The recession took both a professional and personal toll on Sandy Doyle-Ahern.
As EMH&T Inc.’s private sector work, which included projects for single-family housing, dropped off with the national housing crisis and the inability to obtain capital, Doyle-Ahern was called upon to make a number of painful decisions.
Employees were laid off, benefits were reduced and there was a constant review of the company’s finances to see what could be done to maintain profitability.
“It was awful. I hated it. But it is my job,” says Doyle-Ahern, who became president of EMH&T, one of the largest civil engineering firms based in Ohio, in 2012.
“At the end of the day, having spent a couple of years dealing with that really difficult situation, the communication piece ended up being the thing that really helped people to understand what was going on,” she says. “Was it difficult? Yes. Do I want to do it again? No. Not in my career I’m hoping — not that bad.”
But through it all, beyond opening lines of communication the firm still uses today, Doyle-Ahern found solace in one key point: The firm kept its word.
“When we said we would restore benefits, when we said we would rehire again, when we said we would make sure that you know what’s going on, and you follow through on all those things, that’s where the proof is in the pudding,” she says.
Understand your strengths
Coming through an extremely difficult time not only puts the challenges of today in perspective, it provides good experiences and lessons about what EMH&T did skillfully as an organization.
“You have to know what you do well as a company, and not be afraid to push in that arena,” Doyle-Ahern says. “But you also have to know if you don’t do something well, and walk away from it.
“I think obviously, there’s always risk in business. But I also think that, depending on everybody’s level of risk tolerance, your reward is going to come from really knowing what you do well and being willing to push in that area,” she says.
As a consulting engineering firm, Doyle-Ahern says EMH&T won’t take on a project in an area in which employees don’t have expertise, or is just not the right fit.
Part of that caution comes from being aware of the highly liable nature of engineering. By sticking to its core competencies, however, the firm also has the opportunity to work with other firms when it consults on projects, which Doyle-Ahern says can be a lot of fun.
Today, business has picked up and employment is nearly what it was at the company’s peak with 350 employees. The stronger, healthier company is ready to face new challenges of meeting customer needs and finding the right people.