(Editor’s note: The Executive is a new series profiling presidents or CEOs of growing local firms. Lisa Kay has served as president of Long Beach-based Alta Environmental for five years, and has 25 years of experience in the field of environmental consulting. Alta operates offices in Oceanside, Irvine and Van Nuys, and has 50 employees. The company is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.)
LBBJ: What brought you to Alta Environmental?
Kay: I was recruited by my partner and the majority owner of Alta to join him and run the business for him. I’ve managed and grown a number of small environmental companies. I love growing a company, leading a team of people and giving them the opportunity to create a great career. With a small company, especially one dedicated to growth, success and serving clients well, that creates a great opportunity platform for young and mid-level consultants to come in and build a successful career.
LBBJ: In a tight labor market like we have now, how does Alta Environmental stay competitive as an employer?
Kay: Because we’re growing, people get to build a career. If you show initiative and you want to build a career . . . there are going to be significant opportunities for your advancement. That makes us an attractive employer for people who don’t want to be stuck in the same position for a period of time. That is what often happens at some consulting firms if they’re not growing. They hand the work to the junior engineer, who does the same job over and over. It can get stale and boring.
We also have a transparent leadership style. We share our financials on a monthly basis with our employees. We have created an incentive program that shares profits with employees. If the employees contribute to our revenue, they have an opportunity to get a monthly bonus that can be pretty lucrative. We also [provide] bonuses to people who bring in business and create client relationships. So even though we’re privately held, we share profits with our team.
LBBJ: We hear a lot in the media about changing preferences of the workforce, particularly with Millennials. What are some of the challenges in keeping up with those trends?
Kay: Interestingly enough, I would say they are not that different than when I entered the workforce. People want to be respected for the value they bring. That was no different when I was in my 20s and started working. . . . Some Millennials definitely have great advantages. . . . They have new ideas and they want those ideas to be heard. One of the opportunities in a firm like Alta where we’re growing and entrepreneurial, is that a Millennial who has a good idea and can make a good business case has the opportunity to try that out. We’re willing to experiment.
LBBJ: How does Alta Environmental market itself?
Kay: The main way we put ourselves in front of our clients is speaking and writing and being present in the marketplace. We attend the main conferences associated with our industry, and we try to give presentations. We also respond to public procurement offerings. If we find a client who has a problem – a lot of times problems are public – we will go and meet with the client and offer to help them solve that environmental challenge.
LBBJ: If you were to describe to someone unfamiliar with your industry, what your company does, how would you do that?
Kay: We help people stay in compliance with environmental regulations, pure and simple. We do environmental staffing. . . . We help major industries expand, and get new air permits for that expansion. We help municipalities, industries and new developers get stormwater permits. We do monitoring of stormwater, so when it rains in the middle of the night on a weekend we have people out collecting samples. We also do large contaminated groundwater cleanups.
LBBJ: How does Alta Environmental stay ahead of its competitors?
Kay: Relationships. Our clients are number one. There are people who are cheaper than Alta, but we are constantly making sure that we are walking every step of the way in our clients’ shoes. . . . We strive to understand the client’s business and understand their needs from their perspective. My team’s job is to say, “Here are all the things an inspector could find” . . . and tell them the highest priorities to work on.
LBBJ: What is the long-term strategic vision for Alta’s growth?
Kay: I would love to be a company that is even more diverse than we are now in terms of geography, people and clients. My goal would be in a few years to be a company with 200 people with a large presence in L.A. and an equivalent presence in Orange County and San Diego.
LBBJ: What are the biggest unknowns for you as a business executive going into 2019?
Kay: I feel very confident about 2019. . . . There is a lot of certainty locally and at the state level. There is money that is going to fuel project work. Whether it is Measure W or all the key improvements happening along transportation corridors . . . all of that money is programmed. Even if we hit some recessionary bubble, I don’t see that going away. We also live in a very environmentally conscious state. I don’t see any pull back on environmental regulations in the state happening.
Air and water regulations shift constantly, particularly in L.A. and Long Beach. The South Coast Air Quality Management District is always coming up with new regulations our clients must comply with. Every five years, the stormwater and water quality permits renew. The pollutants in the groundwater and soil are always being re-examined, and the allowable concentrations are always being reduced. There is constant change and regulatory refinement. That requires us to always stay ahead for our clients, but it also means the market is always needed.
LBBJ: If a startup CEO were to ask you for your most important piece of business advice, what would you say?
Kay: I would say it’s about hiring the right people. You have to get that culture piece right. It starts with you. You have to think really hard about what you want the firm to feel like. What kind of environment do I want to create to come to work to every day? How do I want my employees to feel about working here for the long-term?
LBBJ: What are some traits or skills every executive should strive to cultivate?
Kay: Authenticity, transparency, empathy.
LBBJ:: Is there anything you would want to add?
Kay: I am most proud of two awards we’ve won. The two Zweig Group awards, two years in a row best firm to work for in our industry. . . . They rank us against other firms in our category. The first time we ranked No. 5, the second time No. 4. It is fantastic to know that our employees feel it’s a great place to work.