“I wish someone had told me how addictive it is!”, With Douglas Brown and Robert Hurlston of Fidelis Engineering Associates

I wish someone had told me that managing people requires structure. And, moreover, the more structure that is in place, the less chance for screw ups. The first two hires we made were awesome on paper and truly great guys. One was a senior director from a prominent automotive manufacturer and the other an up-and-coming account […]

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I wish someone had told me that managing people requires structure. And, moreover, the more structure that is in place, the less chance for screw ups.

The first two hires we made were awesome on paper and truly great guys. One was a senior director from a prominent automotive manufacturer and the other an up-and-coming account manager from one of our competitors. Having made these impressive hires with the aim of plugging our gaps in skillset, we thought our job was done. How wrong we were! You can’t just hire talented people and let them loose. Everybody needs to be given at least some direction in order to be successful in the role while staying aligned with overall company strategy and culture.

As a part of my series called “Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started My Consulting Business ”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Hurlston.

Robert is Chief Engineer and Co-Founder at Fidelis Engineering Associates, an engineering consultancy that specializes in advanced simulation technologies, both as a software reseller and a provider of custom engineering solutions. His passion for problem solving has taken him through a PhD in Nuclear Materials Engineering and onward into a career spanning numerous consulting roles, ultimately leading to the foundation of Fidelis in 2019. With a drive to do things properly, not just quickly, Fidelis is rapidly becoming a prominent force in the field, having recently partnered with Dassault Systèmes to combine truly world-class engineering with industry-leading simulation software offerings.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was just at the start of my Ph.D. in my early twenties, I met my American wife, Jessica, in the UK (I’m from Manchester, England originally). As the studies progressed and we dated long-distance for a few years, something had to give. Eventually we decided I would move to the states. For a period of around two years after that, I was privileged enough to work remotely as an expert consultant for the University of Manchester in the field of structural integrity engineering, particularly as it pertained to nuclear.

That position had me collaborating with many different companies in both the defense and civil nuclear sectors, with the end goal of digesting the reems of useful information that had come from my fellow Ph.D. colleagues over the years and turning it into useful additions to the European nuclear regulatory code. This gave me my first real taste of what it felt like to be a ‘consultant’. Not working to do the same job, day in and day out, but thinking strategically to solve other people’s problems, doing it, and then moving onto the next.

We eventually settled in Michigan, where I secured a position at a small, local engineering consultancy firm, and my career path was set. It was at this stage that I met my business partner, Bill Webster, who I discussed the idea of starting a consultancy with on a regular basis. In early 2019, amid a number of drivers to ‘take the next step’, we began planning in earnest, and six months later, we were choosing branding colors!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

Excitingly, we secured our first customer almost as soon as we started the business — a prominent Tier 1 supplier in the Detroit area — and planned to leverage the large (to us) purchase order to bootstrap the rest of the business. Then, COVID-19 hit…

We lost the customer due to cuts after six months and only billed less than half of that money in the end. Although we were a little stressed upon hearing the news, I’ve always been a fan of the term ‘serendipity’ — happy accidents. The freeing up of our time meant that we could focus on core business operations, generation of new business and better onboarding of new hires. It truly was a blessing in disguise, and we wouldn’t change it if we could.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

When I hear this question, two people come to mind.

My Grandad (Harvey) Hurlston, who was a brilliant hands-on engineer, used to build to-scale locomotives in his shed. These were fully-functioning masterpieces of engineering that were powered by fire and water and were robust enough to pull passengers; as a kid it was like seeing my trainset come to life. I always admired his ability to come up with novel solutions to the problems he’d run into, and I believe this time we spent together planted the seeds of my passion for engineering.

Another influential person is Professor Andrew Sherry, my doctoral supervisor, who whipped my 20-something self into shape over the course of four years with a lot of tough love. Professor Sherry helped me realize and accept a very important truth: I am the only one who is responsible for, and in control of, my own success.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Every problem is an opportunity in disguise.”

Like everybody, I’ve had setbacks over the course of my life and I’ve always found, at least on reflection, that they were opportunities to reset, pivot and make clear and actionable choices to be better. Whether in my professional or personal life, I’ve always tried to make the most of hard lessons learned (even if it does sometimes take a while).

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

Fidelis was born from a passion for high-end, quality engineering. We specialize in a specific branch known as ‘simulation’, which, as you might be able to tell from the name, means predicting the behavior of physical things, even if they don’t exist yet.

If you’re thinking of designing and building something — and it really can be anything — we can virtually build it and test it to its limits before you spend a single cent on material, prototyping or testing. Obviously, crashing cars in a virtual world is significantly cheaper than doing it in real life, but it translates to much more than that. We can model your bridge, or your pressure vessel, or your watch and ensure that it can stand up to the rigors of its expected life. We can even use ‘optimization’ software to help you make the very most out of every ounce of material in your aircraft or automobile components, which is a super-hot topic these days given the drive towards energy efficiency and greener travel. It really all boils down to this; give us an engineering design challenge, and we can solve it for you — virtually.

Not only can we do these things for you, but we can also help you to do them for yourself. As an authorized reseller of Dassault Systèmes industry-leading suite of design and simulation software, we can help you acquire and implement all of the tools that we use on a daily basis for your company. With the aid of Fidelis’ expert support team, you can be up and running and supporting your own design team in a matter of days.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our company was built on the ideal of ‘customer-centric’. And, I know… everybody says that, but it was truly our primary goal.

One recent example of this comes to mind — we were tasked with analyzing a water pump screen that was to be operating at the bottom of a river in Oregon. Because of its geographical location, it was critical that the part was able to handle the sloshing action of the water in the river if exposed to a significant seismic event. These were not just customer goals, but government regulations demanded it, hence without a positive result, the part would not be accepted.

Of course, our customer was fully expecting the part would pass with flying colors, but it didn’t. Another simulation consultant might throw the failing results back over the fence and let the customer deal with it. Not us! We continued to pursue a solution, knowing that we probably wouldn’t be fully compensated for the time, because we didn’t want to leave our customer high and dry and with a huge headache. After about a week of back and forth (and many different design iterations) we finally cracked the design that would meet the requirements and our customer left happy and impressed at our penchant to go ‘above and beyond’.

When you first started the business, what drove you, what was your primary motivation?

Other than the desire to build an engineering consultancy that is truly customer-focused and institutionally passionate about finding elegant solutions to difficult engineering challenges, I’ve always enjoyed building things. And I don’t necessarily mean physical things, but rather the idea of building an entity or organization from scratch.

That, as well as the fact that I’ve always liked the idea of working for myself. I don’t really feel comfortable when I’m being led in directions that I don’t agree with and especially not when I feel like they are in direct opposition with my experience or moral compass. Although significantly more challenging than ‘the 9 to 5’, I’m much happier now I’m in charge of my own destiny.

What drives you now? Is it the same? Did it change? Can you explain what you mean?

When we started the company, I saw it as a whole and knew I wanted it to be the best in the industry.

Now I’ve changed my scale of thinking and effort a little bit. For example, I’m on a big push to improve our sales process right now, and that takes a lot of effort in itself. The sales team is an organization within a company, and I’m finding that I have to refocus to help that team see the merits of ‘customer-centric’ and do that by implementing appropriate strategies and procedures. I’m quite an impatient person, but I’m becoming more excited by smaller changes and gains and more driven to make them because I see them all as stepping-stones to Fidelis truly being ‘the best’ overall.

It’s starting to become a bit like golf; focus on getting one aspect to the level you want and you turn it from a weakness into a strength. Speaking of which, I should really start working on my putting!

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are actually working on a super exciting project where we’re utilizing some extremely advanced simulation methods to predict Heating Ventilation and Cooling (HVAC) noise in the cab of an electric vehicle (EV). We’ve all heard the whirring of the blower fans in our cars, but until now, the engine sound blocked or masked most of it. With ever quieter electric vehicles becoming more and more the norm, that masking sound is missing, leaving quite annoying levels of HVAC sound remaining. As a result, manufacturers are pushing for significant reductions in blower fan noise, and that’s where we step in. Something that you might think is inconsequential in the development of a car, but that suppliers invest millions of dollars per year to try to solve.

Does your company have a sales team? If yes, do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

We do have a sales team, and we’ve found the best tactic to be strategic structure, particularly for outbound sales. We’re not talking about structure for the sake of it or to keep our people in check, more like carefully selecting the customers that we target and applying a structured process to engage with them. You’ll often find that the first attempt at contact yields 0% engagement, but after three or four touches, engagement can be as high as 25%.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

Other than the typical advertising channels, we’ve been focusing on building brand recognition on social media. Because we’re in the engineering consulting business, we tend to focus mainly on LinkedIn. We grew to over 2,000 followers in less than a year and certainly see a good number of leads come from this avenue, which has given us a really nice boost in sales recently.

Based on your experience, can you share a few strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

To answer simply, try to put yourself in the customer’s shoes. Ask yourself what you would want in terms of a great customer experience and then do that.

In the simulation consulting field, anybody can create impressive looking plots and charts, but it takes years of experience and expertise to know whether they make sense compared to the physics at hand. So quality in our industry is obviously of paramount importance. Above that, we keep our pricing fair, ensure that we meet intermediate and final deadlines, and support our customer’s requirements when unexpected things crop up.

On the other side of our business, when we sell software, we do our utmost to empower our customers to make the absolute most out of it. That means providing some level of free training and augmenting that with additional training plans where necessary. We also support the software that we sell, so whether you find a bug or you’re just unsure of how to do something, we’re right there with you every step of the way.

Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started My Consulting Business”. Please share a story or an example for each.

When we started, we thought we’d drawn up some quite detailed business strategies, but we swiftly realized that they each needed quite a lot of ‘beefing up’ in order to become actionable.

1. I wish someone had told me not to expect all my employees to think or be motivated the same way that I am.

We’ve hired quite a few people at this point, and it remains difficult to recognize that they are all motivated by different things. For example, some people love to be closely managed and thrive from structure, while others might disappear for a few weeks with a big project and come back with it completed perfectly — they don’t like to (or need to) be bothered. And, even though we have a really close-knit team, none of them are motivated simply by watching the business grow (like I am), which is worth remembering from time to time.

2. I wish someone had told me that managing people requires structure. And, moreover, the more structure that is in place, the less chance for screw ups.

The first two hires we made were awesome on paper and truly great guys. One was a senior director from a prominent automotive manufacturer and the other an up-and-coming account manager from one of our competitors. Having made these impressive hires with the aim of plugging our gaps in skillset, we thought our job was done. How wrong we were! You can’t just hire talented people and let them loose. Everybody needs to be given at least some direction in order to be successful in the role while staying aligned with overall company strategy and culture.

3. I wish that someone had told me that it never feels like you’re done. Like a good resume, if you think it’s finished, you aren’t doing it right.

Being a small business owner is different than being an employee of somebody else. I think the biggest reason is that you don’t have one single role. I’m currently leading the marketing efforts, developing sales strategy, doing the day-to-day engineering, and updating the website. Especially for things like sales and marketing strategy, it never feels like you’re done. Even when it’s good, it can always be better!

4. Finally, I wish someone had told me how addictive it is! I’ve transitioned from a good enough employee to a passionate and obsessive leader. It’s very hard to take a step back for other things when you’re enjoying something this much.

When you run your own business, every single win feels huge, which is very addicting. If my marketing strategy is rolled out and generates a good buzz, it doesn’t directly affect my bottom line (at least short term), but the feeling of ‘growing the brand’ is enough return. When a project is delivered on-time and above expectations, it gives one a huge sense of pride and ultra-satisfaction. One caveat to this point…don’t forget to be present with your family! I feel like I could work all day every day and still not be content with my output, but there really are more important things in life.

5. I wish that someone had told me that business strategies are like personal goals — without a plan to execute, they are merely dreams.

Check out the video summary of my 5 things by clicking the link here.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂

Sticking with technology, I’d love to inspire people, organizations and governments to embrace green energy. We have one planet, and we could be taking care of it a lot more diligently than we are!

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I’m a huge Manchester United fan and I’ve had the privilege of watching them under the great Sir Alex Ferguson for most of my life. Probably the best manager/coach in sports history. The way he could man-manage a team of varying skill levels and temperaments and get more out of them than the sum of their individual parts was quite phenomenal. I’d love to pick his brains on management and all things football over a glass of red wine.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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