Donna Newell was deep into a conversation about her company’s history when she was asked about the business logo. Her face turned serious, sort of.
Designing a logo falls into the unexpected challenges when you branch out on your own. You never really know what’s going to trip you up.
Looking back at her engineering business overall, it’s impressive to see how Newell, her husband and two other principals helped to build the firm from the ground up 10 year ago. A lot of hustle: business development, establishing relationships with other firms and state agencies, and managing hundreds of deadlines. That work came easy, she said.
But not the logo.
“It’s one of the things I joke about, because people will ask me, ‘What is the hardest thing you did?'” she said. “You know, there are all the analytical things. Those are very easy for us. We can look at the numbers, talk about the issues and make decisions. We almost have no issues with (engineering) work.
“But honestly, the logo might have been the hardest thing we did. Just to get four people with opinions to agree on a logo. There were a lot of versions, let me tell you,” she said. “I have seen firms that have redone their logo and and I’m like, ‘We are never redoing our logo. There is no new logo.'”
A Q&A with the president
Newell, Tereska and MacKay Engineering Inc., celebrates a milestone this year. Also known as NTM, It was incorporated Dec. 11, 2006, and opened its doors in January 2007. Newell and her three partners, John Newell, her husband; Jeff MacKay and Rachel Tereska are the team’s leaders. Donna is president.
“I had a 3- and 5-year-old at home (10 years ago),” she said. “Why not start a business?”
John Newell is a structural engineer. Tereska and MacKay focus on river and water resources.
Newell sat down with CPBJ to share her story and some of the challenges of business ownership. Here’s a snapshot of that conversation. Newell’s answers have been edited for brevity.
CPBJ: Why did you start your own company?
Newell: I joked that I downsized myself for my whole career. I worked at Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, then Gannett Fleming, then a smaller, 300-person firm. All of them had some great things that I really loved and enjoyed. I thought we could do some things differently, we could be more employee-focused, we could be specialized. We were young and we decided if this doesn’t work we can still go get jobs. The goal was to be a specialty business focused on our core services: Our structures, bridge design, bridge construction and all of the water resources.
CPBJ: Knowing now what you didn’t know then, would you have still have made the leap?
Newell: I would have. It’s exciting to see our growth and it’s exciting to see how our staff is doing. We have hired 40-plus people from four in 10 years. A large part of this business is developing relationships and that happens with the organizations that we are a part of.
CPBJ: You are president of an engineering firm in a male-dominated field. Share your experience with that.
Newell: As a female, it does make us more memorable. I’ve been in meetings where I am the only woman. (Newell’s background includes extensive teaching in engineering, which ranges from college classes to middle and elementary school career days.) It’s really good to let all of the kids know at a very young level what the options are. If they like math and science, these are the types of things you can do with civil engineering.
I love what I do. I love the technical part of what I do. I mean, I’m not going to bore you with talk of hydraulic models and river modeling, velocities and such … but I could talk about that stuff a lot and I do when I go teach.
CPBJ: Tell us the advantages of owning a small, woman-owned business:
Newell: For federal contracts they may require a small percentage, 5, 10 percent, will go to women-owned and minority-owned business. It’s encouraged for the development of small businesses, because otherwise it would be almost impossible to compete in the beginning on that level.
CPBJ: What type of employees does NTM prefer?
Newell: When we are looking at resumes, we are looking at people who aren’t just the 4.0 students. We are looking for the people who were officers in organizations. It shows they understand networking and multi-tasking. Because we are a smaller firm we are a sub-consultant to a lot of larger firms. We might be working on 20 to 40 jobs. There is a lot of coordination with not only the end client, which may be PennDOT, or the Philadelphia Water Department, but also in coordination with the prime firm.
There is a lot more emphasis on the communication side (at college). Almost all engineers at some point have to present their ideas.
The ability to interact and coordinate is important. I serve on the Penn State Industrial Professional Advisory Council, I’m chair this year, and the university programs encourage that broadening of the student experience. They have minors in leadership and entrepreneurship. Some of them have minors in business. They are encouraging projects that develop some of that communication.
You can’t be a leader if you are not a good follower. If you don’t know how to serve you really can’t lead.