Top Workplaces 2022: EMH&T's culture brought it out of recession, COVID-19

Tim Feran
For Columbus CEO
The management team at EMH&T.

When the pandemic forced a sudden shutdown of nearly everything, many organizations were caught flat-footed. They had never dealt with a global crisis like it and some floundered and failed.

But at EMH&T, a long history and a strong workplace culture helped the civil engineering consultant firm not only survive but thrive. Not that a lot of work wasn’t involved in the effort, says Sandy Doyle-Ahern, president of EMH&T.

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“Managing through the pandemic was exhausting,” Doyle-Ahern says. “But knowing that employees feel good about being here, it is huge for me personally. As a person running the firm, I’m damn grateful for every person here.”

EMH&T President Sandy Doyle-Ahern.

Founded in 1926, EMH&T consistently receives various workplace awards, something that Doyle-Ahern knew when she joined the company 25 years ago. EMH&T was named the No. 1 midsize company to work at as part of Columbus CEO's 2022 Top Workplaces awards.

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“It was always very strong,” she says. “But EMH&T for a long time kind of flew under the radar [to the general public]. That’s because most of the work is reputation based with repeat customers.”

The key to the firm’s ability to weather the pandemic dates back more than a decade to a couple of years before the Great Recession when Doyle-Ahern had moved up in the ranks.

At that point, “I started pushing out a lot more communication to employees about how the company was doing,” she says. “It was always rock solid, but it was a little bit of a heads-down kind of company. My personality is a little different from that, and we began to talk directly to them even more about how the company was doing.”

The commitment to open communication wasn’t just a nice benefit that was put away after the 2008 economic crisis passed, she says. “In civil engineering we have a lot of risk, it can be real, and my biggest priority is that you have got to have teams of people that trust each other, that know each other. If someone is not certain about something they can always ask an expert in the area.

“You can’t build trust if you don’t have relationships with each other, so we do a lot of employee engagement work. It’s about getting people out of their desks to continue to build relationships.”

That effort left all of EMH&T’s staff—from longtime employees to recent hires—deeply impressed and grateful.

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Christy Pirkle started at EMH&T 21 years ago. Hired as an intern, Pirkle became a full-time employee a year later and has been there ever since.

Today, as a senior environmental scientist, she collaborates often with other firms and has picked up how other companies run. Even so, she has never found anything that attracted her away.

The reason for that loyalty is the firm’s collaborative culture. During the Great Recession and through the pandemic, “we didn’t pull in, we reached out,” Pirkle says. “We know that the strength of the company is the people. There was a lot of transparency. We all kind of shared the good and the bad.”

A key moment in her career at EMH&T came when Pirkle and her husband decided to start a family. “I had my first child and I didn’t realize the demands it was going to have on me personally.” After consideration, Pirkle approached Doyle-Ahern and told her that she was going to quit.

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But Doyle-Ahern said, “This is not this-or-that.” So, for years, Pirkle was able to work part-time at the firm, she says. “When my kids were older and I could leave the house every day, they welcomed me back full-time.” 

Abby Cueva came to EMH&T in August 2012 after having worked at another firm for 11 years. After meeting Doyle-Ahern, Cueva thought, “If I went anywhere else, I’d be really interested in going to EMH&T. It was definitely Sandy and her leadership and the culture at EMH&T that brought me here.”

The firm’s effort during the pandemic to return everyone to the office as safely and quickly as possible was crucial to maintaining that culture, especially for younger engineers, Cueva says.

“It’s very hard for younger engineers when they don’t have hands-on, face-to-face experience with other experienced engineers,” she says. “… Sandy worked day and night getting protocols in place, and it paid off.”

Like Pirkle, Cueva found a sympathetic ear when she found herself pregnant soon after being hired at EMH&T. Doyle-Ahern sat down with her for a one-on-one chat and reassured her that everything would work out.

“It was the most impactful moment of my career, that someone would do something for me without even asking for it,” Cueva says. “I felt appreciated, and now forever indebted.”

Dan Bruin was hired in July 2019 as a product engineer and had only worked at one other firm, in St. Louis, for two years before that. “With only a couple years of experience I was coming into the city with few connections. I was just working off online reviews. One thing I saw was that EMH&T always got great reviews. They were typically number one.”

When the pandemic forced everyone to shut down, Bruin was thankful he had time to be exposed to the firm’s culture.

“Under COVID, that was huge,” he says. “It was lucky timing, I guess. At the time it’s something you’d think: Is there job security? What’s going to happen? But we were always reassured from upper management we would get through it. There was never a point where I felt that my job was in jeopardy.”

That culture won’t change, Doyle-Ahern says, because it is crucial to helping EMH&T do the best work possible.

Tim Feran is a freelance writer.


5500 New Albany Road Columbus 43054

Business: EMH&T is a land development and public works engineering consulting firm.

President: Sandy Doyle-Ahern

Employees: 310

Revenue: $60.7 million