When a milestone anniversary approaches for a company, oftentimes a book or e-book is created to extol its history. What can be forgotten during its development is that a company’s past is not the recitation of a dull timeline; it is a story yearning to be told. That story should interweave the success of the firm with the impact of its people.
Chicago-based ESD, a firm primarily engaged in engineering and technology solutions, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017. Based on the ESD story, here are four tips to craft the most forceful historical narrative possible:
1) Talk about why the company founder(s) took a gamble and describe the culture he or she created.
How did Hem Gupta, who grew up in India without electricity or running water, leave a comfortable position at Perkins+Will to create one of the biggest consulting engineering firms in the country?
He wanted to branch out and be an entrepreneur. He quickly found out how challenging it was. Recalled Raj Gupta, Hem’s first-born son and executive chairman of ESD, “My Dad did everything – the books, the work.”
Despite his hard work and focus, the founder made sure to champion employees.
“The good thing about Hem is he never got upset with us,” said Carols Rivera, who has worked at ESD since 1970. “If you made a mistake, Hem would make a call to the client and ask to have lunch. He’d come back from lunch and say everything was taken care of.”
2) Recount how the company has separated itself from competitors.
ESD has been involved in a number of important innovations.
For instance, people take for granted that commercial office buildings will be cool when needed, but ESD’s engineering work with Unicom Thermal Technologies’ two chilled-water plants in the 1990s broke new ground.
The facilities – the largest ice-based district cooling system in the world at the time, which served more than 8 million square feet of commercial office space and involved 25,000 tons of cooling – featured advanced technology that sent chilled water to a building before returning it warm to the facilities to be chilled again.
3) Explain why employees want to work there – sometimes for their entire careers.
ESD has been fortunate to have many long-serving employees (Rivera has been with the company almost 50 years). Why do they stay so long in an environment where job-hopping is prevalent?
Explains Tony Garcia, a 34-year veteran who began at ESD as a teenager, “I’ve always seen ESD as a loyal company. One thing that’s separated us from other firms is the family environment. Our studio is like brothers and sisters – we’re arguing, but we’re looking out for each other.
“Raj got me out of the mailroom and gave me an opportunity that I probably wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else. He’s the son of the CEO of our company, and he’s offering to help a guy who grew up on the Southeast Side of Chicago in a very poor neighborhood.”
4) Share stories about how different the work is today compared to the company’s inception.
Technology has radically changed many industries. ESD’s main focus – engineering – has experienced upheaval in a positive manner, as work can be done more efficiently.
One long-time employee described the days when drafting ruled the office, well before Revit and other technology arrived.
“You had people who designed, laid out and drafted complete buildings, and all the calculations were done manually,” he recalled. I was doing 200-300-page studies with hand lettering. Today everyone has a computer and two screens. I have a triangle and scales that are probably older than people working there now.”
Company histories are important documents. They help present-day employees understand the creation of the culture and how the firm has survived and thrived, remind executives of past mistakes to avoid replicating and persuade potential clients to get involved with a winner. But for all of these disparate folks to buy in, a compelling narrative must be told. Fortunately, just about every company has an engaging story to share.