Profile: Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc.

September 2004 » Business
Completing about 4,000 wideranging projects a year, employees at Northbrook, Ill.-based Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. (WJE) have plenty of chances to hone their problem-solving skills.

Focus on staff’s professional development and controlled company growth strengthen firm’s reputation

BY BOB DRAKE

The firm is a niche provider, according to Gary J. Klein, P.E., S.E., executive vice president and principal. The company focuses on solving structural, architectural, and construction materials problems. "Being in business [almost] 50 years, we’ve carried out tens of thousands of assignments and we’ve seen virtually every problem before, some many times," he said.

"That collective expertise is very valuable." But, expertise is only useful when it’s shared, which, according to Klein, is a challenge in a firm the size of WJE, with 20 offices nationwide and more than 380 employees. Nevertheless, the company’s emphasis on professional development and industry involvement has encouraged communication. "Our culture is such that people are more than willing to share what they’ve learned," Klein said.

Both the expertise and the willingness to share it are captured in the firm’s vision: "Extraordinary people working together to set the standard in our profession." Professional development In support of its vision statement, WJE encourages employees to continue their professional development. "We invest a great deal of our resources providing staff with opportunities to attend seminars, or even more importantly, to become active professionally," said Harry J.

Hunderman, FAIA, architecture unit manager and principal. "We want our staff to grow professionally to meet the needs of our clients." Each year, WJE’s staff attend more than 250 conferences, serve as chairpersons on more than 30 technical committees, publish more than 200 technical papers, and give more than 120 presentations at society meetings and symposia.

"Being active in our profession is a two-way street," explained William J. Nugent, P.E., S.E., president and principal. "We want to give our employees an opportunity to participate in professional activities that they believe will help them develop in their careers. It’s also important to contribute to the advancement of the profession by sharing what we’ve learned through our many years of experience. That’s not just for our engineers and architects and materials scientists. We also encourage our administrative professionals to participate in professional activities." Sharing expertise in-house through mentoring also is encouraged. Each year, the company conducts surveys to determine the best mentors, who then are given additional consideration in the compensation and incentive program. And mentoring at WJE goes beyond the typical model. "You traditionally think of mentors as more senior people teaching and sharing knowledge with less senior people," Nugent said. "But ... there’s actually a lot that we can learn from the less senior people, particularly in the areas of technology and computers. We try to be open to a two-way mentoring process." To enhance professional development and to promote working together, WJE gathers its employees from all of its branch offices every two years for a two-and-a-half-day, in-house technology-exchange conference. The conference also includes videos, presentations, and exhibit booths organized by employees in a "World of WJE" ("WOW!") trade show.

Additionally, WJE established technical resource groups in 20 main practice areas, organized around materials or systems. People who work in each area share information by teleconferences, by e-mail, or through collaborative websites set up on the firm’s wide-area network. Each technical resource group has an intranet site that allows participants to conduct threaded discussions, store papers, and share other information relevant to the subject.

Patient growth Clients certainly benefit from WJE’s cooperative knowledge exchange, however, technology doesn’t diminish the need for a personal touch.

Because, according to Nugent, clients increasingly prefer local service, WJE is endeavoring to increase its geographic diversity. But the company spends a considerable amount of time looking for the right combination of people with the background and values that fit the company’s culture when opening a new branch office. For example, it took 10 years for WJE to realize its goal of opening a Los Angeles office.

"It is a process that takes patience," Nugent said. "The key to our success is finding the right type of people." "Non-negotiable" qualities of a WJE employee, he explained, are character, commitment, expertise, and enthusiasm.

"We appreciate the opportunity to be part of a company where so many people before us did so many good things," Nugent said. "We get to enjoy the benefits of that reputation, but [we] also have a responsibility to continue to enhance that reputation and leave something for the next generation that works here."


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