CEO Conversations

Solving Local Problems with Small Business Super Powers

What does a lofty term like corporate citizenship look like in smaller business? It looks like the unique super power of business in action saying yes to real needs and contributing intellect, access and resources to solve problems. W&A Engineering CEO Jon Williams breaks down the key components to make this a road map for business and community success.

Lessons you learned very early in your career in South Georgia form the foundation for W&A Engineering’s corporate character today, would you explain?

“W&A Engineering started back in 1999 in Watkinsville, Georgia when I was 26 years old. But the corporate character of the company really started a long time before that when I was in seventh grade. My father came home one night and handed me a set of keys to his grocery store in our small rural South Georgia town. He said, “We’re losing money. I don’t know who I can trust, and I need your help.” From that day forward, I was in the grocery business.

That’s where I developed a passion for entrepreneurship, learned what customer service means, what it means to care for your employees and give back to the community. We understood our place in that small town. The needs and requests were constant whether it was a church barbecue or handing out Gatorades at the local Special Olympics event. This was where I learned and practiced a phase that has guided my life in business – “leave it better than you found it”. 

A phrase I’ve heard all my life is ‘leave it better than you found it.’ We apply that daily in our work product, in caring for our employees and families and in building better communities.

As simple as that is, that phrase can be applied to every aspect of business, from your work product, to how you interact with employees and create opportunities for them, and how you treat the community around your business. That foundational phrase influenced the purpose of W&A Engineering and the goal of our corporate citizenship program which is “Building Better Communities” – everywhere we go, whatever we do, we want to leave it better than we found it.”

What structure did you put in place to help W&A achieve your corporate character aspirations?

“As a company we are obligated to build up those around us whenever we see the opportunity. To accomplish this, we break it into five pillars.

COMMUNITY. For us, community can be defined as those inside the walls of our office or those in this neighborhood; community is Athens Clark county, the State of Georgia, the entire country and increasingly the world. When we talk about community, we look for opportunities to give our knowledge, our skillset, our tangible and intangible assets to build up these communities in our lives.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT. Back in 2012, W&A worked on the Caterpillar plant which added 1400 jobs here in Athens Clark, Oconee County. Even at the time I recognized that I was incredibly fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, to have the right relationships. Throughout the meetings I came to realize that the community wasn’t ready to take advantage of this opportunity. They simply lacked the experience and infrastructure. Caterpillar represented well-paying jobs above the $7/hour typical wage which represents massive impact from increasing the number of people who can easily buy a gallon of milk or a gallon of gas to people who can envision buying a home. As a result of this experience, it became a W&A imperative to help local communities embrace economic development opportunities.

Practically speaking, this means once a month we donate our professional time and expertise to a rural community helping them envision and map out a plan to attract companies, create site plans, mitigate wetlands, build an industrial park – whatever they need to gain confidence and move forward we are there to help.

EDUCATION. When we look around our communities, we see real needs particularly in early childhood education where children are falling behind in reading and don’t catch up. The team here at W&A chose Books for Keeps as our charity of choice in Athens to try to find a way to fix the problem and help our community continue to grow and get better. We also go into the local schools and Boys & Girls Clubs to help them understand and explore the field of civil engineering and surveying – expanding their exposure to this career whether they attend college or not, helping them see new possibilities for their future.

EMPLOYEE WELLBEING. This company doesn’t work without the employees.

I see it as our responsibility to provide the best opportunities we can and create the best culture and workplace environment we can for people. For smaller companies like ours it’s a lot harder but it’s incumbent upon the leadership of a company to prioritize employee health from mental health to physical health.

Practically speaking for us this includes having Piedmont Hospital in our offices once a year to offer every single person a health screening if they want it. We just recently adopted a progressive family leave program offering three months paid maternity leave and one month of paternity leave. We’ve included compensation if you want to go through the adoption process as well as a stipend if you’d like to be a foster family. The definition of Employee Wellbeing needs to consider the larger family.

Our charitable giving, our corporate citizenship program doesn’t exist without happy healthy employees. If our employees aren’t happy and healthy there simply is no corporate citizenship. Certainly, when people have the opportunity to give back and participate in the community that in and of itself is uplifting and rejuvenating. But if our employees aren’t healthy, if their families aren’t healthy then communities cannot be healthy.”

SUSTAINABILITY. We are landscape architects and civil engineers so we are closer to sustainability than a lot of other professions. We help companies imagine what’s possible. We help by offering small businesses recycling outlets, drop-offs for old batteries and computers. Then we help clients consider the implications of positioning a building on a site or adding electric vehicle charging stations. We simply help educate clients on what’s possible from a recycling dumpster to a fully LEAD certified building helping them imagine a project that leaves things just a little bit better.

You included local businesses in your year-long community giving effort, why?

“Most of us shop at Amazon or go to Target, myself included. But it’s not lost on me that there are a lot people who are still living in small rural towns just like my hometown, running small businesses like my family grocery store. They are trying to make a dollar, feed their families and keep their employees working. So, when my team brought me the idea to celebrate our 20th anniversary by supporting local businesses and local charities, I was all in.

We selected local business and let them choose the best charity. Then we used our celebration budget to purchase advertising and radio spots to drive traffic to the business and made a donation to their charity of choice as part of the day.

When the pandemic hit, we had to pause. I checked in with our Mayor to see what he needed and he shared that small, garage-based businesses were in trouble, unable to access crucial PPP loans because they lacked banking relationships. We went into action calling bank presidents in town asking if they would set aside PPP loans for non-customers if we could find qualified businesses. First American Bank, Athens First, Oconee State Bank all said of course. Athens, Oconee and Oglethorpe Chamber of Commerce agreed to vet the businesses if we could get them to apply. We diverted our anniversary celebration dollars toward radio spots helping connect small businesses to the help they needed to survive.”

You mentioned that business is uniquely positioned to solve problems. Would you share a recent example?

This is one of those crazy stories. Somebody from the Athens Clark County Rec Department called looking for help to find a location for a COVID vaccination site. They couldn’t find a ready site and had a tight deadline. We knew just the place. Our team got into a conference room with the head of the Department of Health and did what they do best. They drew a plan on our wipe board then we had ten days to get it all up and running. We bought tents, rented a job trailer, finished office space, called in Georgia Power, plumbers, electricians, water and sewer and set it all up in a week.

It’s the best contribution we could give using our business super power of problem solving.

Our whole team really embraced the challenge. We all have parents and children home learning on computers. Whatever we could do to solve this problem, we needed to do it.

Why do all of this? You have a business to run and a lot of demands, why have you devoted so much energy beyond executing excellent engineering projects?

People want to do business with those companies they respect, appreciate or there’s a match with their “why?”.  Our “why?” here at W&A is to build better communities. Our why helps us bring in better clients and know when to walk away from a potential client. It’s hard to turn away business but sometimes you have to walk away when the values aren’t aligned.

Ultimately it leads to attracting and retaining better clients and employees and building a better more sustainable company. Which of course means we actually have more opportunities to give back.

We’ve put ourselves out there as a company that really cares about the community, that gives when it’s hard to do as well as when it’s easy, a company that tries to find ways to help.

Jon Williams
CEO, W&A Engineering
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