It is unusual for someone to spend their entire career with one company as Jack Welsh did with GE. It is even more unusual for that person to parallel Welsh’s path to being the president and CEO of that same company, but that is what Gary DeJidas of GAI Consultants, Inc. has done. GAI is an engineering and environmental consulting firm with almost 900 employees, working from 26 offices in 11 states. DeJidas shares his time equally between the company’s original headquarters in Pittsburgh and the offices that can be seen from the East-West Expressway, just east of downtown Orlando.
I4B: You’ve been with GAI for 40 years; that’s very unique. What attracted you to them and why have you stayed?
GD: It is peculiar, especially in the current market. I went to work for GAI right out of college in 1972. At that time, it was really just about landing a job, and they made the best offer. But what kept me here is that I have always been challenged, even when I was on the bottom rung as a field inspector. Then, I became a resident engineer in charge of projects, and then a design engineer. But my greatest challenge and opportunity came in 1982 when my company asked me to open a new office in Orlando.
Though they looked at several other sites and even talked to people in the company with a lot more experience than I had, they ended up going with me. My background focused on engineering, not business or business development, so it was a real stretch personally. Also, I hadn’t mentioned the move to my wife, who is from Pittsburgh. For the next 20 years, I built our business throughout the southeast. Though my wife had a hard time transitioning from Pennsylvania initially, when I was elected president and CEO, she wanted no part of moving back north, so Orlando remains my primary residence.
I4B: Explain the scope of GAI’s work.
GD: The company is very diverse, which is one of the keys to our growth and resilience. Basically, we are the designers from which contractors get their plans; we also do a lot of environmental permitting, land planning, community development and infrastructure. We basically do everything other than vertical construction.
Our largest sector is energy, working with electric utilities, designing transmission lines, substations and power plants. In coal burning facilities, we also worked on fly ash disposal. That is where we started in the energy sector, but over time we grew into nuclear, mainly because Westinghouse is also Pittsburgh-based and we worked with them in structural design, building encasements, civil work and piping. Recently, we have also been working in natural gas in the northeast. In addition, we do design projects with onshore and soon offshore wind.
I4B: Even within the design and civil engineering umbrella, that is a pretty broad focus.
GD: We’ve never targeted just one area. Many of the firms, particularly here in Florida were devastated by a narrow focus like private land development. Then, when that sector experienced a downturn it was too late to find different arenas. It takes time to develop the relationships and the reputation, which are foundational to doing business in a particular market.
I4B: I read that five years ago, when the market faltered, you led your company through a major change in strategic direction. Tell me about that.
GD: It’s funny, I knew we were going to be okay, but because there was less work, there would be more competition. My strategy was to not hide under a rock or become defensive. I told our team, “We know what is coming; let’s look for more opportunities to diversify.” So we continued acquiring other firms to broaden our base in both expertise and market share. That meant growing geographically, expanding our client base and the key staff that would support our growth and being aggressive to move toward the openings that present themselves.
I4B: At a time when others were fighting for survival GAI grew, and much of that growth has come through acquisitions. What are the key things you look for in an acquisition, as you weigh its potential?
GD: What we look for first is cultural compatibility. No matter what services or opportunities their business might present us with, if the way they do business is substantially different from how we do business, then we push back. GAI has extremely high professional standards, so if they didn’t match our cultural climate, then it’s “nice knowing you.”
If they pass that stage, then we ask, “How can what they do help us accomplish our goals?” For instance, we wouldn’t acquire a company that has the same customer mix that we already have; we want to broaden our client base. Or, we look for firms that provide services to sectors we currently aren’t reaching. One of the companies we acquired worked in the aviation industry because we wanted to strengthen our aviation capabilities. This was an opportunity to expand into an arena we wanted to move into because we knew aviation would continue to move forward and there would be more emphasis on improving their infrastructure. That was a great entry into that market.
I4B: Can you give me another example?
GD: The other one that comes to mind was one in Indiana. It attracted us because we wanted to expand westward; it was primarily a geographic decision. They were 30 years old and well-established with a great reputation, plus they had some key people who fit well into our leadership development plans. Recently, we bought a company in Wisconsin for much the same reason.
I4B: What makes up a cultural match, a values fit, and how do you analyze that? Is it intuitive?
GD: There’s no magic to it; I grew up in this culture. GAI was started by three guys – one was a professor and the other two were graduate students at Carnegie Mellon. They brought with them a standard of professionalism, and I grew up with it. People who are around me get the same impression; we’re a very ethical, upfront, transparent firm, both with our clients and with our staff. We share with our staff the finances of the company, the good and the bad, because people want to know.
I looked at one potential acquisition – their building was small and people were crammed into a very narrow space; it was like a sweat shop. The only one who knew the financial status of the company was the owner and right away I knew this wasn’t a match for us.
Also, struggling companies require a major league investment to bring them up to our standards. Acquisitions are one of those areas that I am far from perfect in; I wish there were “do-overs.” We spend months in due diligence, but there is always the inevitable surprise; fortunately, the vast majority of ours have been very successful.
We’re growing in three ways: organically because our clients like us and give us repeat business; through acquisitions; and by planting new offices, usually where one of our major clients is moving, putting a young person with potential there to run it.
I4B: You once talked about being a “calculated risk-taker.”
GD: When I took over as CEO, our Pittsburgh offices were scattered around in several locations. I realized our staff was very fragmented. I found a building that a contractor had started and couldn’t finish; it was just a shell of a building. But when I walked in, I said, “This is where I want to be,” until they told me what they wanted for the building. But the owner couldn’t move it because of its uniqueness, so they came back with a reasonable offer. When we moved all our folks into that one 85,000 sq. ft. building, it made a huge difference in galvanizing our team and our company identity in the community. It was risky, but it was a very calculated risk, which paid off for us amazingly even though a lot of people said we would never be able to pull it off.
I4B: Describe your leadership development process.
GD: Fundamentally what I have learned is that all leadership is by example. Next, I’ve always had a sixth sense for identifying talent, but to nurture that talent you have to put them in positions of responsibility, then coach and mentor, but not tell them what to do.
A few years back, I started and participated in an in-house MBA program with a local university in Pittsburgh. Generally, our people are very technical in their orientation, but if you are going to lead you have to understand what makes people tick. I asked all my senior managers who didn’t have an MBA to participate and most of them did. So for two years I went back to school, and, to be honest, at the first exam I was sweating bullets! The beauty was that the professors came to our facility in Pittsburgh and employees in different locations were able to participate online. It was a great experience; the practical application of the theoretical material came from scenarios that GAI was dealing with. Everyone had common goals and interests. We are now on our third class. Each class is a combination of senior leadership and what I call “up and comers.”