenure, as a measuring stick for leadership positions and promotions. I’ll give you one great example: Our regional lab manager in the West division is a 26-year-old who has been a fast-riser and proven to be able to take on larger and larger responsibilities. He went from working in one of our labs, to managing the largest materials testing lab in the state of Nevada, to now being focused on new lab expansion and training the next generations of lab technicians to ensure our quality is matched at every location. 

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.