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Saying 'No' to Doubling Growth Helps Staff Say 'Yes' to Family-Friendly Firm

“Saying ‘No’ to Doubling Growth Helps Staff Say ‘Yes’ to Family-Friendly Firm”

Barbara Mulkey puts family first — and her business profits.

Greater flexibility was the No. 1 reason Barbara H. Mulkey launched her engineering consulting business. A mother and the only female manager in a civil engineering firm, Mulkey felt conspicuous when family demands conflicted with work. Yet she wasn’t willing to compromise her principles. "My priority has to be family. I wasn’t seeing that promoted in business," says Mulkey. A more pliant environment, she reasoned, would enable her to put family first and still be successful on the job.

As Barbara H. Mulkey Engineering Inc., Raleigh, N.C., mushroomed, Mulkey was challenged to maintain flexibility for herself — and extend it to her growing staff.

"We could have been twice this size, but we’ve said ‘no’ to a number of opportunities," says Mulkey. Controlled growth, she believes, is important to maintaining a quality workplace. The family-friendly focus begins with adaptable hours. If a family emergency, such as a sick child, arises, employees have carte blanche to leave the office. "I know I can’t function at work when I’m worried about something at home," says Mulkey. The company provides computer networking so staff can work from home, if necessary.

When employees work overtime, they get paid — regardless of salary level. "If we make a dollar on employees, they deserve to be paid," says Mulkey, who considers it time employees could have spent with families.

The company also provides some unusual perks. A laundry service stops by the office twice weekly. Lunch is delivered each day — employees pay for their food, but it eliminates an extra errand. "We try to free up time from menial chores so when employees are away from the office, they have time for more relaxing activities," explains Mulkey.

Another benefit is monthly seminars. Some are professional, while others are personal, such as dealing with aging parents. "If employees are balanced in their personal lives, they’re better on the job," she says.

Employees receive one paid day off each year to use toward community service. "In the long run, we’re happier individuals when serving something beyond ourselves," Mulkey says.

Holistic Approach Wins Results

Sales for the firm have shot up from $28,000 in 1993 to more than $3 million in 1999. Last year the company expanded to 70 employees from 51, and head count should hit 100 within the next two years.

What’s more, there is virtually no turnover at the firm, unusual in the competitive engineering market.

Mulkey’s family-friendly philosophy impacts business decisions. Initially, her firm focused on transportation, but later diversified into land development, construction services and surveying.

More transportation projects could have been won by pitching government departments of transportation in other regions — but that would have meant considerable time on the road. And Mulkey didn’t want to impose that burden on either herself or her employees. Similarly, the firm has chosen not to enter the international market.

Writer: TJ Becker