Being an effective chief financial officer is as much about people as it is about numbers. DiPrete Engineering Associates Inc. founder Dennis L. DiPrete believes this. It is part of the reason he nominated his chief financial officer, Christopher J. Ready, for this award. Ready is razor-sharp with numbers and dollar signs. But he also excels at leading – and teaching – the engineers at DiPrete.
“In many cases, the lack of educated and experienced financial/business talent becomes the limiting factor in the success of these firms that typically have design professionals as the senior management,” DiPrete said. Clearly, Ready fills this niche, though he was on a steep learning curve as soon as he stepped into his new role.
Prior to beginning his now-six-year run with DiPrete, Ready’s background was in accounting for manufacturing companies. The position at DiPrete was his first job with an engineering firm or any other professional-service company. He jumped in right away and quickly developed a keen understanding of the background of professional engineers. He identified how their education and training supported good business and financial practices, and how the education provided by engineering schools fell short.
“He developed this understanding for both strategic, long-range planning and for weekly and monthly tactical financial management,” said DiPrete. Using the skills gathered in business school, his training from more mature manufacturing companies, and his desire to be part of a winning team, Ready turned the CFO position into a role of business educator, key strategist, management coach and operational adviser,” DiPrete said.
Over the last three years, Ready transformed a team of engineering professionals fluent in engineering and regulatory permitting into a group of business professionals who weathered the economic recession and are now focused on the financial success of their clients and the firm.
This role of educator suits Ready just fine.
“DiPrete Engineering is a relatively small technical company,” Ready said of the 40-employee company. “There are only a couple of us who have a formal business background.”
The more you talk to Ready and DiPrete – and the more you get to know about the company – the more it seems they were destined for each other. The company was founded in 1988 with a focus on providing high-quality solutions while retaining the feel of a family company. This appeals to both men, and has resulted in a profitable partnership. DiPrete requested that his company’s gross revenue data remain confidential. However, it’s safe to say that the last three years have brought consistently good numbers, along with an increase in employees.
Ready said an outstanding work environment awaits new hires.
“Dennis DiPrete truly cares about everyone who works here,” Ready said. As a result, he has dedicated staffers who routinely go above and beyond the call of duty, Ready said. “Our employees have our clients’ best interest at heart, and they work quite hard to keep our clients happy.”
The company’s low turnover rate and consistent growth is evidence that this formula works. DiPrete likes to say his people look at projects in a different way than their competitors – delivering answers and solutions that would not have been possible without his entire team and readily available tools.
“We consistently provide training and new technology that allows us to go above and beyond for our clients – inspiring us to stay one step ahead,” DiPrete said.
Still, even the most forward-thinking company needs its CFO to act as a traditional CFO when necessary.
“Some days I spend time on traditional CFO responsibilities, such as strategic planning ... and other days are focused on more basic accounting functions,” Ready said.
However, less-basic tasks came with the challenges related to the fiscal downturn. Ready had his chance to show what he was made of during the Great Recession.
“We followed the same conventional wisdom that most businesses followed: Adjust the firm’s staffing levels to match the reduced demand and cut overhead expenses wherever possible,” Ready said.
These actions stopped the bleeding, helping DiPrete minimize the impact of the recession. Also, there was a tremendous demand for DiPrete’s services in the years leading up to the recession. This made for a good bottom line overall.
But that changed quickly when the real estate market crashed, as the business was directly tied to development, and services became extremely price-competitive due to the excess supply in the market.
In addition, clients who used to hire DiPrete on an hourly rate basis now wanted lump-sum-not-to-exceed pricing. Ready quickly realized this would become the norm, and that the low-cost, best-service provider would prevail.
This is where his experience from other industries proved helpful. He knew from his manufacturing days that Lean and 6 Sigma were effective programs for reducing production time and costs, while maintaining or enhancing quality. Ready also knew these programs were a great way to involve and empower staff to drive improvements.
These programs were relatively unknown in the industry. Pursuing them gave DiPrete a competitive advantage.
Lean is a process established by Toyota to reduce waste out of systems. Ready led this major change initiative over two years and eventually established DiPrete as a model. This resulted in more than $600,000 of new capacity in the first year through efficiency improvements and the elimination of waste.
Under Ready’s instruction, the company went even further by becoming the low-cost, best-service provider in its market. This meant making client service a core strategy. Ready organized a data-gathering effort with an outside professional. Then he set up teams to act upon the data and solicit client feedback to determine if the effort was working.
“Accounting and finance positions need to add value. It is not enough to just crunch the numbers,” he said. “It is important to use that influence to help managers identify and solve problems,” said Ready. •