As Chattanooga area businesses shift, pivot and change, trying to adapt to a new normal, many are tapping into the passion that led them to open their business in the first place. Over the course of the next number of weeks, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce will profile some of these owners and share their inspirational stories on how they are doing it.
“We are short on work right now,” says Matt Williams, president and one of four partners at Campbell & Associates, a longtime mechanical and electrical engineering firm in the heart of downtown Chattanooga. After five months of working through a backlog of projects, Mr. Williams and his team are starting to make some tough decisions. Mid-July brought a 10 percent reduction in all employee hours and there could be more.
“It’s definitely challenging,” Mr. Williams says, and his partners agree. “You are always worried, are we cutting enough? Are we doing what we really have to? And then, we as partners, put a lot of pressure on ourselves. Are we doing enough marketing? Are we doing our job well enough?”
Before the coronavirus, Campbell & Associates knew their client base well and had a steady stream of projects, but not anymore.
“We are doing things from private homes to manufacturing facilities,” Mr. Williams says. “Things that are normally outside of our wheelhouse. My partners and I along with our talented team are definitely capable of doing the work, but they aren’t in our normal day-to-day projects.”
Armed with a PPP loan and a commitment to not let any staff go, Mr. Williams and his partners are putting all kinds of proposals out for work, but the pace of projects is very slow. While the residential construction side is still moving across Hamilton County, commercial construction has practically come to a halt.
It’s an economic challenge Mr. Williams is all too familiar with. He remembers well weathering the tough years of the recession with his partners.
“That was the first time we had to reduce staffing,” he says. “We were able to keep everyone employed. It was very, very tough. The principals of the company went for several pay periods without any pay whatsoever.”
The timing of that economic downturn could not have been worse as Mr. Williams and three other partners had just bought the then 60-year-old consulting engineering company. It was early 2010.
“I was pretty sure we would be bankrupt within six months. It was very scary. My partners and I were literally making phone calls the day before employee paychecks went out and sometimes it came down to the wire, trying to get people to pay bills so we could pay our employees. It was stressful.”
The company maxed out their line of credit but little by little the projects came in and things began to slowly turn. Fast-forward almost three years later, and Campbell & Associates was able to pay their team bonuses. They learned two big things: run a lean business and diversify your client base.
“Our firm became a streamlined and highly efficient company following that recession. It definitely taught us how to run a business in lean times,” Mr. Williams says. “You didn't have a choice but to learn that lesson, honestly. My partners and I have been operating under that same model ever since.”
Another learned lesson from the recession still applies to their business strategy today when it comes to their client base.
“During that time, my partners and I learned out of necessity to spread our contacts out, and not be reliant on a few firms. That quickly became a very important concept in our firm. We are not going to be beholden to anyone. We are going to have a diverse client base and so we began fostering much smaller businesses.”
Even with all of the unknowns that come with being a business owner, Mr. Williams always knew he wanted to be one. And so, like many young high school graduates, he set out to get his degree in business. Bored out of his mind, falling asleep in class and still making As, he switched majors to economics. Something still wasn’t right.
“I was looking through the class catalog one day and I found a class called heat transfer and another one called thermal dynamics,” he says. “I was like, ‘what is that?’ I went and took a couple of those classes, and I knew before I changed my major that I was going to be a mechanical engineer. I knew that was what I was going to do because that is how my brain works.”
Growing up, Mr. Williams was strong in math and science, but he never connected the dots to become an engineer until college. When his senior year rolled around, he set out to figure out the next steps in the broad field of mechanical engineering. He took on his first part-time job with a small consulting engineering firm in Tallahassee, Fl.
“The owner taught me the business of HVAC design and mechanical engineering,” Mr. Williams says. “He was a super-smart guy and I really fell in love with buildings.”
He had found his passion.
With multiple offers after college, Mr. Williams chose Campbell & Associates. Once he saw his small office on the sixth floor of the University Tower in Chattanooga, he knew he was home. His boss was then owner, John Germ.
“When he interviewed me, he asked me, ‘What do you want to do in five years?’ I told him I wanted his job. Turns out, when John had interviewed that’s what he had told the previous owner.”
Four years later, Mr. Williams was vice president and in 2005, he was named president. Finally, in 2010, he and three other partners bought the business.
“We have touched almost every building in town over the last 24 years. And to be able to go into a building that has a problem and analyze it and figure out how to make it work or work better, more efficiently or completely change how it works, and then do the design and watch it being constructed, and then have it successfully work afterward, is for me, very empowering. It’s almost like they are living organisms. Everyone is different. Everyone has their own unique challenges. And, being an expert at what you do, honestly, we are the best at what we do in Chattanooga. We provide a very important service and I take a lot of pride in that.”
Mr. Williams believes that is what will keep their mechanical and electrical engineering firm around for years to come.
“I don't have any doubt my partners and I will get through this. Hopefully, it doesn’t get worse before it gets better. I know the smartest minds out there are working on this and I am an optimist. I have to believe that we are going to get this figured out even if we have to learn this in a painful way. People are going to learn how to contain the spread of this virus. I think it will take society as a whole to say this is how we are going to conduct ourselves.”
Campbell & Associates, like many businesses across Hamilton County, was in the midst of a robust economy before COVID-19 hit. Mr. Williams believes it will be back.
“I know the work will go gangbusters as soon as we get out of this. It’s going to happen. It’s definitely going to happen."