Nelson Kohman Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2007

Rather than put all his eggs in one risky basket, Nelson Kohman prefers to diversify. By offering a diverse range of services — from civil engineering and land surveying to environmental management, landscape architecture and land planning — the president of Evans, Mechwart, Hambleton & Tilton Inc. says his company has the flexibility to adjust to changes in the market. With 400 employees and branch offices in Charlotte, N.C., Cincinnati and Indianapolis, EMH&T reported revenue of $44.6 million last year. Smart Business spoke with Kohman on how he conveys his message to his staff and builds friendship-based relationships with his clients.

Be a strong communicator. We’re a very hands-on, doors-open company. The ability to recognize and empower people to achieve their maximum is important. We try to provide direction and guidance to help clients achieve their objectives.

We try to be good listeners, as well. I spend a lot of my time going around the building and talking to the various service groups to see what their needs are and whether I can help. Collegiality is a big part of developing the sense of everyone working together. We try to do a good job of that by being available top to bottom.

We also try to provide a consistent and deliberate decision-making process. Technology changes so rapidly that we need to make sure that we consider all the aspects of our decision-making so we make the most cost-effective and beneficial decisions.

Build close client relationships. Ninety percent of our work is repeat business. People trust us to make good decisions, and we owe it to them to make sure that when we give them advice, we have looked at all aspects — not only how we’ve done it in the past but how the technology in the market is changing to do things better in the future.

It’s a lot easier to keep a current client than it is to go find a new one, so client relationships are extremely important. We want clients to feel they can call us with a problem or a concern about our performance on a project. They know they’ll get an honest, direct answer. If there’s a problem, we’ll take the corrective action necessary to fix it; if not, we’ll explain why we did things the way we did. It becomes a friendship-based client relationship.

Listen to customer demand. Our clients said they needed more service in terms of environmentally sound, green initiatives. We had people in the company who had that ability, so we formed a team around those folks and developed a program. We recently held a full-day seminar where 200 of our clients from three states came into town, and we presented this whole green concept and initiative to them; it was very successful.

It’s a trend we have looked at for several years and decided now was a good time to offer that service. If you can have 200 clients come to a meeting to devote a full day to this on their time, there certainly is a demand out there for that service.

Just like when you expand your marketing programs, it’s an investment in the future. It doesn’t pay off Day One, but it’s certainly something that will reap benefits down the road.

Remember your leadership responsibility. We have 400 employees here who depend on us for their security and their happiness. They know that they have a job to come to, and they feel that they have security and the ability to stay at this company long term. That’s my key motivation.

Let employees choose. When people come in for an office interview, we have them meet with various groups throughout the company and try to understand our culture. Try to provide a comfortable work environment and show people they have opportunities to grow their own career.

We let them talk to employees who have experience working here — they may talk to four or five people — and because we have specialty areas of work, we let them get a feel for all the groups; then they tell us where they think they would most enjoy working. They’ll be more challenged if they’re doing something that interests them.

Motivate staff with independent work. We give people a lot of autonomy. We give them the ability to work independently and to identify a niche for themselves in the marketplace. By that, we have the opportunity to recognize their success and reward them financially as well as with job security. That’s the best motivation we can provide.

You have to be there to help when they have a problem or need input, but don’t necessarily give them the road map to operate. Give them the freedom to adjust to the people in the group, and make sure they’re comfortable working together toward the same goal.

Share information. We have a company town meeting every quarter, where we get all the employees together at the end of the work-day in our atrium and teleconference in our regional offices as well and give them the status of the company. We are communicating so they all feel that they are a part of the company.

It does a lot to establish the fact that we are one voice. We are trying to get the word out and do away with rumors. It gives people the opportunity to ask questions about the different aspects of our business.

Be open to words of wisdom. I’ve gotten a lot of good advice from previous partners in the company, which has all been very helpful to me, as well as from clients with whom I’ve developed relationships. I was able to discuss our issues and get a diversity of opinions.

One of our founders, Mr. [W.H.] Mechwart, encouraged me — as a young engineer — to continue to be forthright and dedicated to the success of the firm. I’ve surrounded myself with people who have that same quality, and today, our people are the key to our success.

HOW TO REACH: Evans, Mechwart, Hambleton & Tilton Inc., (614) 775-4500 or www.emht.com