CE Solutions Thrives with Employees as Family and Clients as Friends
When Steve Osborn, PE, SE, FSMPS, CPSM, began CE Solutions, Inc., in the basement of his Carmel, Indiana, home in 1998, he focused on building relationships, first with clients and the other professionals he worked alongside, then eventually with the employees he hired. That approach resulted in two important outcomes – a thriving structural engineering firm and many new friendships.
As President and CEO of the firm, Osborn continues to grow the business through relationships. For employees, he provides a flexible work environment where everyone contributes to key business decisions. Together, that team delivers personalized client care across a variety of project types and markets. As CE Solutions celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, Osborn and his associates share their lessons learned.
How to Start a Successful Business
After graduating from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, Osborn spent 20 years working for three Indianapolis-area engineering firms before establishing CE Solutions. RATIO, an architectural firm headquartered in Indianapolis, became the new company’s first client.
“I knew Steve when he was with another large firm,” said Tim Barrick, FSMPS, Principal/Executive Vice President at RATIO. “We put some faith and trust in Steve and we’ve watched him grow with a lot of delight.”
Osborn built CE Solutions slowly and strategically. “When I started this company, I had no idea whether I’d hire employees or just continue as a sole proprietor,” he said. “Eventually I realized that, while I enjoy doing structural engineering and managing projects, I found greater personal rewards in creating opportunities for other people to grow, learn, and accomplish their goals in alignment with our overall company passion of making a difference in the communities where we work. I decided I needed to bring people on board in order to achieve that bigger goal.”
Carrie Walden, PE, now a Senior Project Manager, joined Osborn as the first employee in 2001. “I liked Steve’s philosophy of building solid relationships, then building the business on those relationships,” she said. “I enjoy forming those friendships.”
Because of that approach, RATIO has continued to work with CE Solutions. “They take good care of us, much more so than a number of larger firms would,” Barrick said. “I don’t know that there are many other companies that are so personally involved in making sure we’re happy.”
In addition to the care provided on each project, “Steve has become a good friend,” Barrick added. “He’s been a very good ally and helped me get work. He often reached out for business advice, but our relationship certainly has included learning things from him and working together to produce outstanding results.”
Craig Galati, AIA, FSMPS, CPSM, Principal/President of LGA, an architectural firm in Las Vegas, Nevada, met Osborn at a conference in 1999 and also developed a strong relationship. From a business standpoint, “What I liked was his approach – he’s all about customer service and trying to make a difference in the community,” Galati said. “His firm takes care of clients like no one else. They really care about the work they’re doing and put their all into it.”
Galati served as a mentor in the early days of CE Solutions. Over the years, “Steve became a sounding board for me; I got his feedback on all sorts of business matters,” Galati said. “It’s rare for me to find a professional with whom I can have that sort of reciprocal relationship.”
Osborn’s focus on relationships led to many mentors, clients, friends, and successful projects. CE Solutions currently employees 14 people and continues to grow.
How to Ensure Longevity
Through the firm’s 20-year history, “We’ve always focused on relationships first and opportunities second,” Osborn said. “It’s about seeking out clients we want to do business with, then being available and responsive to whatever they need. We network and meet with folks, then the next thing you know we’re doing an energy project. We didn’t approach that architect because they do energy work; we approached them because we liked who they are and felt it was a good fit.”
That strategy took the firm into diverse markets with diverse client types. “We do business with a lot of architects and collaborate with other engineering firms,” Osborn explained. “Some owners hire us as the prime because they like our project management process. We’ve had people say, ‘I don’t care who you hire for your team. I trust you and know you’ll take good care of us and we’ll have a successful outcome.’”
CE Solutions has worked in a variety of public and private markets, from civic to corporate, retail, education, healthcare, housing, manufacturing and industrial. Their projects range from new construction to repair and restoration, with a variety of project delivery methods.
“Because they have a diverse practice, we’ve been able to use them on university projects as well as commercial structures like office buildings,” Barrick said.
In addition to helping the firm grow, the wide range of projects and clientele provided stability during bad times. “When the going got tough in 2008 and 2009, our diverse portfolio and diverse client network insulated us from challenges in certain markets,” Osborn said.
The firm’s focus on relationships also made a difference during the recession. “We all came together as a group,” Osborn said. “My message was, ‘We’re going to see people showing up at our clients’ doorsteps that we’re not used to seeing. All I ask is that you deliver the level of service we’ve always delivered; take it to the next level if you can. Don’t give our clients a reason to go elsewhere.’”
Along with an effort to cultivate new business, that strategy proved effective. “In 2010, we had a record year,” Osborn reported. “Then 2011 beat 2010, and we’ve enjoyed success ever since.”
Why Details Matter
In addition to strong relationships, Osborn founded his practice on a commitment to mutual respect, integrity, and ethical practice. “Those principles are timeless and sacred,” he said. “They’re the basis for all decisions and company conduct.”
Osborn also stresses thoroughness, attention to detail, constructability, responsiveness, and honoring commitments. “We’ve had an incredible amount of success just by being careful, being smart, and maintaining a commitment to hiring the best and brightest, training them, and providing the tools necessary to effectively do their jobs.”
The firm conducts regular training – not just in technical skills, but also in project management and communication. “Keeping clients informed without them having to ask is important to them, so it’s important to us,” said JD Taylor, PE, Vice President of CE Solutions. “We work to make their lives as easy as possible.”
As an added benefit, “Accurate, complete communication reduces risk,” Osborn said. “We also make sure we’re doing business with people who care about us like we care about them, because when you’ve got those kinds of arrangements, risk drops off dramatically. When something does happen on a project, because everyone cares and communicates, we figure out a way to work through it so when we’re done, we’re still friends.”
Culture that Leads to Success
Within the firm, “We’ve built a family atmosphere of professionals,” Walden said. “We support one another and are driven by relationships inside and out.”
The support extends to all levels, Taylor added. “There’s no hierarchy here. Senior engineers help younger project managers. Nothing we do here is ‘beneath’ any of us; we’re all just helping each other out. We all care about each other and the firm. That team atmosphere helps everyone do a better and more effective job.”
Osborn truly views his employees as family. “Once we make a commitment to bring someone on board, I think of it as a lifelong commitment,” he said. “I look at it as my responsibility to create opportunities for people so they don’t ever want to leave.”
Those opportunities encourage personal and professional development as well as community service. The firm also offers a flexible workplace. “I tell people I really don’t care how you get the work done as long as it’s done ethically, professionally, legally, and you’re available to our clients Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” Osborn said. “That doesn’t mean you need to be in your seat; we’ll give you the opportunity to be mobile. But if a client needs to contact you during our normal business hours, I want you to be accessible and responsive.”
That approach makes work-life balance easier. For example, through Walden’s 17 years with the company, “She’s worked remotely more than she’s worked in the office,” Osborn said. “She lived in Chicago almost seven years and it took her client two years to figure out she commuted from Chicago instead of Carmel. She never let that be an issue. Her husband had a great job there and she was able to work out of her home while she had young kids. That’s just one of many examples. If it’s important to the individual, they make it work.”
The flexible arrangements help CE Solutions attract and retain talent. “Right now, it’s hard to find people, so keeping your staff happy certainly pays off in the long run – beyond being a good thing to do,” Taylor said. “Of course, we have deadlines from our clients that we always abide by, but we do the best we can to foster a good work-life balance that allows employees to be responsive to their families.”
The firm’s inclusive approach also contributes to employee retention. From the time Walden joined the firm as a new graduate, she said, “Steve was open to my ideas and opinions. It’s exciting to know that my input has been part of helping the company grow into what it is now.”
All employees participate in key decisions. For instance, in the hiring process, “Our culture is very important to us; we want to protect that,” Osborn explained. “If you’re going to invite someone to be part of your family, you want to have a bit of a say in whether that person will be compatible in terms of vision, ideals, and values. That’s why potential new hires meet everyone, either face-to-face or over the phone.”
Creating a Vision for the Future
Osborn also includes every employee in visioning and strategic planning sessions. Approximately every other year they gather off-site with an outside facilitator. That tradition began in 2005.
“Our first strategic planning retreat helped us add clarity and build consensus on the direction of the firm and formalize our stated purpose and vision,” Osborn said. “Subsequent strategic planning sessions have been integral as we shape our future together. Craig (Galati) led several of the early sessions that paved the way for the firm’s success.”
The most recent visioning occurred in 2016, stretching 15 years ahead to 2031. “We wanted to extend far enough that it would be clear I’d no longer be in a leadership role in the firm,” Osborn said. “It gave us an opportunity to communicate that JD (Taylor) would be the future leader (see the “Leadership Transition” sidebar) and we collectively wrote the vision according to that.”
“It’s not all that common for a company like ours to come together to do strategic visioning on a regular basis and involve everyone in the process,” said Heather Cox, CPSM, the firm’s Director of Marketing and Client Relations. “The opportunity to participate in visioning and strategic planning was one of the things that attracted me to CE Solutions.”
The Importance of Marketing
Not many companies with just 14 people employ a marketing director like Cox. Osborn actually hired the first marketing director when CE Solutions employed just seven people.
“We think of ourselves as a marketing-centric firm,” he said. “In every business there are essentially four systems: production, marketing, human resources, and finance. All four need to be in balance to have a successful business. In my opinion, there should be a chief executive who’s a marketing professional – the chief marketing officer. They should have the same voice as the chief financial officer, chief operating officer, and chief executive officer.”
To develop his own marketing knowledge, Osborn became active in the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) before founding CE Solutions. “When I joined SMPS, I had a really good peer network in engineering communities – a good technical network – but not a client prospect network,” he said. “SMPS caters to the architectural, engineering, and construction communities – the built environment. The programming provides a high level of education and training on best practices, and the relationships lead to potential clients.”
For instance, “One of the first people I met was Tim Barrick from RATIO,” Osborn said. “He was very helpful in coaching me and helping me decide to start my own business. He’s been a good friend and mentor ever since, and we have worked with RATIO consistently throughout our company history.”
Now an SMPS Fellow, a designation representing the highest level of experience and leadership in marketing within the design and building industries, Osborn has attended every national SMPS conference since 1996 and launched CE Solutions at the 1998 conference. He remains active at both the state and national levels of the organization. Cox currently serves as SMPS Indiana President. Both she and Osborn earned the Certified Professional Services Marketer (CPSM) designation. (See “Professional Growth through Involvement” sidebar.)
As the firm marks its 20th anniversary, Osborn shared his gratitude for all those who helped create their reputation for care and grow the firm. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to develop so many friendships with clients and collaborators and to build a family in our office. Even the people we no longer work with are still part of our family and part of our success. I set out wanting to make a difference in the communities our projects serve and I’m proud of what we have accomplished together. I’m excited about the opportunities that lie ahead to continue improving quality of life through our work and service.”
Following best business practices, Osborn has developed a succession plan. “‘Retire’ isn’t really in my vocabulary, but eventually I do plan to slow down and assume a different role with the company,” he said.
At that point, JD Taylor will assume leadership of the firm. Osborn initially hired Taylor in 1993 as a recent college graduate when they both worked at another firm. Taylor joined CE Solutions in 2003. “I really love this company and wouldn’t want to see it go away once Steve decides to change his role here,” he said.
As Taylor transitions into more leadership responsibilities, the firm is seeking additional experienced talent. “In order for our company to evolve to the next level, we need to free up some of JD’s time,” Osborn said. “We have a great opportunity for someone who can step in and manage a significant workload right away.”
Professional Growth Through Involvement
CE Solutions enthusiastically encourages employees to become involved in professional associations such as Society for Marketing Professional Services, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the American Council of Engineering Companies. “Employee participation benefits the individual, our company, the organization, and society,” Osborn said.
Osborn’s involvement included an overhaul of the Society for Marketing Professional Services certification program and establishment of the six Domains of Practice for Professional Services Marketing. Barrick, SMPS National President at the time, asked Osborn to serve on the committee that reinvented the certification program to bring it greater credibility and meaning.
“We wanted firms to value their marketing leadership as an important part of a successful business,” Osborn said. “The CPSM designation now serves as a benchmark to measure marketing excellence, knowledge, and skills.”
What People are Saying...
“I don’t know that there are many other companies that are so personally involved in making sure we’re happy.”
Tim Barrick, Principal/Executive Vice President, RATIO
“When a critical structural engineering project emerged, I immediately contacted CE Solutions to lead the process. They led the project with precision, were always prepared, and timely with their communication and deliverables. I was kept well informed throughout the project, which set my mind at ease. The project was a huge success and I couldn’t be happier with our decision to use CE Solutions for this important project. They not only excel at structural engineering, but they are excellent project managers. They think like owners, truly listen and care about the people and communities they serve, and deliver on their promises. I highly recommend them for your next project.”
Doug Morris, Director of Planning, Design and Construction, Butler University
“What I liked was his (Steve’s) approach – he’s all about customer service and trying to make a difference in the community.”
Craig Galati, AIA, FSMPS, CPSM, Principal/President of LGA
“It’s not all that common for a company like ours to come together to do strategic visioning on a regular basis and involve everyone in the process. The opportunity to participate in visioning and strategic planning was one of the things that attracted me to CE Solutions.”
Heather Cox, CPSM, Director of Marketing and Client Relations, CE Solutions
“We’ve built a family atmosphere of professionals. We support one another and are driven by relationships inside and out.”
Carrie Walden, PE, Senior Project Manager, CE Solutions