Elevating an Industry
When she was named president of O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun at the start of 2020 after two decades at the engineering firm, Ashley Sullivan knew she was in for a time of transition.
What she didn’t know was … so was every other business, thanks to a pandemic that shut down much of the economy for a time, and continues to reverberate today.
“You had to adapt; everyone did,” Sullivan told BusinessWest. “So I do think it was something that helped us work through so many things and put another name to the transition. There was an external reason for us to look at everything: what are we doing? Are we shutting down the office or not? What’s our COVID policy? How are we going to work remotely? And our services for some projects were deemed essential. That’s good, but how do we keep our people safe?
“In a way, I think that gave us time and a reason to move through our own transition and the change of leadership,” she went on. “We looked through our business practices, looked at our services, reconnected with clients … we had time to think of our culture and our brand and do some marketing, which we knew was going to be important. And how were we going to get to the other side of this? It was quite the ride.”
At the same time, “it was almost easier, in a way, to ask for help during that time because nobody knew what they were doing,” Sullivan added. And what she was hearing was, “‘hey, you need to keep marketing, you need to reach out to your clients … don’t stop those things right now because, when you get to the other side, you’re going to have to make sure all those investments into your company were happening, investments in your people.’”
Investing in people, and growing the team, is something Sullivan wanted to emphasize from the beginning, aiming to create a company where people would want to work, she said, listing her core values as respect, togetherness — “we found that people did want to work together; they do like to collaborate, network, and be on design teams” — and transparency. “We want to keep communication open and make people feel like they’re part of something bigger than any one individual.”
“It’s not about competition with the person next door, it is about elevating the whole industry. We believe in the services we provide. We believe in what we do.”
All that, she said, is in the service of elevating the industry, as the mission statement posted in the conference room attests: “We will elevate our industry to create and deliver the best solutions for natural and built environments.”
As she explained, “it’s not about competition with the person next door, it is about elevating the whole industry. We believe in the services we provide. We believe in what we do. I really enjoy working with other consultants. We’ve been able to do some master service agreements with other consultants where, if they don’t have capacity to do a job, we will help them, or vice versa. That came out of the pandemic, people helping each other. We saw a lot of helping.”
And to elevate an industry, Sullivan believes she must first elevate her people. “I’m so proud of this team and what they’ve done; they put some trust in me, and so many people have stepped up, and they did a lot of professional development. Now I’m seeing people I mentored who are mentoring the new people coming in.”
That workforce-development philosophy carries over to her role instructing the civil engineering capstone design course at Western New England University. There, she guides graduating students through a mock building project, and many of her peers join her in presenting practical technical knowledge, writing skills, and soft-skills training.
“I love that,” she said. “I feel like our industry should do a better job with mentoring, with creating the next generation of people to work. Again, it goes back to elevating the industry: are we doing all we can to show that we’re good at what we do?”
From the Ground Up
Before O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun’s three founders launched the firm in 1994, they were working together at an environmental-services firm in Connecticut. The Bay State had just developed the Massachusetts Contingency Plan, a law that tells people how to go about cleaning up spills of hazardous materials. As that program rolled out, the three saw an emerging need for people with their skills. So they started a company.
Over the years, OTO’s services have included testing commercial properties for hazardous materials and overseeing cleanup, asbestos management in schools and offices, brownfield redevelopment, indoor air-quality assessments, and geotechnical engineering, which may involve helping developers assess how much force and weight the ground under a proposed structure can stand, or determining the strength of an existing building’s foundation and surrounding topography.
“I feel like our industry should do a better job with mentoring, with creating the next generation of people to work.”
OTO’s early-pandemic experience — also Sullivan’s trial by fire in the president’s chair — mirrored that of many in the construction and engineering world.
“There was a time initially where we all went remote and some projects definitely stopped. Construction already in place before the pandemic typically kept going, so we had that work. Any new projects tended to slow down and stop.
“Also, in-person meetings, site meetings, that all stopped,” she went on. “So we really had to adapt and ask, ‘OK, how are we going to collaborate, how are we going to communicate?’ Our work definitely did slow down for a little bit, as we figured out how all this was going to work. Then some public jobs started coming back, and it was a real push to keep public work going.”
Most of the firm’s services continued at some level, though anything associated with property transfers stopped for a while. “Now property transfers have started up again; a lot of work has started up again. It went from the slowdown to this crazy pickup of a lot of work.”
As a result, the project load is busier now than it was pre-COVID, Sullivan said, adding that “anything on hold has moved forward.”
OTO’s certification as a Women Business Enterprise has also helped create new relationships and new opportunities. “We’ve been able to meet new clients, new architects, and get on more design teams and be brought into a lot of interesting projects. So we are very busy. There is a lot of work, and we’re actually trying to grow staff-wise, which is very hard to do right now.”
That’s true across the entire industry and, indeed, all sectors. That’s why companies that want to hire need to stand out, and one of the ways they can do that is through culture.
“One of my roles is to create a place where people want to work,” she said, noting that OTO has made three technical hires over the past two years. “I’m always on the lookout. It’s not easy, particularly with being a small company and competing with some of the bigger firms.
“We have found — and this is exciting for me — a lot of the people that we have hired have been referred to us: ‘go check out OTO; go speak with Ashley. That might be a good fit.’ And I try to do that for other people. When I come across somebody who does a technical service that OTO doesn’t provide, I’ll put them in contact with somebody I work with. But I think what you give off is what you get. You have to have your eyes open to opportunity and be a place where people want to work.”
During the past couple years, OTO has renewed some sectors, such as industrial compliance, where some staff had retired but not been replaced. “But during this time, we looked at some professional development and said, ‘hey, maybe there’s not work in one service sector; what else can we renew?’ And we’ve been able to renew those services.”
Among the firm’s recent notable projects is the geotechnical and hazardous-materials assessment on the project that will replace the dilapidated Civic Center Parking Garage next to the MassMutual Center in Springfield.
“How can I not be enthusiastic for a project I can see out my window?” Sullivan said. “And their vision for it is just amazing for downtown. So that’s super exciting.”
Other local projects include a number of schools in Springfield, West Springfield, Gardner, and other communities, as well as work with Westmass Area Development Corp. on the ongoing Ludlow Mills redevelopment. “We’re a small piece of a lot of projects. Any one of us here probably has 30 projects at any one time.”
Because Massachusetts has done a good job cleaning up its largest contaminated sites, OTO focuses more on site redevelopment, as it’s tougher these days to find untouched land to develop in Massachusetts, Sullivan noted.
“We have to look at environmental implications for jobs. When we get involved early on, we can guide the design team in how to approach these projects and provide value early on.
“What we’ve been able to do more is actually couple our services,” she added. “On a redevelopment project, we’ve been able to offer our hazardous-materials compliance, our Massachusetts regulations compliance, and geotechnical engineering all in one, and we’ve been working a lot more internally cross-sector-wise. That’s sometimes harder to communicate internally than externally, but we’ve really worked on a lot of those skills and working together in teams, and we’re able to provide clients with cross-sector services.”
In short, O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun has emerged from two pandemic-dominated years in strong shape, but it took plenty of persistence and flexibility to get there.
“It’s been hard,” Sullivan said. “But as soon as things get overwhelming or challenging, I look around and see how everybody here has progressed and developed and stepped up and taken ownership. They’re why I’m here — and our clients. We work with so many wonderful and talented people.”
Looking back to those initial months of COVID — again, also her initial months in charge at OTO — she was surprised by the support she received from other local engineering players.
“I had so many people reach out to me from other firms, checking in: ‘how are you doing? Do you need advice?’
“There were so many people willing to help and come together, different leaders from other firms and other organizations,” she went on. “There were times I was blown away by how people really do want to help other people. I made some great relationships with other CEOs that, two years ago, I might never have called.”
In short, Sullivan isn’t the only one trying to elevate an industry, and that’s a good thing.
“A lot of people want other people to succeed,” she said. “That’s something I believe in, and that was really neat to see. It keeps me going.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]