Katherine Latham, A.M.ASCE
Founder and Managing Partner, Talman Consultants LLC
Project Manager (HBK Engineering LLC)
In 2016, after just five years in practice, Katherine Latham, A.M.ASCE, founded her own engineering consulting firm, Talman Consultants LLC, a certified women’s business enterprise and disadvantaged business enterprise based in Chicago that specializes in telecommunications and utility infrastructure management. She is responsible for business operations, client relationships, and project management oversight and has found success by taking the time to develop and actively manage relationships—with clients, coworkers, and peers.
When and why did you decide to start your own engineering firm?
I opened the business in June 2016, with the idea that engineering firms should be equal parts technical expertise, hard work, and strong relationships. I noticed that design is often done in a silo, with one engineer at a computer. When you work that way, you don’t learn what it really takes to get a project complete or what a client really wants. I knew from firsthand experience that building and maintaining solid relationships with utilities and city representatives are often the most important things in keeping projects on schedule and on budget.
When I started my own firm, I was able to take ownership of projects from start to completion. Projects go more smoothly and are less frustrating for everyone when you take ownership of them.
How did you know that you were ready to start your own company and that the market was ready for a new player?
I have wanted to own my own business since college. It was never a question of if, but when. Over time, as I became more experienced, I saw that there was an untapped market for focusing on collaboration and coordination at all levels. Not many people excel at that. But it comes naturally to me.
Also, early in my career I had the opportunity to work on some high-profile projects in Chicago, and I developed good relationships with city representatives at all levels, from commissioners on down. And I realized that I had a lot of contacts that not everyone has. And because I am an action-oriented project manager, I had developed a reputation as someone who is dependable and committed and who can get things done. Those relationships and that reputation helped me start successfully.
I also had a lot of good mentors, one of whom is now my partner, Jim [James D. Norton, P.E., M.ASCE]. We worked together a lot, and he had big-picture knowledge of where the market was going. I had the relationship-building skills. So our points of view are very complementary.
What are the chief engineering skills and abilities that you developed in your previous positions that enabled you to do This?
I would say mostly project management skills, and the biggest one of those is communication. I was surprised at how much that skill is sometimes truly lacking in our industry. I would also say understanding others and their needs and objectives; I would call it empathy. It’s the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
What personal characteristics do you believe entrepreneurs like yourself need to be successful?
I’m in a male-dominated industry; there is no doubt about that. So being comfortable as the only female in the room is key. I still sometimes attend meetings where it is just assumed that one of the women in attendance will be taking notes, or despite my title and role, questions and comments will be reflexively directed to male members of the team. So I had to be able to overcome that stereotype. It takes determination.
How did your education—formal or informal—help you prepare for this?
I went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for my degree in civil engineering. It is a phenomenal institution. You walk out with very strong technical knowledge and the reputation that having a degree from that school carries. Having a degree from U of I gave me an immediate leg up. People respected that, and it helped accelerate my career.
Also, while I was there, we had what was then the highest percentage of female engineering students. Even so, I realized that the field that I was growing to love could do better in attracting and retaining women as well as promoting other types of diversity among its ranks. I’m proud that Talman Consultants’ staff promotes and reflects these values.
Women offer such a different perspective, and often it’s a game-changing perspective. It can change the way a project moves forward. We need to see more women stepping up and embracing the fact that they are different and that that difference is a positive thing.
Women offer such a different perspective, and often it’s a game-changing perspective. It can change the way a project moves forward.
What has it been like to run your own company at a relatively young age?
It has been great—and surreal. Over the past year we’ve grown so much; we started with six people, and we have grown to 30, and we are hoping to add a dozen more in the next couple of months. We recently acquired several new contracts, and two were unexpected. But I can’t say no to work! So this is a good time for us to plan for what’s to come.
In launching your own firm, what surprised you the most, and how did you react?
I didn’t expect this level of growth. And that’s a direct result of the way that clients and everyone we work with have responded to our approach. So adjusting to that growth while still meeting clients’ needs and staying scalable is a challenge. There are definitely growing pains, but I’m honest with my staff about it all, and they’ve been very patient. People are excited to work here. It’s something different.
What advice would you give to other young engineers who are considering starting their own firms?
Jump into the deep end and go for it!
You go so fast and you wear so many hats, from operations to human resources to billables. But it’s going to take a new breed of designer and civil engineer to take the lead and get the job done in the future. You need to become a master at easily interchanging roles and wearing many hats.
But what is really important is that you stop and take the time to listen, not only to your clients and staff but also to your peers. That’s how you stop small problems from becoming bigger problems, enhance your services, and uncover opportunities to innovate.
This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of Civil Engineering.
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