Featured interview – Chris Schleich

Chris Schleich is an engineering manager for Enterprise Automation.

Note: This interview was conducted on March 19, 2020, a time when many states in America were issuing shelter in place orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Chris Schleich, Enterprise Automation

ADDEDWednesday, April 15, 2020

  • Q
    What would you say the biggest benefit of CSIA membership is for Enterprise?
    A
    It gives us a structure to shoot for excellence. That’s always our target, but then when you get down to it, well what does it mean to be excellent? How am I going to do that? What are the implications to the business? To the people who work in it? To our clients? 
    
    And CSIA best practices follow the major functions of the business, specific to control systems, and it’s all about how to run your business better. And so, it gives us that structure. 
    
    But it’s also the network, the network is big piece. The more I’ve gone to conferences and the longer I’ve been involved in the community, the richer that’s gotten through getting to know people. 
    
    Knowing there’s someone out there who has faced the same problem you are or is facing it or you can predict is about to face it, based on your business size, based on the market you’re in, the technologies you use. 
    
    And being able to borrow ideas, we have a lot of very cool things about the company that ultimately came from CSIA circles.
    
  • Q
    Did the CSIA Best Practices and/or being CSIA Certified prepare you to face the pandemic?
    A
    On March 18, our county issued shelter in place orders. By 4 p.m. or  5:00 p.m., we announced it to the staff, “Grab your monitors, the IT teams is going to stand up a couple of RDS servers.” 
    
    We had remote capabilities already, we just didn’t have it for a team of 29. But we have a draft disaster recovery plan, and we’ve been through a few iterations of it, since starting it in 2017 as part of our certification effort. 
    
    But as a company that is not remote work based, we were able to  switch to remote work based in a in a matter of hours. 
    
    And a lot of it is just from those investments, best practices and kind of managing risk for business continuity in general. If things go wrong in a, firm our size, that’s a lot of people getting paychecks that can’t produce. 
    
  • Q
    What advice would you give a prospective customer researching automation/controls engineers or system integrators?
    A
    Start by looking for CSIA certified, that’s a quick trick. Other things to ask about: Are they financially stable? What are their project management workflows? That’s where a ton of companies fall apart. Do they have example works they can show you? Can you see some of their design deliverables? Can you talk to one of their clients that they’ve done more than one project for? Show me your standard documentation suite.
    
    It probably sounds involved, but you can put all that information collection on them. You could filter out quite a few people just through those interactions.
    
    You’ll get some people that won’t respond to you period. You might get some other people that aren’t as well-organized or don’t have a lot to show you. And those are kind of the clues. 
    
  • Q
    How much of your business is repeat? And of that repeat business, why do they return?
    A
    It depends on year to year but it’s very high, anywhere from 70% to 90%, which is more driven by how many new clients we’re getting, because most clients we serve end up being long-term clients. 
    
    Why do they return? I’ll sum it up with a quote from a client: “I have never seen a firm that has their stuff together more than EA.” 
    
  • Q
    You mentioned this emphasis on communicating with clients, what else is unique about how you approach a project?
    A
    What makes Enterprise Automation different is we bring engineering discipline to control system projects. And it might sound strange to highlight, but from what I can tell from the circles I’ve run in for 18 years, it seems unique in our industry. 
    
    We know how to have a conversation with those clients that don’t know how to set requirements, and then get them involved to set them. We don’t need to drag them into the nitty-gritty details, but we do need to translate the technical options of the control system and operations terms so that they can make better informed decisions for themselves. And we’ve gotten pretty good at doing that over the years. 
    
    Just having the discipline to build what we say we’re going to and test. Our motto kind of sums it up, “nothing leaves Enterprise untested,” and that sets us apart too.
    
  • Q
    Are you seeing an increase in work or how otherwise has the pandemic impacted your business or your plans for 2020?
    A
    We haven’t seen an uptick of business, but our business right now is stable. A major factor of that is how much water and wastewater work we do. That also insulated us from the 2008 crash. In fact, we grew 20% in that period, largely because we were in that sector. We had a little bit of manufacturing, and that market completely shut down for a couple years for the clients we serve. But water wastewater was going strong.
    
    What are we planning for the rest of 2020? We started about a week or two ago doing a full sweep of our clients to ask them questions like: Are your projects continuing? What level of service do you expect? How are you handling meetings? 
    
    We’re still trying to get a feel for what, if any, work is going to be pushed out mainly from missed workshops together, but so far that’s stable.
    
  • Q
    What challenges are your customers facing right now?
    A
    At EA, we largely do water and wastewater. It’s not our only industry, but that’s the one we’ve worked in most often. And right now, we’re still taking showers, we’re still drinking water, so those clients must continue to produce. 
    
    We have wastewater clients too; those plants don’t shut off. They never do. 
    
    So I don’t have a COVID-specific answer for that industry, but my broader answer to what challenges they face is that water and wastewater agencies are largely staffed with civil engineers, operators, water quality specialists who conceptually understand the control system but lack the more intricate knowledge to know how to define the requirements to produce a good control system that serves them.
    
    Thus, the challenges we see quite a lot are agencies where their control systems are controlling them -- they’re outdated, or they don’t work right. Plus, a lot of these systems are built using construction management workflows. A lot of our work is rehabilitation projects for water wastewater clients. We’ll get a bit of greenfield here and there. But usually, again, they’re still using the public bid mechanism, and our sweet spot is helping clients who don’t want to build things that way anymore.
    
  • Q
    Switching to Enterprise Automation (EA), how did the company begin and how has it evolved?
    A
    It began in 1998. It was founded by an engineer, but Josh Riley and Scott Pickford, the current owners, bought it in 2005. It was very mom and pop-ish before, and they just had a grander vision of making a more formal company that got more specialized. I was employee No. 4 in 2007. 
    
    The four of us started with similar working styles, and that’s why we all came together, Scott said “Hey, if we’re going to spend 40, 50 hours per week doing this, why don’t we do it how we like to do it?” And that was just the seed for the current culture.
    
    Now we are about to fill our current building at 35 employees come July. 
    
  • Q
    Why did you choose a career in control system integration?
    A
    I knew by the middle of college that this was the industry I wanted to go into. My aha moment was when I was doing an internship in a machine shop -- grinding posts, painting things, running a few machines -- and I saw the other engineers put together custom machinery. And I would see this machine come to life, and my mechanical design days were over once I saw that.