As some of you already know, I’m retiring at the end of June. That’s not the point of this story, but it’s part of the impetus for it. The primary impetus is that at the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies – Ontario (ACEC-Ontario), we are coming to the end of our current three-year strategic plan, and launching a new one.
The consulting engineering industry has seen significant growth—we see a very bright future ahead and look forward to providing even more benefits to our member companies as the industry continues to expand. As an organization, we are taking this opportunity to look back and celebrate all of the great things we’ve achieved for our members through our current strategic plan over the last three years.
Since it’s also natural to look back when at the end of one’s career, these two things fit well together. I’m proud of what I have accomplished in my 35+ working years, across my many different roles. Fittingly, it’s in this current role that I’ve achieved some of the things I’m most proud of.
I joined ACEC-Ontario in 2018 (when it was still called Consulting Engineers of Ontario) as Executive Director (then known as the Chief Executive Officer, actually, so I was the CEO at CEO). I had previously worked as a professional engineer, both as an independent consultant and as a staff member of some large corporate entities. Later, I joined the industry’s regulator, Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO), and subsequently served in senior management roles at a few other regulators. All of this gave me a solid grounding in regulatory governance and the not-for-profit world. So when the opportunity arose to lead ACEC-Ontario—an association for consulting engineers that also dealt regularly with PEO—it felt like the perfect opportunity to leverage all of my experience and skills.
My vision was to take the organization to new heights. I saw an opportunity for it to influence not only policy and legislation, but the perspective of external stakeholders. At the same time, I wanted to bring more value to our members (consulting engineering companies) both directly and indirectly.
Developing a Strategic Plan
When I joined, ACEC-Ontario was more than halfway into a four-year strategic plan, which, to be honest, looked an awful lot like the three-year plan that existed before it. So early in my mandate came the need to set out a framework for developing a new plan, and I took the task very seriously—this would be the guiding light for my entire role here. I intended to do big things, so I needed to put a clear, strong process in place to make sure the whole organization was on board.
An organization’s strategic plan must be owned by the Board of Directors. Therefore, the Board, senior staff, and other internal stakeholders were involved in its development. We started by articulating a new, bold mission for the association: “To promote and advance the business interests of our member firms and the value of the engineering work they do.” I saw a huge opportunity for our organization to help reshape how the industry was perceived, to raise the profile of consulting engineers as truly trusted partners, to demonstrate the value that they bring to any project and, in turn, help our members drive more business.
Our restated vision statement followed: Our member firms prosper and are recognized for their influence and fundamental contributions to the social, environmental, and economic welfare of Ontario.
ACEC-Ontario wants our member companies to be viewed as problem solvers and as trusted and valued partners, working collaboratively to develop progressive solutions to the market and project challenges being faced by their clients.
I also saw how important it was that we articulate our value proposition, to spell out clearly what benefit a consulting engineering company can expect to receive from joining ACEC-Ontario. In 2019 we undertook an extensive consultation process involving a cross-section of current members companies, former member companies and even some who had never been members. It became apparent that the association’s value lay in two broad categories where we could make a difference: 1) Policy advocacy and 2) member services. We encapsulated this in a clear, concise value-proposition statement:
Engineering firms join and engage with ACEC-Ontario because their success is enabled by our leadership in policy advocacy and risk management, and we provide access to key knowledge-sharing networks and relevant support services.
Three Priorities and Achievements
Identity and Branding
Bolstered by our new mission, vision, and value proposition, the first big priority we tackled was to strengthen our identity and branding. Overall the organization needed a mindset shift—we needed to position ourselves as promoters of the consulting engineering brand. I was concerned that our name at the time (Consulting Engineers of Ontario) did not effectively convey that we represent companies, which is critical, and our visual identity was in need of an update.
I was thrilled when the Board agreed to the rebrand, taking on a new name that not only more clearly aligned with what we do, but also brought us in line with other provincial ACECs and the national association. The fact that we all now share a common name and visual identity makes a huge difference in our stakeholders’ perception of us.
I knew the rebrand couldn’t be successful without a significant uptick in our marketing and communications resources. So in April 2020, I established a director-level marketing and communications position, and this individual took the lead in rolling out our new identity—and has done an incredible job of it. All of us at the organization were, and are, incredibly proud to put this new face forward.
Engagement that Creates Value
The second priority we addressed was driving engagement that creates value for members. We needed to leverage technology to better understand our membership and engage with them more effectively. Given our small staff, a lot of what our association does is driven by volunteers, so improving engagement with them was also critical.
Our website needed a visual overhaul to bring it up to modern standards and match our new visual identity. It also didn’t have the functionality, such as e-commerce capabilities, that we needed to provide real member value. After a year-long project, we introduced a modern, professional website that serves us better internally (giving us the ability to properly track and learn about our members) and externally (projecting a more professional face to the public and to members, and offering a members-only portal to help them get the most out of our organization).
We are now attracting new members purely from our website, something we’d never been able to do before. The new site allows us to better profile member benefits, such as our affinity benefits program, our car/auto insurance offering, and our new outsourced human resources program, which allows smaller companies to access a full-suite of HR services for their business. These programs give our member companies the ability to offer services to their employees at much lower rates than otherwise available, and they go a long way to helping these companies attract and retain talent.
The result has been increased engagement across the board. Membership had been on a slow decline, but we’ve now reversed that trend. Our member companies now encompass 25,000 employees across Ontario, up from 19,000 in 2018—over a 30% increase. The vast majority of the top thirty consulting engineering firms in the province are members, and we’re seeing broader interest from small and medium-sized firms as well, which is our target growth market. Volunteer engagement has also increased, both in terms of the total number of volunteers (which has more than doubled) and the percentage of firms that have at least one person volunteering, and we’re managing them in a much more streamlined, structured way.
The third priority we addressed was to strengthen our approach to advocacy. We actively advocate for improvements in the processes for procuring engineering services, and for contract terms and conditions that are fair and reasonable and that apportion risk appropriately. We also enhanced our regulatory advocacy—seeking to keep PEO focused on its public-interest protection mandate. One critical example is our work to help bridge the talent gap by speeding up the licensing process for newly immigrated engineers. Because I’d worked at PEO myself for ten years and have a deep understanding of how it operates, I have a good grasp of where changes make sense.
One of our big successes in the advocacy area was to strengthen our standard form of contract that our members can use when dealing with municipalities. Terms and conditions are often a major sticking point between clients and consultants, and the use of standard contract goes a long way to ensuring terms are fair and reasonable for both parties. The Municipal Engineers Association has been a great partner in these efforts.
Another new program I’m very proud of is our Rapid Response program. It allows member companies to bring to our attention any issue they have with problematic terms and conditions. We commit to a turnaround of five business days, providing an industry voice to address the issue with their client in a mutually beneficial way. This is working very well for members and remains one of our most well-regarded programs.
Going out on a high note
As my retirement approaches, I am enthusiastic about the growth of the consulting engineering industry and the important role that ACEC-Ontario plays. With the boom in infrastructure work we’re seeing today in Ontario, there’s a tremendous amount of work out there for engineers. There continues to be a war for talent, which is a challenge for companies, and I’m proud of our overall work to promote and advance the business interests of our member companies.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone for making my time with ACEC-Ontario some of the most meaningful of my career. My experience with this association has been a true highlight of my professional life. My predecessor did a great job of educating the Board about their governance role—and as a result it’s one of the best-performing boards I’ve ever come across. Board members clearly understand their strategic governance role, both in terms of decision making and performance monitoring. It’s truly been a pleasure.
I often think of this association as an orchestra. The Board determines what music gets played, and I’m the conductor. However, the only way we sound good is through talented staff who actually play the music. I have been very fortunate in that regard. It is trite to say, but it’s true: having qualified staff is a critical success factor for any strategic plan. I would like to thank Laura, Lauryn, Michelle, Lynne, and our most recent addition, Doug, as well as all of our incredible volunteers, who are too many to name, for all their excellent work. I will miss you all. With these dedicated people involved, I know I leave the association in good hands; they will maximize my successor’s opportunity for future success.
We will collectively launch into the new strategic plan starting this April. While I will only be here to see it unfold for its first couple of months, I will definitely be watching from the sidelines, and I can’t wait to see the new heights to which the team takes the organization.