Full service engineering with an eye on evolving
Sepi Asefnia is the President and Founder of SEPI Engineering & Construction, a full service civil engineering, surveying, planning and construction management firm started in 2001.
Before starting her own business, Asefnia worked for the state government for eleven years, and then at a consulting firm for four years. The firm was small, and Asefnia knew she craved a leadership role in a much larger organization. She had recruiters find her other job opportunities, which ended up being based in Texas and in Florida. After visiting both states, Asefnia decided leaving North Carolina was not a move she wanted to make.
Colleagues began to encourage her to start her own engineering firm. The idea was frightening to Asefnia, but exhilarating as well.
“I felt very unprepared, and I felt I didn’t have enough tools in my tool box to do this. I gave it a lot of thought and I said, ‘Well, at the end of the day, I really want to challenge myself. That’s my purpose here,’ she relates.
Asefnia says that as a licensed professional engineer, she knew she could always get a job working for somebody else, but was sure she wanted to take the risk of going out on her own. A quote she came across from Eleanor Roosevelt aptly addressed her feelings at the time: “We gain strength and courage and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face… we must do that which we think we cannot.”
“I felt like there was nothing at the time that would be scarier to me, and I really felt that that’s when you really learn,” Asefnia explains. “When you really push your limits and try to go where you have no familiarity with that territory, and I said to myself, ‘I cannot learn by not doing this. By just watching, I cannot learn anything, and nobody knows about this without starting it.’
Asefnia began by turning a bedroom at home into an office and by structuring her days in a disciplined manner.
“I bought office furniture, and I would get up in the morning and my kids were small at the time. I would really dress like I’m going to work, put them on the school bus, and go to my office and work. I would try to always have a lunch meeting so I would get out of the house, and then come back and work. Once the kids went back to sleep, I worked again.”
The pace of development was a rapid one. After six months at home, Asefnia rented an office and hired her first employees six months after that.
Today, SEPI Engineering & Construction works in the local, state, and federal government markets, in addition to education and health care. In the beginning, the firm worked chiefly with the state government, but they have diversified in the past ten years, and their work is now spread 60% in state government, 30% in federal and 10% in education.
“I’d like to change to increase our federal to a larger percent,” says Asefnia. “I’d like for us to be 50% in federal, actually, because where we’re geographically located, there’s a lot of opportunities with the military bases in North Carolina, and it’s a market that has a great deal of potential, and it’s much more stable, in general, than other markets because of the various needs that they have.”
SEPI Engineering & Construction currently has 72 employees and two offices, one in Raleigh and a smaller one in Charlotte, which focuses on surveying, site design, and construction inspection. Asefnia says her company has a very strong leadership team of seasoned professionals in place.
“They’ve all been in the industry and have reputations and relationships. That was intentional because we’re a young firm,” she says. “I needed to bring very strong leaders in the company to be able to bring current relationships and knowledge of the industry.”
Asefnia notes that in the current economy, projects and work are not as readily available and this is a challenge. She explains that many competitive engineering firms had been very focused on private developer work and when that dried up recently, those firms then moved in to compete directly with SEPI Engineering & Construction’s client market.
Due to state government’s budget issues, the company’s work in the education market stagnated. There were no new projects or schools being built, and this caused Sepi Engineering to go after markets that historically they wouldn’t pursue, such as fire stations and banks.
Asefnia explains that one has to work harder and be more clever in finding opportunities now.
“You really have to be strategic,” she says. “It doesn’t just come. It used to be that you would pick up the phone, or you would submit for proposal, your chances of getting it would be much easier.”
Undaunted, Asefnia looks toward the future of her business and the opportunities that are there. She says she wants to grow significantly in the next three to five years, especially in the federal market including infrastructure work, as well as Army and Air Force contracts.
Asefnia advises other business owners starting out to have a broad mindset regarding the use of their time.
“Don’t pigeon-hole yourself to the particular thing that you are working on,” she says. “Because everything you do, everything you come across, you can look at the world as if all of this can be a learning opportunity. Whether it’s focusing on mingling with people at the soccer field, because your kids are in soccer. All of those pieces of information you gather help you become a better business person. Don’t just focus on what you’re doing.”
Engineering might not be considered the most progressive field, but Asefnia strives to alter that reputation in her own firm.
“We’re always evolving, we’re always trying to gather information to get better, to find new ways of doing the same thing in a better way,” she says. “I hardly would venture to say, if you talk to any employee we have, that they would say that they had been bored, because we’re always dynamic and changing, and finding new projects, new markets, new ways of doing things. So, it’s moving. Always moving and evolving.”