In a male-dominated industry, she steered this Cary company through the recession

Jill Wells Heath is chief executive of Calyx Engineers in Cary.
Jill Wells Heath is chief executive of Calyx Engineers in Cary.

Ten years ago, Jill Wells Heath was named CEO of what is now Calyx Engineers and Consultants in Cary. The United States was in the worst recession it had seen since the 1930s, and businesses around the country were struggling. Here, she talks about how she helped save the company, and also how she made a name for herself in the financial industry at a young age.

Q: You were 20 years old, in college at UNC-Wilmington, when your father died and you left school to run the family business. How did that prepare you for your role now?

A: I always say I don’t have a lot of fancy degrees. I got a tough education the hard way. I was negotiating with banks. At the time of my father’s death, (he) was a residential developer. He had 20 houses, and we were buying interest rates down to 12 percent back then, in 1985. It was such a hard market, and so I really had to learn to negotiate with banks and vendors to protect my mother. It was an education for me of how to run a business and then how to close a business.

Q: What’s your history with Calyx, which used to be Mulkey Engineers and Consultants?

A: I was the company CPA (certified public accountant) when it first started in 1993 and worked as an outside consultant, then as the contract chief financial officer, then full-time CFO in 2003 and in 2006 became president. Then, in February of 2008, our 15th anniversary, I became the CEO.

Q: Many well established businesses failed during the Great Recession. What was your strategy to keep it afloat?

A: It was never an option that we wouldn’t survive the recession. I knew we would look different. I remember thinking during the summer … I’m going to have to shrink it. I have internal scars for every one of those layoffs. We went on a wellness program —physically, mentally, financially. We kept doing all the right things during that time and doing the best we could to take care of our clients. We had some lean years, but we never missed a payroll. You know, 2017 was the best year we’ve ever had, and 2018 is blowing away 2017.

Q: What are some of the projects you’ve worked on in Raleigh?

A: We’re the engineers who opened up the Fayetteville Street Mall downtown and the Albemarle Building on North Salisbury Street. We’re proud to be a part of these projects that are hallmarks of the city.

Q: Women held just 10 percent of the top executive positions in the U.S. in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. You reached this milestone early in your career. What advice do you give other women?

A: I’ve never felt discriminated against because I’m a female. I tell young women constantly, “Go into a field dominated by men not because you’ll do it better, but every field needs diversity.” I’d never want to work for a firm that was all women or all men. I want everyone with different ideas to come together and we’ll figure out what the best idea is. I’ve rarely let “no” keep me back.

Q: Calyx is a Christian company. Does your faith help drive your decisions?

A: It really does. We put that out there to our employees, and we say you don’t have to be a Christian to work here, but if you’re wondering what that different thing is, that’s what it is. It’s living by the golden rule. We get a lot of referrals from our own employees. The biggest compliment they can give me is referring somebody to Calyx.

Q: What are the challenges of recruiting engineers?

A: The schools aren’t graduating enough engineers for what’s needed. Hiring is what we talk about all the time. My leadership team is half women, half men. We have great male managers and great female managers. I haven’t made decisions where I’d give the position to a female versus a male if the male is more qualified. You get it on your own merit here.

Know someone who would make a good Tar Heel of the Week? Send nominations to tarheel@newsobserver.com.

Jill Wells Heath — Tar Heel of the Week

Born: Aug. 31, 1964, in Goldsboro

Residence: Raleigh

Professional: CEO of CALYX Engineers and Consultants

Education: Wayne Community College

Distinctions: She was the fourth female in 127 years to chair the board of directors of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. She also serves on the Wake Tech Foundation Board and the YMCA of the Triangle board of directors.

Family: One son and a Greyhound, Ruby

Fun fact: She owns a 73-acre farm in Bear Creek.