<b>WORK IN PROGRESS | </b>Herald staff
John Zipper recently formed Zipper Geo Associates LLC in Lynnwood, the latest venture in a long career in geotechnical engineering.
Q: What city do you live in?
A: I’ve lived in Edmonds since 1987, and my three kids are all Edmonds-Woodway graduates. They got a great education there!
Q: Why did you decide to open your own consulting firm?
A: In a way this is like getting back to my roots, as I started and grew Zipper Zeman Associates based in Lynnwood during the late ’90s. Countless reasons for the current startup come to mind, but the overriding reason is the opportunity to continue working with my partners Jon, Tom and Rob in a profession that we all enjoy. We’ve worked together a long time and have a lot of confidence and trust in each other. We’ve got a blank slate with the startup, providing the freedom to pursue the types of projects that we enjoy working on and can add value to and the flexibility to negotiate a win-win scope of work and fee with our clients. This is a fairly high-stress business and it’s crucial to work with a team that gets along and works well together.
Q: Your work seems to hinge on an industry that, in recent years at least, has been fairly stagnant with the economy. What’s the climate like for your type of consulting services these days?
A: We are able to keep ourselves busy by concentrating on projects and clients that know us from our decades in the area and value the work that we do. In today’s market you have to hustle. We are hustling for work in multiple states across the western United States. In this market, there are opportunities for quality consulting, as most development sites have some technical challenges or hurdles to overcome. There is enough work to keep things going, but there’s not as much commercial or transportation/utility construction activity right now as will be needed to keep up with population growth in this area. In the long run, population growth in the Puget Sound region will create continued demand for engineering services in this area.
Q: In your years of experience, what has been your greatest challenge, and how did you meet it?
A: Engineering and environmental consulting is a people business, and my greatest challenge over the years has been finding and training quality people to grow the business. My approach has always been to work with people’s strengths. Technical expertise is very important, but a quality attitude and willingness to work hard are just as important. None of us is perfect but if people’s strengths match the needs of our clients, I find a way to make it work with that person. I like to think that I’ve always treated people fairly and honestly, which helps develop that trust level needed in a people-oriented business.
On the other hand, engineering and environmental consulting has been challenged by commoditization of our services over the past 15 years or so. The only way to meet that challenge is to keep our overhead very low, allowing us to compete within that environment. The quality attitude of our firm and willingness to work hard can bring a lot of value to our clients, but we won’t succeed unless we keep our costs in line with the market.
Q: What convinced you that this was the career for you? Has that changed since you first started?
A: When I started working in this field in 1979, I traveled around the Northwest working on all sorts of projects, always outdoors. That was a great way to start for a 21-year-old fresh out of college. Working on multiple sites all over the place taught me how to work efficiently and communicate well with subcontractors, clients and the home office. That style of entry-level experience has not changed very much, as professional staff spending time on site is a critical component of a successful project. There will always be a need for on-site time, and the entry-level career path is usually spent on multiple project sites. Geotechnical and environmental consulting provides a great career starter opportunity for young people. The most noticeable change has been the commoditization of parts of the business, which can limit the career path of those who can’t develop a value-added component to their skill set. Any entry-level professionals getting into this field would be wise to hone their skills to provide quality work and add value to projects.
Q: What are the crucial elements of success for your business?
A: The quality of our work is the most crucial element, and there are a lot of pieces that all have to fit together perfectly for that to happen. Some of these are: local knowledge/experience, ability to adapt to changing regulatory requirements or client expectations, ability to infuse a quality attitude throughout all of the staff involved in every project, communication skills, ability to prioritize and plan ahead, and ability to control costs. This is definitely a people business and every person in the organization contributes to the success of our client’s project. If an organization does not have the right people with the right attitudes, they will struggle.
Q: What are you passionate about? What motivates you?
A: For me personally, I enjoy leading a successful team. The professional growth and success of each member of the team motivates me. I enjoy working with other people with similar interests and probably would not do too well working on my own. I like to be hands on with as many aspects of each project as I can.
Q: When you’re not working, how do you enjoy spending your time?
A: I’ve played ice hockey in the area for a long time and have a great time with my hockey friends in the Greater Seattle Hockey League. My wife Kathy and I play a lot of golf and do as much travelling and hiking as we can. Lake Wenatchee is probably my favorite place on earth.
Zipper Geo Associates LLC
WHERE: 19023 36th Ave. W, Suite D, Lynnwood