SUSTAINABLE LEGACIES: MENTOR-PROTÉGÉ AGREEMENTS
In celebration of Pont Engineering's 10th anniversary and 10-year relationship with AECOM, our firms are entering into a formal Mentor- Protégé Agreement. This article recounts the story of two bridge engineers - Sean Garland, founder and President of Pont Engineering, Inc., and Garrick Edwards, AECOM's Georgia Transportation Lead - who met two decades ago in a job interview and laid the foundation for two growing businesses in the Georgia Transportation market.
SEAN: In 2003, I was between jobs and looking for new opportunities when a colleague referred me to a small Georgia-based bridge engineering company. I was able to secure an interview for an open senior bridge engineering position. It was during this job interview that I first met Garrick Edwards.
GARRICK: As the firm's Chief Bridge Engineer, I was responsible for hiring and training engineers. We had built a solid team of mid- and junior-level staff, but I needed a senior bridge engineer to whom I could delegate responsibility. This was the first time in my career interviewing someone for a senior engineering position. I had interviewed several candidates with more experience, but Sean clearly distinguished himself by the way he answered my interview questions.
SEAN: Garrick quizzed me about my approach to bridge design. Anticipating this, I described my systematic approach leveraging software, automation, and development of in-house tools to improve efficiency, ensure quality deliverables, and minimize rework. This exchange made it clear that Garrick and I had similar views on bridge design. He then told me he was looking for someone with more experience.
GARRICK: When I told Sean I was seeking someone with more experience, he replied confidently, "No, you don't. . . you need someone you can trust to deliver!" Taken back his directness, I thought, "Who's interviewing who here?" As the interview progressed, Sean demonstrated strong knowledge of the local bridge market and the value he could bring to our team. By the end of the interview, we were exchanging ideas like we were already working together.
THE PRODUCTIVE YEARS
SEAN: From 2003 to 2008, our company's bridge practice grew to the largest in the state. Increasingly over this period, Garrick trusted me to lead the technical responsibilities of the company. Our conversations expanded beyond technical guidance to people management, client engagement, project management, finance, and other aspects of running a consulting business that would be valuable if I ever decided to start my own business. I began to view him less as a boss and more as a mentor.
GARRICK: Over those years, I migrated to more project management and client relations, while Sean shifted to the technical lead role. While working together, Sean and I often discussed gaps in our local DBE market, specifically a minority-owned businessspecializing in bridge design, and the lack of black-owned businesses in the Georgia transportation market.
BITTER ENDS, ROUGH BEGINNINGS
GARRICK: Under increasing financial pressure from the economic downturn of 2008, my firm was sold to a foreign infrastructure company. Two years later, I left the firm and returned to AECOM. Through this experience, I learned important lessons about ownership, partnerships, acquisitions, and company culture that would prove invaluable during my time at AECOM.
SEAN: While working with the new firm, I was tasked with teaming and developing relationships with DBE firms in Georgia. Finding DBE professional services firms that fit our specific project needs was surprisingly tricky. Recognizing this market gap, I laid the groundwork for Pont Engineering in 2010 and departed the firm to run it full-time in 2012.
GARRICK: I was excited to see the launch of Pont Engineering and was very aware of the regulatory barriers Sean faced in the years before the launch. Sean and I regularly talked about navigating these impediments to his business while laying the foundation for a long-term relationship between AECOM and Pont.
SEAN: The first barrier Pont faced was meeting the minimum requirements to do business with the state. To be pre-qualified to design structures, firms must employ two licensed professional engineers with documented experience in bridge/structural design. Because pursuing, winning, and securing a contract takes several years,
small firms would have to borrow money to pay, provide benefits, and retain a licensed professional engineer until securing enough billable work to support that engineer full-time. One option was entering into a partnership with another engineer, likely giving that person significant shares in my company. I chose to retain my ownership and rely on organic growth, which fortunately materialized through my relationship with AECOM.
GARRICK: By this time, I was firmly entrenched in a leadership role within AECOM's Georgia-based operation with responsibility over our Highway-Bridge business. A key component of our local strategy was to form partnerships with minority-owned firms that complemented AECOM's broad range of services. Sean needed Pont Engineering to grow, and AECOM needed partners that complimented our core services, prioritized our delivery schedules, and understood our rigorous technical and quality standards. We began by adding Pont Engineering to our bridge-related contracts but recognized that Pont would struggle to grow without a solution to the prequalification issue. This prequalification would make Pont more marketable to other firms needing bridge expertise, something critical to Sean building a sustainable business.
SEAN: Fortunately, with support from AECOM and leadership at the GDOT, a compromise was reached that permitted a small firm to become pre-qualified while employing a single PE as long they could provide documentation that another pre-qualified firm reviewed the work. AECOM immediately stepped up to serve as Pont's review firm and provided documentation that allowed us to secure a prequalification in bridge design. In addition, AECOM added us to their GDOT Bridge Inspection and Maintenance contract and started our mentor protégé relationship.
SEAN'S VIEWS ON BUILDING A SUSTAINABLE BUSINESS
Starting a sustainable professional engineering services firm from scratch has many challenges to overcome. Pont Engineering was facing an additional challenge, the perception that there were no capable minority-owned professional services firms in the marketplace.
The stability of any firm revolves primarily around meeting the client's needs by providing talented, capable professionals. To build a successful and sustainable professional services firm, Pont needs to recruit, retain, and train highly skilled professionals, which is complicated further by current labor shortages in our industry. To attract talent, employees must see opportunities to work on interesting projects. To retain talented professionals, we must provide diverse career opportunities, training, professional development, and a clear path to career growth. Our partnership with AECOM offers excellent opportunities for our staff to work on some of the industry's most challenging projects but also gives us access to software and innovative technologies AECOM is using to deliver projects. We attribute much of our growth over the past few years to our relationship with AECOM. N
WHY MENTOR-PROTÉGÉ AGREEMENTS?
In Georgia, it is common for small firms to subcontract services to larger firms. Arguably, relying solely on prime-sub agreements does not necessarily produce equitable and sustainable growth for minorityowned firms. We feel strongly that mentor-protégé arrangements, similar to what is used with the Small Business Administration, make the most sense for our arrangement, but these agreements are more common at the federal level and rare in the local marketplace.
Because of our history of working together and mutual understanding of the benefits to both firms, we agreed to a strategic partnership sealed with a handshake. That handshake has sustained this commitment between our firms for more than ten years. Over the past ten years, Pont has grown to 25 employees, achieved an average of 50% year-over-year revenue growth, and strengthened its bridge design, inspection, and maintenance services. AECOM has grown into one of the largest transportation service providers in Georgia, getting exactly what it needed from Pont Engineering, a partner firm with the capacity and technical capability to deliver services that complement AECOM's business strategy.
GARRICK: The nature of the Mentor- Protégé relationship is mutually beneficial to both parties and the marketplace as a whole. The mentor firm has no equity, financial interest, or management control of the protégé firm. Furthermore, the agreement does not restrict the protégé firm's business arrangements with other firms, including AECOM's competitors; AECOM understands that Pont needs to be sustainable by diversifying its client base and freely respects Pont contracting with our competitors. Naturally, the protégé is obligated to protect any intellectual property disclosed in the course of doing business by the mentor. For this agreement, AECOM agrees to support Pont and work to enhance its business opportunities and technical capabilities by providing:
• Business Development Assistance in the form of strategic planning: identifying potential new market and contracting opportunities; supporting the development of marketing materials and proposals; and positioning for new business opportunities.
• Management Assistance with internal business processes and management systems.
• General Administrative help with business processes and quality assurance programs.
• Technical and Resource Assistance with protégé staff development, including senior manager shadowing and technical training on advanced software and advanced engineering techniques.
SEAN: While there is no equity or financial interest directly shared between the protégé and mentor, these agreements provide a multitude of value to small firms. In addition to the support provided by Garrick and AECOM, the relationship gives Pont access to AECOM leadership who can assist with:
• Strategic Planning: For the next evolution of Pont Engineering, our goal is to continue along a path of smart growth, leveraging AECOM management as strategic advisors in our planning efforts.
• Peer Exchange: Being the sole Owner of Pont Engineering means I have to make every major decision relating to the growth and expansion of services, finance and investments, information technology,and potential legal issues. To vet ideas and ground truth solutions, it is important that I can access trusted advisors at AECOM who understand my company.
• Diversification: If we continue to provide valuable service to a global firm like AE- COM, we have an opportunity to diversify our service offerings and potentially expand the relationship with other markets and clients. These engagements are common at the scale of a firm like AECOM, but for a small firm like ours, they provide immeasurable value in understanding where to invest time, energy, and resources.
GARRICK: To the great staff over at Pont Engineering, thank you for consistently delivering exceptional service across all our projects. We could not be successful without your dedication and commitment to excellence. To Sean Garland, I will simply say that I am proud of you for all you have accomplished this past decade and honored to be part of your story.
SEAN: Every successful individual I know can point to mentors who helped shape their growth and development. I am incredibly grateful to those that have been instrumental in my career. My goal is to position our company and each individual in it with the opportunity to have similarly positive career experiences and retain talent in our industry. I genuinely appreciate AECOM's commitment to Pont Engineering over the past decade and look forward to continuing and expanding our relationship in the decades to come.
For more information on Pont Engineering, Inc., visit www.pontengineering.com.