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Mini-cast 156: EOM, Urban Engineers, and Pie

Bret Keisling celebrated Employee Ownership Month with the employee owners at Urban Engineers. In this excerpt, you’ll hear how Urban handled COVID challenges, why several intend to spend their entire career there, and how Urban differs from non-ESOP firms.


Mini-cast 156 Transcript

[00:00:00] Bret Keisling: Welcome to the EsOp Mini-cast. Thank you so much for listening. My name is Bret Keisling, and as it says on my business cards, I'm a passionate advocate for employee ownership.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Employee Ownership Month really is one of my favorite times of the year. I love seeing all of the different ways employee-owned companies celebrate its owners and show its customers, stakeholders, and social media followers how being employee-owned sets their businesses apart from competitors.

In 2019, I started a personal tradition that's been both fun and rewarding. This week, I continued that tradition. Victoria Huerta and I brought pie to Urban Engineers to celebrate Employee Ownership Month. That's right. You've heard us say it before and you've heard everybody in employee ownership say it: we grow the pie, and we share the pie. So, during Employee Ownership Month, I like to bring the pie.

In my seven years as an ESOP trustee, one of my favorite parts of the job was doing site visits with clients or potential clients. It's been a little over two years since I was a trustee, so these pie visits give me the perfect opportunity to visit companies and meet and chat informally with actual employee owners.

We sat down with a group of employee owners, as well as non-participant staff members, to talk about what being an owner means to them. Incidentally, these are exactly the types of conversations that Jesse Tyler has every episode on the new Owner to Owner podcast. Later this fall, we'll have an entire episode featuring Urban Engineers on our primary EO/ESOP Podcast.

But for the Mini-cast, I wanted to bring you a few brief excerpts. In the order they're speaking, you'll hear from Brian Peda, Adam Ostinowsky, Luanne Drahn, and Dan Carriker.

We'll begin with Brian telling us about Urban Engineers. Enjoy.

Employee owners at Urban Engineers and the EsOp Mini-cast enjoying growing the pie for everyone!.
Employee owners at Urban Engineers and the EsOp Mini-cast enjoying growing the pie for everyone!.

[00:01:54] Brian Peda: Urban Engineers is a multi-disciplined consulting engineering firm. We provide several different service lines for engineering, whether it's roadway like transportation, bridges, highways, aviation, airports, ports and waterways, a little bit of vertical work, as well. So, basically multi-discipline engineering firm.

[00:02:11] Bret Keisling: Vertical work. Just help me out. What is vertical work?

[00:02:14] Brian Peda: So, like any, like, building construction, we do specialty and inspection work and electrical and plumbing work as well.

[00:02:20] Bret Keisling: How long have you been with Urban Engineers?

[00:02:23] Brian Peda: It's been about 12 years now.

[00:02:24] Bret Keisling: So, you are fully vested. Did you work at an engineering firm before Urban?

[00:02:28] Brian Peda: No, it's actually the one and only firm I've worked for out of college. So, I started with Urban about three days after I graduated from college, and I've been here ever since.

[00:02:38] Bret Keisling: We all understand society is different from how it used to be. So, for example, back in the day we expected to graduate college and have one job. That's not the reality. Do you see the possibility that you could spend your career at Urban Engineers?

[00:02:55] Brian Peda: Absolutely. Yeah. That's why I'm still here today.

[00:02:57] Bret Keisling: Can you talk for just a moment on the fact that you're an employee owner. The fact that Urban Engineers is an ESOP. How does that tie into what you said, where you could envision this being your whole career?

[00:03:09] Brian Peda: Sure, absolutely. So, when I started Urban Engineers throughout my first year or two here at Urban, I could just tell if there was something different about the company. They truly care about their employees. They have this family type of atmosphere where we're all here to support one another. Leading into the whole ESOP, when you get that statement every year, your shares that you're gaining through the company, it just kind of gives you like an appreciation that you're working hard towards something; you're owning part of this company. So, your performance directly supports the performance of the entire company, as well as the overall performance of the company increases your value as well.

It's like this big circle of support from all around, from both the company and from the employee. We're in this together.

[00:03:49] Bret Keisling: Anybody want to add anything along those lines? Or a different view about what being an employee owner means to you?

[00:03:55] Adam Ostinowsky: I can say during the pandemic I think being part of ESOP company has really been important. I believe that communications throughout the company during COVID have been frequent and transparent enough to know where areas maybe we were struggling at the time.

One thing that Urban did do as an ESOP company was keep as many people going, employed. There were some challenges, but the company definitely was flexible, working with each individual, not just, not just a group, but kind of like, they understand that our company is made up of individuals, not someone who making a profit and someone who's not making a profit.

Certainly during the pandemic, you could see the difference that made. We're all working to one common goal. Picking up for some people who maybe who were struggling at the time. Maybe they were one of the few who got sick with COVID. But we understood and I feel like as a company, we worked together with a common goal.

[00:04:52] Bret Keisling: COVID has been tough in this country. And a lot of people have been devastated in this country. And sometimes we say, hey, no layoffs or less layoffs or that sort of thing.

But there were really tough decisions that have to be made because if your client's work is drying up, there's only so much that can be done. So, with the understanding that you alluded to, do you think the fact that it's an ESOP affected how that was handled?

[00:05:19] Adam Ostinowsky: There were decisions that made, I believe, there were groups that were asked to take maybe less hours or we would kind of adjust, but I felt as a company, it was important. The leadership of this company, especially, showed that they wanted to keep those people employed. Just looking at other firms, I know some of their employees did not fare as well going through the pandemic. It was an uncertain time. We didn't know how budgets of our clients would be impacted.

Companies that appeared to be driven by profits for shareholders, it wasn't necessarily looked at, at least from my perspective, that it wasn't about the employee. It was about, who is our shareholders, what is best for our, what business decisions. Whereas I felt, being part of an ESOP company, we did see tough decisions, but the tough decisions weren't just made without discussion. There was frequent communication talking about, hey, here's things we're looking at. We're hopeful that this client will get us back to work.

[00:06:19] Bret Keisling: Luanne, you've been here about a year.

[00:06:21] Luann Drahn: Yeah.

[00:06:22] Bret Keisling: Okay. So, you're full-time.

[00:06:23] Luann Drahn: Correct.

[00:06:24] Bret Keisling: Do you have a year of vesting in, or are you just starting the process?

[00:06:26] Luann Drahn: You have to work at least a thousand hours. So, I'm part of the plan, but I am not vested yet. I'm anticipating by next year. But I have worked for another company that was an ESOP before. So, this is the second company that I've worked for that's an ESOP owned company. And I've worked for companies that aren't ESOP owned companies.

And I do notice a difference because there's pride that comes along with knowing that the company that you're working for is also your company. You want to see the company succeed, not just because you want to work for a great company. If the company succeeds you succeed as well.

Also seen that as, as alluding to what Adam was saying, that as part of an ESOP, they tend to take more of an interest in you as an employee versus a number. They want to work with you during the COVID times. Are you willing to work from home? Are you willing to work reduced hours? They give you these opportunities that other companies may not have given. And that's because they want you as an employee to be happy. They don't want to just simply write you off and replace you. I've personally seen that as a difference.

[00:07:31] Bret Keisling: Do you talk about it being employee-owned, like at family gatherings, with friends? Is it off your radar? Or how do you communicate?

[00:07:39] Dan Carriker: My name is Dan. I've worked for Urban for what, five years now. I worked in the inspection for two years, and then I've worked in design for three.

[00:07:47] Bret Keisling: You are either fully vested or just coming up on fully vested?

[00:07:50] Dan Carriker: Just about, yeah. I don't really take full advantage of the ESOP program. I don't really focus on it or think about it too much, but I do have an uncle that works for WSB. Very large, I think they've, he said, like a couple thousand employees. He's an engineer and I'm working my way towards that.

He's talked about my generation, the millennials. They're leaving companies and moving around, like we had mentioned earlier. He grew up in the time where, you picked your job and that was it, kind of like we talked about. And I feel the same way as him, I don't want to go anywhere. But when we do talk at Thanksgiving and holidays times, he always brings up that he is just a number, even though he's pretty high up in the chain of command there, he's still just a number. He doesn't feel like he's appreciated anywhere near as much as like I just started and I feel really appreciated. Talked to our IT guy personally, instead of going through smaller channels to talk to people.

So, I do feel like I'm being appreciated in the company.


[00:08:47] Bret Keisling: My thanks to everyone at Urban Engineers who joined us for pie and talk about employee ownership. Special thanks to Luanne Drahn who worked with Victoria Huerta to facilitate our visit. Look for the full episode with the employee owners from Urban Engineers later this fall.

Happy Employee Ownership Month to everyone, especially the incredible people who work at ESOPs, co-ops, collectives, and at companies with employee ownership trusts. All of you make my life and my work so very meaningful.

Thank you so much for listening. This is Bret Keisling. Be well.


[00:09:26] Bitsy McCann: We'd love to hear from you. You can find us on Facebook at EO Podcast Network and on Twitter @ESOPPodcast. This podcast has been produced by Bret Keisling for the EO Podcast Network, production assistance by Victoria Huerta, original music composed by Max Keisling, branding and marketing by BitsyPlus Design, and I'm Bitsy McCann.

Standard Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are my own and don't represent those of my own firms or the organizations to which I belong. Nothing in the podcast should be construed as guidance or advice of any kind in any field and the fact that I mentioned an organizational website or an advocate or a company on a podcast does not reflect an endorsement, but if you've heard your name or your group's name mentioned on this podcast, I'd love to have you come on and talk about it yourself.

A note on the transcript: This transcript was produced by Descript, an automated transcription service. While it has been reviewed by The EsOp Podcast, we can not guarantee the accuracy of the transcription. Please refer to the original audio when citing sources.


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