In an industry dominated by global giants, H.H. Angus is something of an anomaly. The century-old engineering company, run by a third-generation descendant of the founder, has remained stubbornly independent even as large customers increasingly gravitate to multinationals offering exhaustive lists of services.
But the firm’s survival didn’t just happen; indeed, at two key junctures in the past decade, the company found itself facing tough choices and an uncertain future, explains CEO Harry Angus.
Twelve years ago, Angus recalls, he brought together the firm’s 15 shareholders (known internally as principals) and told them he needed to shake up the management structure. All of the members of the senior executive team were reporting to him, Angus recalls, “and it wasn’t working.” The firm had not only a congested reporting structure, but also no strategic focus, leaving it vulnerable to competition from the multinational players. To preserve the company’s independence, it would have to become the go-to engineering consultant in a handful of domains rather than trying to be all things to all clients. “I said to them it was time to put up or shut up.”
In the wake of that discussion, the 250-person company, which has offices across Canada, as well as in Dallas and Chicago, reorganized into five divisions that were aligned with its clients’ needs: health care, technology and data centres, commercial structures, energy generation and distribution projects, and smart buildings. Its client roster has grown to include significant public-private partnership projects like CHUM, Montreal’s $2-billion super-hospital, which is part of the University of Montreal (UM).
In 2015, says Sameer Dhargalkar, vice-president of marketing and business development, the company decided to further buttress its gains from that earlier reorganization. It hired an HR consultant to canvass clients and employees. The result: a new philosophy about how to attract and retain talent, which is key to a firm offering highly specialized services.
The consultant found that while some employees aspired to become partners, others sought different trajectories, for example, becoming project managers, who are key figures when it comes to client retention. Still others saw themselves in more administrative roles. “We developed different streams,” says Dhargalkar. “That’s gone over quite well with our staff.” Annual turnover is just 4.6%, a third of the industry average.
Angus points to the Montreal hospital project, where the firm leading construction faced criticism for delays, to show how the management overhauls have helped. As a sub-consultant, Angus found a way to open parts of the hospital, even as others were still under construction. Fortified with health care experience, the firm’s lead engineers went so far as to challenge UM’s plan. “We didn’t accept what we were given,” he says. “[We told UM], ‘We think there are better ways to achieve what you want.’ ”
The client heeded the advice. And in 2018, Angus won the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies’ prestigious Schreyer Award for its work.