Our Founder, George Raftelis, and our current CEO, Peiffer Brandt, sit down with Raftelis’ Darin Thomas to talk about the firm’s journey and what lies ahead.
The following is an excerpt from the interview. You can listen to the full audio version below.
Darin Thomas: George, it’s been 25 years since you started Raftelis. Can you reflect back to 1993 when it all started, and share with us a little bit about your original vision for the firm.
George Raftelis: Actually, I’m going to go back 20 years before that, when I joined Ernst & Young, because that’s when I got pulled into this business. I walked right out of the Duke Graduate Program where I got my MBA and I was all excited about charging ahead. Right as I walked in the door they said, “Congratulations George, we just won this great project with the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council to develop a user charge workshop and we’ve never done one. So, why don’t you have a run at it.” So, I conducted the workshop, and found that I was in the water rate business, and before I knew it I was the firm expert. The negative side was that as I grew with the practice, I became more partner-oriented and I was doing more bureaucratic political things, and I got totally moved away from my clients. That was very disappointing because what I enjoyed doing was serving my clients and creating solutions. So, I made the decision then to go out on my own and to try to get closer to my clients. When I started the company, I wish I could say I had this great strategic plan of where I wanted to be in five or ten years, but I didn’t. My biggest focus was to get back to what I enjoyed doing – consulting with water and wastewater utility clients and to feed my family.
DT: Let’s talk a little bit about change specific to the utility industry. Over the last 25 years, what do you think are some of the most significant changes that the industry has experienced?
GR: First of all, let me say that I think we work for an incredible industry. I mean there are not many industries that have served the public purpose as much as our industry. What has not changed is the commitment of the people in the industry. I still see that today, strong commitment to environmental protection and the provision of healthy water. What I have seen change, would be the caliber of the employee that has joined our industry. In addition, I’ve seen a subtle change in the type, and the skills, of the leaders of public utilities. At one time, you could argue that the utilities were run by engineers, very technical professionals which were more focused on figuring out an answer. You look at today’s environment and you see a lot more managers that have some of that technical skill, but in addition, they have management skills and are more eloquent in dealing with the public, and more sophisticated in telling our story. I’ve also seen utilities focusing more on public policy issues, like affordability, demand management, and the protection of our environment. Finally, I’ve seen our industry become a lot more sophisticated and skilled in dealing with the public and discussing relevant issues affecting our industry and society. Being able to use social media, the media, and other stakeholders.
DT: The firm has grown and evolved considerably over the last 25 years. What do you attribute the success of Raftelis to and, more specifically, how have you been able to manage the growth of the firm and at the same time maintain the core values and the culture that the firm has been known for across the industry?
GR: I do believe that there are several reasons why the firm has been as successful as it’s been. One, we serve an incredibly large marketplace with a lot of needs and a lot of demand. Second, we’ve been very active in the industry associations, we’ve sought leadership in those associations, and we’ve tried to be thought leaders by developing a lot of authoritative literature, whether articles or books. I think another reason we’ve been successful is the quality of people we’ve brought on. The talent I have been most proud of was being able to hire good people, and from the early days I brought on great people that have shared the company’s values. And these people have brought on other people that have shared our values and we’re all pulling in the same direction so you don’t have to micromanage the organization. Finally, we’ve been very client focused and we love what we do.
DT: I agree. I think you have been particularly gifted at identifying top talent in the industry and attracting the top talent to the organization. Based on that, I want to turn my focus and talk to Peiffer Brandt, the President and CEO of Raftelis. So, years ago you decided to join George and his company. What is it that drew you to become a part of Raftelis?
PB: Well, you might just call it dumb luck. It just so happened that one of George’s neighbors went to the same church as me and he knew that I was back from Getting my Masters in Public Health in Environmental Management Policy. He made the connection because at the time the name of the firm was Raftelis Environmental Consulting Group. So, I think he mentioned my name to George when George mentioned he was struggling to complete the 1998 Water and Wastewater Rate Survey. I had just finished at Chapel Hill and I was looking for something to do, so I came in just to work on the Rate Survey while I was looking for a real job. I started doing that and then when I had some spare time I would do a little bit of consulting work. I remember George at one point saying do you want to join full time, and January 1,1998 was my first day of fulltime employment. What it has been about Raftelis that has kept me here is that George did a great job creating a platform where hard work would be rewarded and you could take things where you wanted to take them. I like to think that’s helped with the growth of the company. Certainly, as George mentioned, the water industry is something you feel good about working in – water is life, everyone needs it. And, I think that we provide a good service and we really help the industry and help our clients do better.
DT: Absolutely. So, Peiffer, I understand that you met your wife while working on a project at Raftelis early in your career. Why don’t you tell us about that?
PB: One of our long-time clients was Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities. So, I was meeting with their business manager on some rate or financial issue and he just happened at the end of the meeting to introduce me to a new staff member named Lauren Stone. I didn’t think that much of it – I said hello, not a big deal. I just happened to run into her three of four months later at a restaurant and we hit it off. Now, sixteen years later, we have three kids. I guess I got a little more than just a paycheck out of my job.
DT: So, Peiffer you’re leading Raftelis now, a firm that is approaching 100 employees. What motivates you to wake up every day and lead the organization?
PB: I think we have been very fortunate and a lot of work has gone into that. I think we’re in a great spot right now and we have a lot of opportunities to do some wonderful things. I think we have great people and one of the things that really drives me is that I now have a responsibility for these folks. I think we’re just at the tip of the iceberg of where we can go.
DT: A lot has been said about the tsunami of the next generation of both employees and customers. Of course, I’m talking about millennials and how they are rapidly influencing everything – the economy, the workforce. From your perspective, what do you think is the most significant impact millennials will have on the next generation of Raftelis?
PB: Information is totally different today from even when I grew up. A wealth of information is out there and the expectation to have information. We talked about social media, and utilities can’t just function under the radar anymore. That’s what’s really driving it and utilities need to be focusing on what type of information they’re providing to the public, how they’re doing it, and really be strategic. I think Millennials want to understand what’s going on because they’re used to having access to all of the information. So, we have to be ready to give them all the information and we have to be smart about how we do it.
Then, back to the employees. We’ve been very fortunate in that we’ve not had very much turnover. We have a lot of the folks that were hired around me and most of them are still here. Some would say, “Well, you aren’t going to be able to do that”, but I think within the millennials we’re just kind of overgeneralizing everyone. There are some millennials who I think do want to be at a place for a forty-year career. But, we do need to change the way that we look at things and say it’s not a bad thing if somebody leaves and goes somewhere else. I think part of our job is preparing our employees to be successful when they leave our firm. We had one of our folks in California who was a senior consultant, and was hired as a general manager of a water utility. I hated to see him go because I think he had a world of potential with the firm, but I was really proud to think that the utility would think that highly of our folks. So, we need to prepare our folks so that if they leave and they stay in the industry, they do well. Or, if they leave and they go outside the industry, they’ll be able to take the word out to the masses of the importance of water. So, I think with Millennials, we don’t need to be resigned to the fact that everyone’s going to jump around, and I think it’s our responsibility to make the work environment positive and attractive to everyone.
DT: The final question for both of you. What advice would you give people considering a career as consultants or directly for a public service organization or more specifically in the water sector? Any words of wisdom?
PB: I think the most important thing if you’re going to be a consultant is customer service and knowing your customer. In theory, you can do the most theoretically correct work but if you can’t get it approved, if you can’t connect with your client, it doesn’t matter. Focus on relationships, focus on doing what the client needs and helping make that person’s life easier. The other thing is expectations – say what you are going to do and do what you say. Don’t over promise and under deliver, that is a recipe for failure. Be honest, be straightforward. People appreciate that.
GR: I would say that if you’re considering a career in consulting, very specifically in the areas of environmental finance and management, I think that this is a field where all of your professional and technical skills can be developed – selling, communicating, writing, presenting, team building, and analysis. In other words, if you want to grow in all aspects of career development, consulting – and particularly in our industry of water, wastewater, and the environment where you’re really helping society – is a very rewarding place to be.