That the journey is much bigger than me. You don’t start a company because you’re thinking about setting an example but it’s a huge part of the experience. Through my own tenacity, risk taking, and courage, I am cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit within my kids. The pride they show when they talk about what I’ve accomplished keeps me going and it’s clear I have inspired them. Not only did I name the company after them (KEA are each of their first initials), but my 10-year-old son now has the desire to start his own business — at first it was cutting lawns and now he wants to start an electric car company. He has the belief in himself and an understanding of the world around him — that not only can he start his own company but with hard work and grit, grow it into something else. It’s incredible to feel that I inspired that in some way.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Abdullatif (Bud) Zaouk, a scientist, engineer and visionary committed to engineering innovation that promotes safety, efficiency and a path to next-generation technology. Always interested in the mechanics of “how things work,” Bud pursued advanced training in mechanical engineering and biomechanics earning his doctorate from the George Washington University. Indulging his passion for research, Bud served as an Adjunct Professor at the George Washington University, Senior Research Scientist at GWU’s FHWA/NHTSA National Crash Analysis, as Test Manager of the Federal Outdoor Impact Laboratory (FOIL) at the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center (TFHRC), and as a Research Engineer at the Ford Motor Company Safety Research and Development Department. Bud honed his managerial bio during his tenure as Director of Surface Transportation at QinetiQ North America. A forthright leader, Bud encouraged the highest levels of integrity with customers, saying what he meant and meaning what he said. His principled management inspired his staff to follow suit creating a customer-driven work culture. This genuine commitment to serving others inspired Bud to establish a new company focused on creating novel and innovative approaches to complex customer problems in the domain of engineering. An avid mountain climber and outdoor enthusiast, Bud knows that you reach the summit through perseverance.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was born and raised in Lebanon and came to the U.S. to study at the George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, DC where I got my Doctorate in Engineering. It was from that period on that I knew I wanted to be an engineer. My studies helped me start my career as a Research Engineer at Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, MI before I came back to GWU as part time faculty and research scientist working on automotive crashworthiness. I left GW for an opportunity to work for an engineering research and development company in the Boston area where I honed my managerial experience as Director of the Transportation Group. That’s when the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) crossed my desk. It was, and still is, a unique and very ambitious public-private partnership project which posed a simple enough question: what if we can invent a world without drunk driving? The thought of the project intrigued me, especially since we lose close to 10,000 lives each year in the US from drinking and driving. According to a study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, equipping all vehicles with such an alcohol detection system could prevent more than a quarter of fatalities on U.S. roadways, saving more than 9,000 lives each year.
The program inspired me to leave the company to create KEA Technologies, a new company focused on creating novel and innovative approaches to complex customer problems in the domain of engineering. Among our other initiatives, we have been a long-time testing partner for the DADSS program and are proud to execute this top safety trend & help curb driving under the influence.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I think it was more a series of moments that led up to the idea for KEA Technologies. I worked for an organization whose leadership did not have the passion or principles which I believe it takes to do well, including customer responsiveness, the desire to create a customer-centric organization, or the ability to make that happen (due to political red tape and requiring multiple layers of approvals). I believed that a nimbler company could fulfill the needs of customers in a personal and responsive fashion, so I built one.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
The journey of starting a company is an interesting one. If you’ve never done it before, you don’t realize the intricacies of the daunting task in front of you. With confidence and an entrepreneurial spirit, you think you know what it will take but until you start putting all the pieces together, you don’t realize how difficult it really is. Entrepreneurship is definitely not for the faint of heart.
There isn’t a single day that goes on without a new challenge. I equate it to running a marathon: the first time you do the marathon it is exhausting, challenging and exhilarating, but you are happy to have made it to the finish line. During the next marathon, you are just as exhausted at the finish line, but you knew what to expect and end up running faster. In the end, each day becomes easier as you become better equipped to handle any challenge.
Managing people is absolutely the toughest part. I wanted to build what I desired when I worked for someone else: a place where everyone is comfortable, a happy environment where people thrive. KEA is an extension of me, of my family (the KEA name is from the initials of my children) and thus I take this very seriously and it’s the reason I continue when things are difficult and why I never give up. Figuring out how to create and maintain a positive, fun, good culture requires daily thought and care.
When I started this journey, the hardest part was pulling all the pieces together to make it work. Items such as cash for the lease, lawyers, interviewing and hiring — there’s a barrage of little things that you believe you thought about but which are many times more challenging than you expected. Creating a new company is never easy but having the support from my wife and family made it far more tolerable. Without that support structure, I am not sure KEA Tech would be where it is today.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Failure is simply not an option for me. I wake up every morning and think about how much my family relies on me and about the promises I have made to them, as well as the faith they have put in me. So for me, this is it. My grit comes from a deep-rooted desire to never let them down — my wife, kids, parents, and siblings.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Above and beyond, it’s the work we put into building and maintaining relationships. These are the pillar of our company and we protect them fiercely. In addition, we have an outstanding and unique testing lab with comprehensive equipment and experienced scientists. For example, in a recent project with a customer, they thought we would need their equipment to conduct the type of testing they required. They were pleasantly surprised at the amount and type of technical equipment we house in our lab, and subsequently hired us for ongoing testing on another project.
Finally, what makes us stand out from other testing labs is our culture of listening to our customers. Testing products can very often be a collaborative experience, so it’s vital for us to have and maintain clear communication. Because we truly listen to their needs, we are able to quickly and correctly react. Customers always come first at KEA Technologies — this is a non-negotiable principle and brand value because without customers, there is no revenue, no employees, etc. — it trickles down. Everyone here understands this and just how important it is to keep customers happy. That starts with listening.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
We have an internal running joke when things get rejected for quality. Years ago, when we designed KEA’s logo and chose our brand colors, we selected a “Tangerine Tango” color — that year’s Pantone color of the year — which proved to be extremely challenging to replicate on giveaways, clothing, etc. The number of samples that I had to reject because of this color gave me a reputation as an extremely picky person within the company (something that is not too far from the truth). So today when anything occurs related to fit and finish of a project/product, Tangerine Tango is called out as the likelihood of me accepting the final product if not up to my quality standard.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
I wouldn’t say that this was advice that I wish I never followed, but more of experience and observations of things that corporations did that I wanted to make sure I never follow or emulate. This specifically relates to benefits and their impact on employees’ lives. Offering good benefits to employees is extremely challenging and is even more so for small businesses that cannot take advantage of the cost savings from larger pools of employees. I have seen and experienced the impact of bad health benefits with extremely high deductibles that can almost bankrupt an employee, something I experienced throughout my career. When I started KEA, I wanted to make sure that no employee would ever have to worry about their benefits or whether they will have enough money to cover their deductible. We made sure that we offered the best benefits we can as a small business with the least amount of impact, and lowest deductible we can afford. My philosophy has been if employees don’t have to worry about their health benefits, they will be far more productive.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- It may seem obvious, but hard work. Talent may get you so far but it’s putting in the time and effort that keeps you where you need to be. You don’t’ have to be the smartest person in the room, you just have to be the hardest working and better equipped to take your skill and natural gift and apply it. A lot of really talented, intelligent people fail because they think they can sail on their talent alone vs. working hard.
- My ability to never give up. Resiliency and grit have taken me through some very challenging times and discouraging moments. For the DADSS project, for example, we faced some serious challenges and doubters. I was told “Good luck but it won’t work,” yet here we are 10 years later executing on the original concept and making it a reality. It’s taken some time but that’s the nature of such a complex and crucial life-saving project. By sheer determination and a desire to make such an important technology come to life, we are here.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Delegate, delegate, delegate. Trust the people you hire; they may not do things exactly like you would but if their path gets you from point A to point B it still works. The route doesn’t matter if the end result is the same (and within your requirements), so don’t over think the path.
Hire people that compliment your weaknesses; understand what you’re not good at and hire people to fill in the gaps. Entrepreneurs often times think they can do it all — and maybe they can but it’s not a very conducive strategy for scaling a business.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Taking on too much. Like I said earlier, when you start a company you have to wear a lot of hats initially: HR manager, CEO, finance, director, product developer, salesperson, etc. But in order to scale you have to quickly shift and hire professionals to do these things or you’ll pay a big price. I learned this from a long career in government contracting. For example, in government you really can’t mess with finances and since that’s not my specialty, we spent six figures on a NetSuite financial software implementation to protect ourselves from the future. If you want to scale and do it right, you simply can’t afford to make a mistake later on because you were trying to do everything yourself. Recognize when and in what areas you need those professionals and hire them.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
The back office functions: human resources, finance, security, quality management, etc. For example, human resources: hiring, managing and even firing employees is incredibly complex and time consuming. You cannot afford to not do it right.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- The amount of effort involved in managing people. I was a Director in past lives and had a similar size staff of direct reports, but I was not involved with the HR side of things. That part is challenging! It’s no simple notion to continually try and make everyone happy… because it simply doesn’t happen. As a leader, you are never going to be able to please everybody simultaneously. So now I accept that if I’m making people equally happy and unhappy at same time, I’m doing the right thing.
- The complexities of a startup environment. Sure it’s my company but I can’t do certain things because of legal requirements or restrictions. So you need a good lawyer from the get-go to guide your decision making.
- To be thoughtful about what you’re spending money on and that the most important items are HR, legal, and finance. You can’t function if you don’t keep your staff moving, protect yourself legally, and keep your books in order. Doing so not only keeps us running but also demonstrates to our customers that we are credible and what kind of company we are: we follow principals, assurances, etc.
- How much the support of family and friends matters. Although I knew this intrinsically, I did not realize the depths to which it would equate to success. I could not have gone through this journey without the support of my wife and her partnership that has allowed me to meet both the physical and emotional commitments that running a company requires.
- That the journey is much bigger than me. You don’t start a company because you’re thinking about setting an example but it’s a huge part of the experience. Through my own tenacity, risk taking, and courage, I am cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit within my kids. The pride they show when they talk about what I’ve accomplished keeps me going and it’s clear I have inspired them. Not only did I name the company after them (KEA are each of their first initials), but my 10-year-old son now has the desire to start his own business — at first it was cutting lawns and now he wants to start an electric car company. He has the belief in himself and an understanding of the world around him — that not only can he start his own company but with hard work and grit, grow it into something else. It’s incredible to feel that I inspired that in some way.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My mission has always been to save lives. The DADSS project is about saving 10,000 a year, so that program is not only a part of KEA but ties to my personal purpose. I want to make the world a safer place and create a better future for my kids — they shouldn’t have to drive in world where they can get killed by a drunk driver. No one should die from pure, avoidable stupidity. So my movement would be — rather, is — to stop drunk driving completely.
How can our readers further follow you online?
Please connect with me personally at Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/azaouk/
Please join KEA at:
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!