Calyx CEO Jill Wells Heath’s lessons in leadership
By Teri Saylor
Calyx CEO Jill Wells Heath, 53, took the reins on the eve of the worst recession in recent memory. An accountant, she combined her financial savvy with leadership skills to help turn the Cary-based engineering firm around.
In February 2008, Calyx, then known as Mulkey Engineers & Consultants, had 220 employees with five offices in the Southeast. Heath reduced the firm’s employee head count to 130 and closed offices in Columbia, S.C., and Jacksonville, Fla., while retaining the Cary, Charlotte and Atlanta locations. Heath says she’ll carry internal scars from that experience her entire life. But the company, which was founded in 1993, survived and thrived. “Now, I’m in a position where I can spend money on great engineers. I don’t need to spend it on a CFO because we’ve got that.” With 165 people on the payroll today, Calyx is adding staff.
Describe where you came from.
I’m from Goldsboro. I went to Wayne Community College and got an accounting degree. I [then] started school down in Wilmington, and my father passed away. He was a developer in Goldsboro, so at 20, I was made vice president of his development company. I had to come home. So, I just decided I’d eventually go back to school. In 1991, I got my CPA and after that point, it didn’t seem to matter anymore. It’s worked out. We wound up closing the [family’s] company, and it was a tough, tough time. It was not the experience I wanted, but it was the experience I got, and it has served me well in life.
Which fork in the road brought you to CALYX?
One of the things my father always told me was, “You will find a job where you will be able to make money, you will have fun and you will love what you do.” I realized I really need to be my own boss. I was 27 when I started my own CPA practice, and I never had any intentions to go to work for my best client, but that is exactly what I did for Mulkey. I was asked if I would mind coming in one day a month, and that turned into one day a week, and it eventually got to three days a week. That was in 2003. Then the company had to hire a full-time CFO, and that’s how I got started here.
How did you come up with the new name?
Calyx is the name of a very powerful drill that can go through the hardest of rock. But Calyx also describes the protective petals of a budding plant. These concepts represent how we work. We dig into those tough projects but are protective of our clients, their projects, our community and each other. We announced our new name on March 7, 2016.
What can you say about your management style?
I want our employees to memorize our mission statement, because when they are out and about and somebody asks them to describe the company, I want them to say, “Let me tell you that our mission is to enhance the quality of life within the communities we serve by providing innovative engineering and environmental solutions.” And if employees can say that to me, I’ll give them a $10 Chick-Fil-A gift card.
If you weren’t heading up an engineering firm, what would you be doing?
I might be a farmer. My husband and I bought a 73-acre farm a little over a year ago in Bear Creek, in Chatham County, and we are going to have cows and chickens.
I love our land. I feel such a connection to it, and I love getting out there. I let go of my stilettos when I get home and put my muck boots on, and I love traipsing through the woods and all over that land. Looking out at my farm, or up in the sky at all those beautiful stars, knowing I’m just a small speck in all of that gives me so much joy.
What else gives you joy?
I’m married to my soul mate, my absolute best friend. We’ll be married 30 years next April. Greg and I met on a blind date, Jan. 3, 1987, and he proposed 10 days later.
And your faith is important too?
I have a strong faith. We are a Christian company and we put it out there. You don’t have to be a Christian to work at this company, but if you’re wondering about what it is that’s different about us, that’s probably what it is.
What is your best business advice?
If you don’t love what you’re doing, go find something else to do. Figure it out. Change can be the most wonderful thing that ever happens to you.
If you could go back in time, what would you tell your 25-year-old self?
If I went back and talked to Jill at age 25, she wouldn’t listen to a thing I said. I could give her all kinds of advice. I’ve always been in a hurry, so I would tell her to take her time. Smell the roses. Slow down a little bit. I would tell her all that, and she would not change a thing.