Wendy Huffman, Huffman Engineering, Inc. PostedWednesday, September 21, 2022 Q How you would describe to lay people what you do? A Wendy Huffman: That's not necessarily an easy one. Because people don't understand automation and controls. But we've told people in the past that we have a passion for making ideas work, that's our tagline, is to listen well and to make things work, so that it's an easier process. Howard Huffman: What we do is we put the brains into the body of industrial processes. And it makes things such as medicine, water, make clean water out of dirty water. Q Is there any industry, product, or discipline that you specialize in? A Howard Huffman: Yes, we work primarily in the Midwest, with customers that are in the regulated industries, particularly in Nebraska, Colorado and the surrounding states. We have a couple of primary focus areas. One of them is utilities, that's electric utilities, LNG, water and wastewater. We have another group that is primarily industrial manufacturing, life sciences and food. We're in Nebraska so those work well. We also do other projects for large local customers, such as brick making, irrigation production equipment, composite tanks, tire and rubber. And our boundary is geography plus technology, plus client types. Q What challenges are your customers facing right now? A Howard Huffman: Increased regulatory requirements, supply chain issues, obviously, it's tough to get parts and pricing pressures. Wendy Huffman: Our customers live in the same world we do. They have a lot of exiting talent and knowledge from their facilities. And they have a lot of people changing, moving, how do we keep our talent and our knowledge where it's at. They're facing that just as much as system integrators are. Q What would you say is unique about how you approach a project? A Wendy Huffman: What's unique about us is that we listen well. That we listen to the client, not just for what they say or what they think they need, but for what they really, truly need. And we don't force a package on them. We don't say, "Hey, this is what we've developed, we're going to make sure that you do this." What we do is we first listen, then we propose a solution that meets their needs, not necessarily always their wants, but their needs. And the best solution possible, both technical and financial. Some people lean one way or the other, "Hey, we want this. We have a schedule we must meet. We have a price we must meet. We have a technical need we have to meet." And if we can find a better way to do it, we will. And then, because of that, and that's part of our model, is that we become one of the trusted advisors. We become the person that they're going to call as their trusted advisor, because they know that we're one of them, we're with them, we have that relationship. Howard Huffman: One of the things that our clients have told us is that we have a consistency in implementing our project methodology. They know that the project flow, the communication, and they will also get competent people on the job. No matter who the project manager is, who the people are, there's a consistency that they can depend on. Q How much of your business is repeat. And why do you think they do return? A Wendy Huffman: I would say that 90% of our clients have been repeat clients. And the reason for that are those relationships we talked about. We, for a long time, did only have one or two big clients. Now, we have 8 to 10 or more. But the people that we have that are our clients continue to come back to us because we've made those ideas that they've told us work. We've delivered on the projects we have said we would, we have a history of quality work. And then there's a professional trust that we've developed with them as a result of it. We do get called in a lot, especially for complex projects even though we have not a huge staff, we don't have, thousands of people, we do have a lot of depth in our team, and we're willing to do the things that are tough, that are technically difficult. A schedule is difficult. We're willing to tackle it when some other people say, "Yeah, I don't think we can do that." One of the things that Howard has said over the years is we want to become an extension of your engineering department. And we want to be that trusted advisor, we want to be the one that they call up and say, "Hey, we're thinking about this idea. What do you think?" And that's probably why we have so many repeats. We have one client that has gone through five transitions in these 30 plus years. And through that time, we've been consistent in that plant, while the company has changed. I mean, it's a similar company, but we're still there. And I think that speaks to us knowing who they are and being able to be that extension. Q What would you say is the smartest decision your company has made recently? A Howard Huffman: I have two of them. One of them is really getting involved in the CSIA, and this isn't just patronizing. But getting involved in the board meeting, different types of people getting involved in the committees, you rub shoulders with some really good guys. And that's been very beneficial. The second thing that we have done is we've hired a management consultant to help us work and to grow. And he has been very valuable to look inside at what we're doing and say, "Here's where you need to focus." And Wendy set up formal mentoring of the people here, and we have everybody in some type of book group, learning group -- the intentional and formalized mentoring has been very valuable. Q How has Huffman grown or changed in the past year, and what do you expect for your company in the next 12 to 24 months? A Howard Huffman: We’ve improved our communication through frequent meeting rhythms, with leadership team, with staff, with project teams, intentional training, intentional meeting periodically with customers and with vendors. Second thing is intentionally developing leaders and delegating responsibility. We have a saying, we want to let them brush up against the guardrails of failure. We don't want them to completely drown, but they've got to get their knees bruised. And they've done very well. We have better prioritization and scheduling as we've gone and had work in the shifting schedules. We're getting much better at that. And planning contingencies. What happens if this stuff doesn't come in? Where do we shift people because you have to be agile to do that. Improving our job and task clarity. And when we were smaller, people knew what to do. Now, you must make it much more clear for them. And that's better. That works way better. What I see happening down the road is we see ourselves getting involved way earlier in the projects – we're doing conceptual designs, budgetary estimates prior to the money being released or the project becoming official. And we're also taking more responsibility during the execution of the project, managing more subcontractors, becoming a client representative during projects. Wendy mentioned earlier that they have somewhat of a brain drain, and they must fill those areas and we're filling some of them. Q What advice would you give to a prospective customer researching controls engineers or system integrators? A Wendy Huffman: I would ask, “What do you want for this project?” Too often, people look at price, but that's not necessarily where value lies. Decide what you want. Price and value are two different things. The next step is if you're really looking for value and you want somebody that's going to make your system work, you have to check. Check their abilities, check their background, check their certifications. You want to get the right person for your job and for your application. And then check their background, what else have they got? If you're a pharmaceutical company, you don't want to primarily hire somebody who might be in oil and gas. They might be able to do it but somebody that understands your business is going to be a better listener, is going to better understand what you want. And then, finally, consider support. What happens when they're done with a project? Ask them for references to other companies. Ask, are they there when things break down? How long does it take them to come out when you have a problem? Can they answer things remotely? How many people do they have on staff that will work with you? Howard Huffman: Adding on to what Wendy said about familiarity with your type of business because industries are tribal. And you want somebody that can speak your language that understands your tribe. Second thing is review how they do their project execution. Third thing, look for a partner. You don't want somebody that it's merely a transaction. We came in, we did the work, we left. You want a partner. SIs deal with the brains of manufacturing, it must work well. Another issue they should evaluate is the risk of failure or delays -- in manufacturing that can be millions of dollars a day. And if somebody doesn't adhere to schedules, doesn't follow through and doesn't work well, it can be very expensive. Q What kinds of trends and challenges are you seeing in industrial automation right now? A Howard Huffman: First, the amount of documentation testing has gone up dramatically. There's also a much greater involvement of more people in every project. It used to be, you would deal with one project engineer, and that would be it. Now, you have QA, you have validation, you have production. Everybody is involved and it makes for a better project, it just makes it more difficult to meet the schedule. We also find that the testing and documentation are critical. Being involved in regulatory industries, because somebody is going to evaluate it. And the training that they want for their people, it used to be on the fly while you're doing checkout. Now, it's formal training. And it's important that their people know how to maintain it. Some of the challenges, the finding and developing competent people, equipment supply issues, security issues, it used to be – mostly what you were concerned about was a disgruntled employee doing something so you'd lock the control cabinets and everything. And now, there are intentional malicious attacks by people that you will never see. Q What makes you optimistic about the future of the industry? A Wendy Huffman: We've gone through such an evolution of technology since we began. The thing is it isn't stopping. It's going to keep going. It's going to keep growing. There is always something new. And that's what systems integration firms do. They embrace things that are new, exciting, and cool. And so that's going to continue to happen. As systems integrators, we are in a unique position to give back to communities, to give back to individuals, to give back to the groups that we live in work with and in. And because we have that, people aren't going to stop that. The other thing that I really see as optimistic, a lot of people complain about young people. And they complain about, you know, the Gen Xers, the Gen Zers and things like that. I have seen amazing young people. They care, they care so much about their surroundings, about people around them. They care about this technology. They care that they're making a difference. And they're brilliant. Most of the young people we've hired are absolutely brilliant, wonderful people. So that makes me optimistic, because they're carrying what we're doing into the future in a better way. There's a lot to do. There are safety issues, there are cyber attack issues, there's reliability issues, from aging infrastructure, there's all kinds of things going on. But they're tackling it in a way that's really positive, and really does give me hope for the future of this industry. And for them, too.