President and CEO of W&A Engineering (Athens, GA), a growing multidisciplinary engineering firm known for its innovative design, efficient engineering, and professional service.
By Liisa Andreassen
Founded by Williams in 1999, W&A Engineering (Athens, GA), formerly Williams & Associates, has grown from a one-person operation into a diverse company with five core departments: civil engineering, land surveying, landscape architecture, traffic engineering, and economic development. Municipal services and planning and development consulting round it all out. W&A Engineering is a Better Communities Collaborative company – a family of innovative businesses with the unified mission to work toward a better tomorrow. This common thread is woven into the fabric of its affiliate companies and is the “why” with which its teams approach each and every opportunity.
“I get to set the course for where BCC is heading, not only as a business, but for our employees and how we will impact our communities,” Williams says. “It’s a fantastic job! It can be challenging, and as with anything there are trials and errors and lessons learned, but the reward is huge.”
A conversation with Jon Williams.
The Zweig Letter: In 2022, your firm was a recipient of Zweig Group’s Best Firm To Work For award. To what do you most attribute that?
Jon Williams: Our people, from the leadership team down. They believe in our mission of “Building Better Communities,” which for us starts with focus on our employees and the things that make them want to come to work every day.
TZL: What about the Better Communities Collaborative excites you most?
JW: The fact that our employees come to work every day knowing they have an opportunity to build better communities, and our holistic focus on making our employees “net better off.” I can’t take credit for this research, but the gist of it is that for employees to be “net better off” they must be fulfilled in six areas: emotional/mental, relational, physical, financial, purposeful, and employable. We are very intentional about our focus on each of these areas for our employees.
TZL: Are there any key challenges in working with such a business model? If so, what are they and how do you rise to meet those challenges?
JW: BCC is the “umbrella” company that sits above our other companies; it’s been done before. We did not create the model. I think of it as the glue that holds the other companies together. It’s where our mission and our values for all the companies live. This way we are all connected and focused on building better communities, but the individual companies can maintain their own forward-facing identity.
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?
JW: My dad. All of the BCC employees have heard the story about my dad asking me to go to work with him at the family grocery store in the seventh grade. I worked beside him for five years managing a grocery store. I learned so much about business, the value of hard work, how to treat employees, and giving back to the community. Dad did that every day in some way.
TZL: What’s your key strategy for engineering external partnerships?
JW: Communication is so important in any partnership. Being open and honest about expectations and being accountable for your role in the partnership is key. I also think that talking about our mission and values attracts like-minded companies, and when you have similar thoughts around the way business should be done, the partnerships naturally work better.
TZL: What are some of the key things you look for when approaching an external partner?
JW: We ask ourselves: Do our values align? Are they technically competent? Are they good communicators? Do they understand the mission and add value to the client?
TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”
JW: That’s a great question and one that I would not have known how to answer three years ago. But around that time is when we found the EOS system, developed by Gino Wickman, and that is how we run BCC today. A key tenant of the system is the intentionality of working “on the business.” We are still working to become better at EOS, but, because of it, I’d say 70 percent of my time is spent working on the business.
TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?
JW: By being good communicators and by living our values, which include being committed, accountable, resourceful, expanding, and socially responsible. We do what we say we are going to do, and we leave things better than we found them, both things I learned from my dad.
TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?
JW: We made this one of our focus areas in our corporate citizenship platform. We are just beginning to learn how we can do better, genuinely better, for all people to feel “net better off” and welcome when they work for BCC. There were some low hanging fruit, at least for us, like recruiting from more diverse colleges or implementing our flexible work policies that enable our employees to be present for their families while still having a fulfilling career. We also try to go into the lower schools whenever we can and talk to young kids about the opportunities in the AEC fields. We share information and try to get them thinking about things they might not ever have considered before. We’ve also established an internal employee-led committee to have conversations around DEI and to help us create additional opportunities to improve DEI for BCC. This will be one of those issues we will be working on for a long time, but it’s so worth it. Increasing diversity brings different backgrounds and life experiences to the table and with that comes ideas and innovation.
TZL: What benefits does your firm offer that your people get most excited about?
JW: Our new unlimited PTO policy is pretty popular and we also offer a great deal of flexibility. It’s so critical for our employees to know that flexibility is there for them as they move through different phases of life and family. I hear a lot of positive feedback about our family leave policy. It has three months paid maternity leave, and one month paternity, but the dad can get the three months if the mom is the primary breadwinner. We provide adoption and foster family assistance, and there are an extra 30 days per year of paid time off if someone must care for a sick family member. I also hear a lot of good feedback about the local charities that we support and the opportunities we provide for our employees to volunteer in the community.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility?
JW: Visionary. I get to set the course for where BCC is heading, not only as a business, but for our employees and how we will impact our communities. It’s a fantastic job! It can be challenging, and as with anything there are trials and errors and lessons learned, but the reward is huge. If we get it right, we will attract the best and brightest and they will want to stay and grow with BCC. As we grow, we will have more and greater opportunities to build better communities and to have a positive impact on the world.
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
JW: Providing opportunity for growth – both professional and personal – and by focusing on the six “net better off” areas that I mentioned before. We’re currently restructuring our bonus and incentive compensation plan, and like all of our initiatives, I’ve tasked our leadership with creating a plan that is forward-thinking and not status quo. We offer flexibility in an industry that has not historically been flexible, and we’ll continue to focus on why we do what we do – which is building better communities, because our employees, clients, and neighbors deserve the best.