I turned 61 a few days ago and not surprisingly started thinking about my mortality — even more than I had been. Who doesn’t, at our age? Those thoughts included a sobering conversation I had with a financial bigwig a few years back.
“Most people are forgotten once they die,” he said. Not true of everyone. Read a great book, turn on a light, get a vaccine, enjoy your freedom — you can attach a name to every one of those gifts. More than one name.
When I think of legacies, I think of business people. Many entrepreneurs I encounter are proud of the company they built — whether its five employees or 50. They want it to live on.
Sue Evans, 65, runs a 50-employee Falls Church consulting firm, Evans Inc., which grosses $12 million and, in a good year, delivers about 10 percent of that to the bottom line. Her bottom line.
Evans lives in Arlington with her husband and recently sold 25 percent of the firm in hopes that it will live on after she chooses to retire.
“Not everybody understands what it means to be an owner,” said the driven chief executive with a PhD. “What we built in terms of the operating impact we had on businesses was something worth preserving. I did not want it to get absorbed into some other company.”
Evans is sort of a corporate doctor, trying to break down walls in companies that resist change. Her impressive client list over the years includes names like Hitt Construction, the Baltimore Sun, Grant Thornton, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Ford Motor Co., General Motors, Freddie Mac and Weyerhaeuser.
When the Federal Aviation Administration couldn’t get 20 managers to agree on a new computer system, they called Evans.
One Ford project back in the 1990s involved getting a union to agree to give up pencil and paper for automation. It did.
She calls it “real operational impact.” I call it getting people to talk.
As one client put it to her: “I don’t need any more pointy headed engineers. I need people who can make the pointy headed engineers talk to each other.”
An owner’s pride in their company is what drives many people to success. Billionaire Warren Buffett appeals to a creator’s ego when he tells a business owner that the company will live on and the owner can run it if they just sell to Buffett.
Evans understands this too, going back to when she worked summers in the office of her father’s Milwaukee heating company, called Gross Heating. (He had bought the firm from the previous owner, Mr. Gross.)
Her father’s personal touch, which she tries to distill with her clients, still resonates.
A few of Evans’s anchor clients have been with her since she started. Ford has been a client for 22 years. She has worked with the International Monetary Fund for 18 years and the FAA for nine.
The oldest of four siblings, Evans has been overachieving since grammar school. Those gritty disappointments as a child toughened her, such as when she had to settle for a meaningless title as class secretary after losing her bid for class president.
“That instance motivated me,” she said.
She went on to be home-room president and editor of the newspaper at the all-girls high school she attended.
“I embraced the opportunities for different challenges,” she said. “I got it from both of my parents. They had high expectations. They gave us all long leashes, but they had expectations. If you screwed up, you had to rectify it next time around.”
These kinds of people build businesses.
She worked as a checkout person in a Herb Kohl grocery store between her college years at the University of Dayton, where the math whiz majored in computer science.
Kohl interviewed her personally, firing off math problems to her and three other applicants to learn who could answer the problem most quickly. Those were the pre-scanner days when you had to know what to charge if three peaches were 52 cents and the customer was buying one. Or two.
She worked at nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base after college.
“I built software that would help aircraft cockpit engineers design layouts so that pilots would not lose their kneecaps when ejecting,” she said.
It involved measuring the human body’s proportions against its surroundings, a science known as anthropometry, which would be a defining characteristic of Evans’s career. When she earned her PhD in engineering from the University of Michigan, Evans’s area of study was designing workstations to help employees be efficient and healthy. Ergonomics.
She and her husband moved to Arlington, where he taught college and she worked with the Defense Department. Ford approached her about a project involving workplace safety and efficiency. She quit her job and launched Evans Inc. from her kitchen table.
More than 20 years on, Evans Inc. has a nearly 90 percent employee retention rate. If you find a new hire for Evans, you get a $3,000 check. It helps that the company provides health care and a 401(k) match. The owner takes a salary and earns a distribution on the profit, which usually runs about 10 percent.
Some of her company’s mission has a touchy-feely aspect to it.
“It’s left brain, right brain,” she said. “Business owners want to know about numbers and analyze the process. Left brain. But to implement that, you need to have a right-brain side to engage people and get them to accept the change.”
She uses personality tests and behavior assessments designed to test tolerances for change and conflict.
“It comes down to getting people to talk to one another and listen to each other. Sometimes, it’s going out after the meeting and drinking with them. Other times, it’s bringing in social workers to talk with people in a way so they realize they are not that different from one another.”
She was headed last Thursday back to Milwaukee, where she was to receive her high school’s Alumna of the Year award, honoring her achievements.
Evans wrote me a note before she got on the plane, explaining in greater detail why she wanted her business to last.
“One thing I remember about my father and his customers is he would remember their names and they were customers for life,” she said. “He would visit them in hospitals, attend their funerals, and remain connected on levels that are uncommon today.
“I remember that when I worked in the office of Gross Heating between my junior and senior years of college and dealt with customers, the customer cards showed interactions that went back decades. He kept customers for life, or at least decades.”
And you know what? His son, Evans’s brother, bought the business and still owns it.
Guess her dad made an impression.