In March, Raleigh, N.C.-based engineering firm Mulkey announced that it changed its name to CALYX Engineers + Consultants. The rebranding was in response to a new chapter in the company’s history, marked by the retirement of founder Barbara Mulkey.
Beginning with a focus on transportation engineering, the 23-year-old firm has expanded to include comprehensive civil, environmental, and structural engineering as well as surveying. Today, CALYX remains a woman-owned, multidisciplinary engineering and consulting firm led by Jill Wells Heath, LEED AP, president and CEO. In the following interview with Civil + Structural Engineer (C+S), Heath reviews the firm’s history, its outlook, and her close involvement from the beginning.
C+S: Can you provide a brief history of Mulkey — now CALYX — and any significant events that have impacted the firm’s growth and success along the way?
Heath: We were founded back in 1993 by Barbara Mulkey as a small civil engineering firm. The vision was to get to about 25 employees. Back then, you didn’t hear a lot about “family friendly,” but the owner at the time had young children and said she wanted people to be able to have a flexible schedule — work hard, but still allow people to have a balance between work and life.
From the beginning, I was the company CPA, doing all of the books and the payroll out of my home office. But I gave up my personal practice and came on fulltime as the CFO in 2003, becoming president in 2006, and CEO in 2008.
The company did nothing but grow over time. We got up to about 220 employees in 2008. We expanded first into Charlotte, N.C., and then to Columbia, S.C.; Atlanta came next, and finally Jacksonville, Fla. And then 2008 hit. It really was a tough year for us. Like so many companies in our profession we had to make a lot of cutbacks. We had to regroup. I had to have that hard conversation with myself. I’m so proud to say now that we’re on the other side and a stronger firm with about 145 employees. We still have offices in Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C.; Atlanta; and a small field office in Columbus, Ga. We’ve been through a lot and it’s definitely affected how we do business now.
Our founder retired in May 2015, giving us the opportunity to ask, “What are we doing? Who are we and where are we going?” When you look around at the names of most engineering firms, they’re either someone’s name or an acronym. We decided we wanted a name that represented all of us.
We came up with CALYX Engineers + Consultants and I couldn’t be more thrilled. It’s us. Since March 7, 2016, when we made our announcement, I’ve explained what CALYX means a lot. I’m in the habit of saying, “Please, let me tell you what CALYX means.”
So let me tell you what CALYX means!
CALYX is the name of a powerful drill that can power through the hardest rock, but it’s also the protective structure of a budding plant. This is really how we work: Digging into those tough projects, while being very protective of our clients, their projects, our environment, our community, and really, each other. And also, CALYX is just a really cool word.
C+S: The recent press release announcing the firm’s name change said that it “is part of a rebranding initiative to align the company’s name with future strategy.” What are some of the elements of that future strategy?
Heath: We’ve always had the strategy of growing as our client demanded, so we’ve never said, “We’re going to be a 500-person firm.” But we do think our current size of around 145 employees is a big advantage. We’re a full-service civil engineering firm providing transportation, traffic, planning, building structures, land development, surveying, subsurface utility engineering (SUE), and environmental services. We are big enough to compete with very large firms while being small enough to provide our partners and clients with great one-on-one attention. Our business is all about relationships.
C+S: Is the firm still of a size that’s considered DBE and is that part of your strategy?
CALYX Engineers + Consultants
Headquarters: Raleigh, N.C.
Size: Approximately 145 employees in four offices
Ownership: Privately owned
Primary services: Bridge and structure design; building structures; construction services; cultural resources; environmental services; land development; surveying; traffic services; transportation; transportation planning; utility services; and water resources
Heath: Because the DBE limits have increased and we have shrunk some, we are now a DBE in North Carolina, South Carolina, and in Georgia. It’s an opportunity that we’re thrilled to have right now and it really helps some of our clients to have DBE participation with a firm they know and trust.
C+S: So long-term your plan is to grow past that?
Heath: Yes. We’re going to grow as the market demands us to grow and as our clients demand it.
C+S: What is your personal background and path to your current position as president and CEO at CALYX?
Heath: I started my CPA firm in 1992 and I met our founder, Barbara Mulkey, in 1993. Engineering picked me; I didn’t pick engineering! Part of life is being open to wherever your path leads. I’ve been very blessed to be with this company and to work with incredible people every day.
I’m passionate about giving back to our community. A lot of our competitors didn’t make it out of the recession, but this community held us up and we were able to survive. We have an incredible community college system here and I’ve been on their foundation board for years. I am also active in supporting our wonderful YMCA. The Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce is here for the business interests of our company, so I’m a real supporter of that and feel privileged to act as their chair this year.
C+S: How is CALYX organized and managed — i.e., geography, service line, or other — and how do you share expertise and workload across the organization?
Heath: We’re a hybrid. Like most engineering companies, we’ve tried it different ways. In our transportation group, we have somebody who oversees all of the Carolinas. Georgia is a bit different so we needed to have a different structure there. Services like survey and subsurface utility engineering are across the whole company because the field technicians travel to wherever the job is located. Our traffic group is based out of our Georgia office, but they do traffic company-wide.
As spread out as we are, twice a year we bring all of our managers together for a managers’ summit. We found that with work sharing, the best thing we can do is get the people in front of each other. They build that trust and rapport with each other so they really want to work together. We’re not just separate groups in Raleigh, Atlanta, and Charlotte, we’re one team working together.
C+S: How does sustainability or sustainable design apply within your range of services?
Heath: We feel very strongly about that. Years ago, when everything first came out with LEED accreditation, all of our structural and land development engineers became certified. I’m a CPA by trade, but when they made it so that I could take the exam, I memorized everything and got my LEED certification. Our clients are demanding sustainability and it’s also just the right thing for our environment. So, we try to put sustainability in the forefront of all of our designs.
In June, the Charlotte Business Journal named CALYX Engineers + Consultants a “Healthiest Employer in Charlotte,” ranked second in the mid-sized business group. The award recognizes local employers who put an extra emphasis on health and wellness for their workers. This is the third consecutive year that CALYX has been named a Charlotte Healthiest Employer, and the ninth Healthiest Employer award the company has received.
“CALYX understands the correlation between the health of our employees and the success of our company. It’s important to have a work environment that encourages healthy choices,” said Candace Whisenant, human resources manager at CALYX. “Each year, we listen to our employees and strive to improve our wellness program.”
C+S: How is technology such as BIM/3D modeling, cloud computing, drones, and laser scanning impacting your operations and service offerings?
Heath: We have a drone and our environmental team has used it on some different projects for the North Carolina Department of Transportation. It’s so fun having these technologies. Our survey team has been doing laser scanning for 15 years, but we recently purchased new laser scanning equipment that has huge technological advances. Staying up to date on advancements in technology we already use is important to us.
C+S: Is there anything else you would like readers to know about CALYX?
Heath: We have a wonderful history of 23 years as Mulkey. We have a new name, but we are the same company with the same leadership; we just have a fresh point of view. I’ve found that some engineers don’t like change, but all of our folks have embraced being CALYX. We had to reduce staff in the past and those were tough times, they scarred me. Sometimes, the tougher things are, the more the gift is on the other side. I feel like this new beginning as CALYX is that gift. We’re so thankful to be in markets that are strong right now and we’re going to enjoy it and provide great service to our clients.
C+S: Looking ahead, do expect the company to move outside the North Carolina/Georgia area?
Heath: I’ll never say never — we’ve dabbled in doing work in Tennessee and Alabama — but we feel that there’s still a lot of things that we can do where we are now. We’re definitely a Southern company and we’re happy with that.