FEATURE ARTICLE – Crafting Company Culture: An Owner’s Perspective

We asked Founding Principal Jim Coughlin to share how he and the Coughlin Porter Lundeen leadership team strive to create a positive culture and environment for employees to thrive. He shares not only his entrepreneurial story (and how it informs company culture), but insights into Coughlin Porter Lundeen’s purposeful ownership transition and latest cultural enhancements.

Whether you’re a company of ten or ten hundred, you’re sure to face questions of culture. How do we establish a culture that employees value? How do we make our organization a great place to work? Why does establishing a strong company culture matter?

There’s lots of publicity around cool new office spaces and “Best Places to Work,” and flashy spaces can fool companies into thinking it’s enough to throw up a ping-pong table, stock the fridge with craft beers and call it culture. Instead, an organization’s roots, its initial vision and “where we came from,” are essential parts of the story and should directly inform cultural efforts.

More than twenty years ago, Terry, Steve and I set out to establish a firm where we could create exceptional designs and enjoy coming to work every day. In those early days, we were driven by this vision (and if I’m being honest, the fear of failure), and didn’t realize we were setting the foundation for a company culture. Today, we’re approaching culture with intentionality, leaning on a new generation of leadership and letting employee feedback drive its evolution. So, while we may not have been calling it culture then, we certainly recognize and value culture today.

Where we Came From - The Coughlin Porter Lundeen Story

Terry, Steve, and I started Coughlin Porter Lundeen in August of 1994 with three employees. Terry and I had just left a mid-sized Seattle structural engineering firm upon its sale to a California company with dreams of becoming publicly traded. Within three years, what was left of our former firm had disappeared entirely. In that same three-year period, we grew into a firm of 20.

Those first months were a blur, but from our modest Third and Pine headquarters we determined where we wanted to take the firm and how we wanted to differentiate ourselves from our far-too-numerous competitors.

Our first marketing consultant forced us to sit down and formalize our ideas, strategies, and goals for the firm. I’m not sure any of us realized how remarkably consistent these items would remain. They’ve not only guided us for the past 24 years as the foundation of our work and approach, but they’re the backbone of our culture, a culture which has become one of our firm’s greatest differentiators.

  • Honor Your Story + Set a Foundation for a Strong Company Culture
    It’s common to associate culture with perks and work-life balance items. But to me, culture is first and foremost about our work – how we approach our jobs each day. Initially, our approach was to create a sense of pride by providing our employees a road map for accomplishing exceptional work for exceptional clients. Today, we lean on the same core values established 24 years ago: Committing to Quality and Proactivity, Choosing Partnerships Carefully, and Breaking from Standards.
  • Quality and Proactivity
    “Quality” is my one word answer to what makes us different. We know that in order to achieve the best possible project experience for our partners, we must deliver quality documents and be proactive from the beginning. We must be strong project managers, providing ideas and options early, actively communicating to vet the best ideas, and executing so that all parties can achieve success.I have always been a believer in Murphy’s Law: What can go wrong, will go wrong. Therefore, we go the extra mile to minimize fallout. Our thoroughness is seen most clearly in proactivity and quality (which I believe to be closely tied). Many clients tell us no matter which team they work with at Coughlin Porter Lundeen, they can count on an exceptional effort.
  • Selective Partnerships.
    When we started Coughlin Porter Lundeen we were aware of not only the portfolio we were building, but the clients we partnered with. Our goal was to carefully select work, opting for partners who genuinely appreciated the quality we consistently deliver and interesting projects that yielded a diverse project portfolio.How does this affect our culture today? There’s no drudgery of working on the same project type again and again. No project is alike, which requires constant innovation and creativity. There’s security too, as our goal to achieve project diversity was as much about providing interesting challenges for our employees as it was about allowing us to weather economic downturns. Additionally, by choosing to work with partners who understand and value our commitment to quality, there’s sincere respect between our team and our clients
  • Dare to be Different.
    The first question facing any new business owner is how to differentiate yourself. In our case, we charted a course shaped entirely around how we could best serve our clients. We asked simple questions that redefined the approach to engineering: What if a firm refused to compete based on who could get away with putting in the least amount of effort for a given fee? Who made the rule that standard civil engineering scope started five feet outside the building? Who said that structural engineers should pawn off the design of significant scope items like secondary structural elements such as cladding support? Is it really the best approach to sit back, wait for the architect to fully bake the design, then put all hands on deck to bang out the design as quickly as possible?These questions set the tone for our work. Our answers broke from industry standards and required that we do things differently. Today, we’re faced with the challenge of communicating this idea to our partners and passing the enthusiasm for going above and beyond to our growing team.

It’s important not only to define these core ideas but communicate them to the team. They’re no use if they’re principles that die at the leadership level. In our case, new employees undergo training where they’re introduced to the intentionality and care behind our project selection. Proactivity is emphasized on each of our project teams, and engineers quickly learn for themselves how essential it is to the project process.

 Jim Coughlin, Principal

Where We Are - A Purposeful Ownership Transition

As our firm was born from a misguided acquisition and mismanaged transition, Terry, Steve, and I were absolutely committed to an internal buy-out. We knew that ownership’s failure to let go of the reigns or adequately plan for such an ownership transition could be detrimental; we’d seen it happen to AEC companies and others. Around our ten-year anniversary, we identified potential future owners and began mentoring and evaluating them. We subsequently worked on financial arrangements and began to sell shares in 2010. We have continued divesting shares each and every year since.

Today, Chris Duvall, Cory Hitzemann, Garo Pehlivanian, Jeff Peterson, and Bryan Zagers own just shy of 50 percent of the firm. Tim Brockway joined the ownership group in January of 2018. We sought to guide the new owners but not to smother them. Remaining loyal to our founding vision was made easier as each had grown up at Coughlin Porter Lundeen, spending the majority of their careers here. Half even served as college interns. Together we worked through changes, weathered the recession, and entered into the busiest construction economy Seattle has ever experienced.

Where We’re Headed – Cultural Enhancements

This new generation of principals drives a crop of culture-focused enhancements at our office. Motivated to make Coughlin Porter Lundeen an even better place to work, we’ve enacted each enhancement based on employee interest and feedback. As always, we’re guided by our core values and differentiators. After all, it was commitment to them that led to our successes. This principal group continues to prove that they’re the right team to carry us forward.

We don’t have corner offices or subscribe to traditional corporate hierarchy, so top-down cultural mandates would surely be out of place. As a leadership team, it’s important to us that we’re accessible to staff of all levels, that we listen carefully, respond thoughtfully and don’t shy from evolution.

We’ve learned so much by listening. Driven by the newest generation of leadership, we’ve outlined a few cultural enhancements that appear to be working well for us.

  • Refocusing Human Resources
    In the past year, we’ve restructured our administration department, shifting the focus from traditional operations to human resources. This reorganization prioritizes the employee experience and ensures cultural enhancements, policies, and firm news is clearly communicated and ushered in with care.Human Resources Business Manager, George Theo leads the department. As a former Dean of Student Affairs at UW Bothell, he has experience building relationships, evaluating biases, and creating communities and inclusive environments. Partnering with the new tier of principals, he leverages this unique background to respond to the needs of employees.
  • Modern Benefits
    While in many respects we maintain a small-firm mentality, our benefits package has been carefully arranged to compete with large, top-tier organizations beyond AEC. We offer meaningful extras like donation matching, 401K matching and wellness benefits, and this year we rolled out a series of revamped policies including PTO, Family Leave, and Parental Leave. We pay attention to the little things too and treat our office environment like a benefit of its own. Everything from conference rooms equipped with the latest tech, to the employee-selected coffee in our kitchen can influence culture and company morale.
  • Community Outreach
    Supporting the community has been a priority since Coughlin Porter Lundeen’s founding. We provide donation matching and the firm is regularly recognized as a top “Corporate Philanthropist” by The PSBJ, but more interesting to me is how, in recent years, involvement has shifted. Instead of supporting organizations related only to the industry or letting our clients define our causes, our employees now drive community outreach efforts.Individuals champion their causes and favorite organizations – Construction for Change, Obliteride, Mary’s Place, STEM efforts, and DESC to name a few. It’s a culture of action, as employee-organized drives, volunteer days and events are well attended and supported.
  • Retention
    We believe that retention begins with the right hire, so we’ve doubled down on our recruiting efforts, pursuing candidates from the best engineering schools on the West Coast and nation-wide. We welcome students twice a year via our internship program and integrate them into our our civil and structural teams. Internally, we have significantly increased our mentoring efforts, understanding that job satisfaction begins with enhancing core competencies.
  • Training and Mentorship
    As the firm grows, we’ve formalized our training and mentorship program, organizing mentorship in several formats to help ensure each person receives guidance and has maximum opportunity for career advancement. Put simply, we want our employees to succeed!We support staff’s continued education efforts and host learning opportunities, leveraging in-house talent for Lunch and Learns and bringing industry leaders in for presentations and skills-building workshops.
  • Supporting Women in Engineering
    Less than 20 percent of engineering graduates in the U.S. are women and retention is an industry challenge. We’re working on many fronts to buck these trends. Just under half of Coughlin Porter Lundeen employees with less than five years of experience are women. To support this large group, we established a Women’s Group last year. It’s a company-endorsed platform to determine priorities, articulate suggestions, and help us understand how to create a better environment and opportunities to advance.Additionally, we cover membership dues of staff in professional groups and support employee’s out-of-office efforts related to women in STEM. Many serve as ACE mentors, encouraging high school students to pursue careers in STEM; we sponsor and provide panelists for UW’s WiSE (Women in Science and Engineering) Conference; and have staff serving on Structural Engineers Association of Northern California’s SE3 (Structural Engineering Engagement and Equity) committee, working to improve engagement and equity in the structural engineering profession (nationally).
  • Quarterly Meetings
    Because we think it’s important to regularly gather as a full team, we established a quarterly meeting tradition. First and foremost, the meetings are employee appreciation events, opportunities to cater in treats and recognize employee achievements. We also share company news, project stories and presentations. We find that sharing company information via this platform and regularly celebrating our staff contributes to our collaborative culture.