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BL Companies provides architecture, engineering, environmental, and land surveying services in 10 states, including Connecticut, where the company was originally established over 30 years ago. MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with BL Companies Executive Director of Engineering and Principal Derek Kohl about working in Connecticut, learning lessons from COVID-19, forming collaborations, and giving back during the holiday season.

NAN PRICE: Why Connecticut and what do you enjoy most about the company’s location?

DEREK KOHL: Our company’s first office and employees were based in Connecticut and, as we expanded over the years, we opened our second Connecticut office in Hartford in 2006. Connecticut is part of our company’s history and roots. While we work throughout the United States and we’re growing in many locations, we continue to maintain a large employee owner presence here in Connecticut with more than 230 employees in our Hartford and Meriden locations.

We enjoy the best of what Connecticut has to offer including a strong, engaged, motivated, and highly educated employee base. Connecticut is also strategically located in the northeast in proximity to many of our major clients. We believe it’s a great place to live, work, and play.

NAN: Tell us about the employee ownership component of BL Companies.

DEREK: Our employee ownership is essential to our company and permeates in everything we do—from our culture to our values. BL has more than 350 employee owners in our 14 offices throughout the Eastern and Southeastern United States.

Our employee ownership has a couple of components. There’s the cultural side of it, how we operate and interact with each other and go about doing our business. Also, working for yourself is empowering and creates a great environment where everybody has a voice and can provide input and feedback in all that we do as well as contribute in significant and meaningful way.

There’s also the supplemental retirement side of it, our Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). So, in addition to our 401(k) program, being an employee owner means employees are allocated shares within the company. As we perform and grow, the share price increases and so does the value of their ESOP account.

NAN: In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your business?

DEREK: We’re fortunate to be managing through the various aspects of the pandemic. Many of our clients’ projects have continued as we work on these critical and essential projects. We have strong leadership and a great team of engaged employee owners who have really pulled together during these challenging times.

Prior to the pandemic, we made some significant investments in technology, which have been instrumental in our ability to have our office-based employees working remotely. That’s been a critical thing for us, in this more technology-based environment. It enabled us to seamlessly transition to remote work early on as well as effectively collaborate with our employees and clients. It has definitely confirmed the engagement of our employee owners.

A valuable leadership lesson we’ve learned is that communication, culture, and relationships are fundamental in all that we do, particularly for new employees. We’ve hired a number of people over the last six to seven months and most haven’t been in the office full-time. Getting them integrated into the company and establishing relationships has been something we’ve done well, but it’s taken some focus and effort given that many people are working remotely from day one.

All our offices are open. We’re working in person on a voluntary basis with the appropriate safety measures in place for distancing, sanitizing, masks, and so forth. We’ve been allowing employees to work remotely if they choose. BL remains very focused on ensuring our culture continues and that relationships get established and maintained in this new environment.

NAN: Speaking of building relationships, let’s talk about your involvement with the MetroHartford Alliance.

DEREK: BL Companies has always seen the MetroHartford Alliance as a major advocate for the Hartford Region as well as the State of Connecticut. We were a member for a number of years and, as we’ve grown, we felt it was important for us to become more involved and increase our presence as well as our level of membership to a Strategic Partner level.

We really like to be involved and part of the larger team to make change—in this case, facilitating growth and positioning our state for success in the future. We believe in active and proactive participation versus just standing on the sidelines. As a mid-size firm, we also felt that as a Strategic Partner we could provide some unique insight as a business in the state as compared to some of the larger global-type businesses or companies.

Our firm has good balance. We have the range of expertise and experience of a much larger firm and our size and employee ownership culture provide us with agility and the ability to provide a personal touch. So, we think we provide a unique perspective as a Strategic Partner. Also, we understand the full spectrum of business needs, the interaction with local and state government agencies, and the role each party plays for growth and sustainability in our constantly changing environment.

With our location in Hartford, we feel it’s critical to be part of the fabric of the city. Our region is competing against other states for business, jobs, and residents, so we proactively participate in various organizations and events in the city to be a part of the movement that’s positioning our region and state to be successful.

NAN: As the holidays are approaching, will BL Companies support any giving initiatives or get involved with the community to give back and do good?

DEREK: We have a Giving Back Committee that runs events all year long. We’re very aware that COVID-19 has increased food insecurity in the areas where we work and live. So, in the spirt of the upcoming holiday season and in support of the many people in need, Our Giving Back Committee is currently holding a month-long virtual food drive called “FUNDS for FOOD.”

To increase the impact of our employee owners, when participants donate to a Local Food Bank between now and December 2, BL Companies is matching their donations. To date, we’ve raised $5,125 that will be matched.

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BL Companies Executive Director of Engineering and Principal Derek Kohl and President and CEO Carolyn Stanworth
A Team of BL’s young professionals learning and observing out in the field.