November 21, 2014

Engineering a Best Company in Orlando, Florida

Cole Engineering Services founder Bryan Cole puts his money where his values are.

Mike Vogel | 7/25/2011

• Cole Engineering Services
Orlando - No. 30 / Midsized Company - Engineering

Bryan Cole
"We expect everybody to act honorably," says company founder Bryan Cole.
"If they abuse it, they don't get another chance." [Photo: Brook Pifer]

Early in the life of Cole Engineering Services, a prospective employee asked founder Bryan Cole how many paid holidays the company had. Cole said 10. He was wrong. It was nine. But Cole is an if-we-say-it, we-do-it guy. So 10 it became. Says Cole, in a moment of levity, "I'm more careful about what I say now."

Cole, 55, indeed is economical in speech. In a just-the-facts style, he describes how he launched his company, which provides simulation software for the military, in 2004. It has grown, debt-free, to $14 million in annual revenue and 60 employees.

Success in building a Best Companies workplace is a more layered affair, steeped in its founder's principles — he is a devout Christian who says he has "dedicated the success of the company to the Lord" — and the recognition that an attractive workplace is critical to recruiting and retaining workers, a competitive issue in the military simulation hotbed of Orlando, where more than 175 companies vie for tech talent.

Doreen Soto
HR manager Doreen Soto says the company stands out for its work-hours flexibility. "If you have 80 hours over the two weeks, you're good." [Photo: Brook Pifer]

Cole's offices feature an American flag at the entrance, and, predictably, plenty of white boards and tech gear. Kyle Hancock, a senior software engineer on the company's biggest contract, the U.S. Marine Corps' CACCTUS (Combined Arms Command & Control Training Upgrade System), explains why he and others find the work stimulating.

In use at five Marine bases, CACCTUS allows a battalion to practice the communication, coordination and control needed in the field. The simulation presents sniper teams, platoons, helicopter units and artillery — via computer screen — with situations they're likely to encounter in combat. Information from the troops flows back to battalion leaders and staff. Separated from the ground forces, they must manage the battle as they would in the field — blind, sorting through chaotic and conflicting communications, reports and data to make sure, for example, that a sniper team's call for helicopter support doesn't lead to the friendly fire deaths of an advancing platoon the team can't see.

The company also is a prime contractor on an Army training tool project to create an online war simulation game. "What we do here is save American soldiers' lives," says company comptroller Resa Inman.

Cole Engineering
[Photo: Brook Pifer]

Gratifying as that is, workers still want benefits. Cole says his outlook is that they are an investment, rather than an expense, and that boosts morale and, hence, boosts productivity.

Cole Engineering pays 80% of employee and family healthcare premiums, says HR manager Doreen Soto. As at many employers, Cole Engineering has moved to a high-deductible plan to control healthcare costs. But it puts $1,500 annually into employee health savings accounts to help. It matches up to 3% of an employee's salary in a Simple IRA and offers a discounted gym membership.

Employees — nearly all are salaried — don't need managerial approval to leave for a kindergarten graduation or to attend a class or to take mom to the doctor, as long as the work is made up. Soto says that "If you have 80 hours over the two weeks, you're good." Says Cole: "We expect everybody to act honorably. If they abuse it, they don't get another chance." Managers try to schedule meetings between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to accommodate flexibility.

Cole employees
Cole employees wear red shirts every Friday in honor of the military, the company's sole customer now. [Photo: Brook Pifer]

There are other Cole Engineering mores. At top, Cole cites "an order of satisfaction." Customers — who are entirely military at present — come first, followed by employees and then shareholders. Another tenet is that anything the company does "has to be legal and moral and ethical or we don't do it. It makes all decisions easy," says Cole.

And while Cole in an interview doesn't volunteer his religious beliefs, his faith imbues the company. "We start every meeting with a prayer," says Inman. Cole says joining the prayer is optional and that he doesn't force his views on people. A tenth of company profits go to charities. Shareholders — all but one are employees — can direct their proportional share to a cause of their choice.

Cole says his experience with tithing on his own income led him to want to tithe on the company's profit. "I'm a blessed man," he says.

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