President at ELEMENT (Tampa, FL), an award-winning, certified Disadvantaged Business Enterprise and Minority Business Enterprise, consulting firm.
By Liisa Andreassen
If a design doesn’t work for the community, it simply doesn’t work. That’s the philosophy that Gil believes in.
“The way we have earned the trust of our clients is by showing up consistently. ELEMENT delivers when we say we will and is always there for our clients. We offer solutions, not problems,” he says.
A conversation with Derek Gil.
The Zweig Letter: Transportation engineering design is changing rapidly. What big changes do you see ahead in this engineering niche?
Derek Gil: Embracing technology advances and incorporating into engineering design is vital today and will continue to be so. As an industry, we’ve only begun to tap into the possibilities with artificial intelligence, 3D design, 3D printing, virtual reality, and so much more. From data acquisition/collection and utilization to construction methods, as technology advancements emerge, we can develop sustainable, equitable solutions for communities faster.
TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?
DG: Trust is hard to earn and easy to lose. The way we have earned the trust of our clients is by showing up consistently. ELEMENT delivers when we say we will and is always there for our clients. We offer solutions, not problems, and ELEMENT associates are transparent and communicative. At the end of the day, ELEMENT earns our clients’ trust because we consistently demonstrate we will not let them down. The level of trust we have earned with our clients is demonstrated with the high satisfaction rating we maintain; nine out of 10 clients would recommend us to others.
TZL: Artificial intelligence and machine learning are potential accelerators across all industries. Is your firm exploring how to incorporate these technologies into providing improved services for clients?
DG: ELEMENT’s surveying group uses advanced equipment such as HDS laser scanning, drones, and total robotic stations, all of which have file formats that seamlessly transition to contractors for their machine control grading systems. Studies have shown machine control grading systems reduce the time spent on the process as well as greenhouse emissions. ELEMENT is also investing in expanding our drone capabilities and working with clients to develop scope language that encompasses technology advancements such as UAV in an intentional manner. Advances are emerging regularly for technology, especially in surveying. As early adopters of these advances, ELEMENT is able to expedite our data collection, reduce safety concerns for pedestrians, motorists, and field associates and increase efficiency which translates into cost-savings for clients on their projects.
TZL: What skills are required to run a successful practice? What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?
DG: There’s an entire gamut of skills required to run a successful firm and, believe it or not, being a talented engineer is low on that list. In my mind, understanding people is essential. What motivates them, keeps them up at night, and what truly defines success for each person not only on my team, but for clients is at the foundation of ELEMENT’s success. Fifteen years ago, when ELEMENT was realized, I wish I had known that much of my day would be spent listening to people – staff, clients, partners, and even my competition.
TZL: What benefits does your firm offer that your people get most excited about?
DG: To attract and retain our talented team, ELEMENT established a culture of mutual trust, deep collaboration, and work-life balance. A few things ELEMENT employees say make us unique:
- Ability to work closely with management to better develop leadership skills.
- Opportunities to become more involved in organizations that build better working relationships and network connections.
- Routinely given challenges and opportunities to develop new skills and learn new processes.
- An atmosphere of patience and understanding.
- Learning to communicate with different people on different levels.
- Encouraged to attend and participate in seminars, trainings, and small group forums on topics important to ELEMENT.
- 401(k) contribution, whether the associate contributes or not.
- Medical benefits include 100 percent employee-covered plans.
- ELEMENT pauses to celebrate wins and hosts firm-wide events, year round.
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?
DG: ELEMENT’s leadership team fosters an environment of development and mentorship for staff at all levels. Along those same lines, ELEMENT leadership strives to provide training and guidance to associates who have management responsibilities so they can do the same within their internal teams.
TZL: Since you’ve acquired OMNI, what changes or new services has ELEMENT added to its roster?
DG: In addition to our transportation, surveying, and civil and structure engineering services, we have added subsurface utility engineering and utility coordination.
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.
DG: Top talent is attracted to ELEMENT, and stays, for three key reasons:
- Our workforce believes they can make a difference in their communities and are empowered to do so.
- Our friendly, flexible culture values relationships and collaboration.
- Our competitive pay and benefits.
The engineering job market is highly competitive, often referred to as a “war for talent.” As a result, many qualified candidates receive multiple offers. One recent example was when we interviewed a prospective employee. As we normally would, we took the time to meet in-person to discuss both the candidates and ELEMENT’s future goals. We walked away thinking it was a great fit, wondering where we stood in their mind. In the end they chose us, stating that our personal connection made all the difference. This is simply who we are.
We afford all employees the flexibility of work and personal lives. As an example, we encourage employees to take off in the middle of the day to attend school functions because we trust they will get their work done. It’s the little things that matter – the $25 birthday gift card, feeling needed, and celebrating a milestone or accomplishment as a team. ELEMENT also has a generous bonus structure that rewards tenured employees.
We encourage professional development and promote career paths for tenured associates by providing training, paying for certifications and licensing exams, while challenging each employee with increasing responsibilities along the way to meet their goals.
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?
DG: We have partnerships with the University of South Florida and the Center for Urban Transportation Research to explore and implement new technologies in traffic safety. One such project was the installation of high friction surface treatment at signalized intersection approaches to increase the roadway surface friction and reduce the total number of crashes and crash severity.
In 2018, we established the ELEMENT Engineering Group endowment scholarship with the USF College of Engineering to help the next generation of engineers pursue higher education and research. In addition, we invite college students to shadow our working professionals and learn about the profession on the front lines.
Also, throughout our partnership with USF on the philanthropic and project work, we have a strong record of converting internships into long-term employment.
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?
DG: I think of ownership transition in two ways – the transition of ownership from OMNI to ELEMENT and the transition to the next generation for the future of ELEMENT.
The acquisition transition was approached with transparency and communication. Right from the beginning, we knew there would be a place for everyone. Acquiring OMNI was an expansion of service lines. This was one of the very first things we communicated. Along the way, I’ve had a “boots on the ground” approach that provided psychological safety for the acquired associates throughout the transition. We kept the day-to-day business of each service line operating the same while integrating the two businesses within a solid action plan.
As my founding partners transitioned into retirement, I recognized the need to identify the next generation of leaders to carry ELEMENT forward beyond my retirement. There is a mix of talents to run a business from technical to financial understanding. The talents can be learned if the desire is there, and I have identified four employees who are now minority partners. We are working together to enhance the current business model for continued growth.