By Ellen Jensen, Contributing Writer, The Kansas City Business Journal
Sonia Garapaty grew up with her father’s business, Fire Sprinkler Consultants Inc., which Hasu Doshi formed in 1979.
The business was like another sibling, an invisible presence at the dinner table, and Garapaty and her sister spent many Saturday afternoons in the office, drawing pictures. She became familiar with employees’ names and met many of them at the annual holiday party.
In 1994, Doshi changed the name to FSC Inc. when he added a division providing mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) engineering services. Although FSC was always a part of Garapaty, she didn’t start working there until 2005.
Several years ago, Doshi had reached a crossroads with FSC: Should he wind down and sell, or ramp up and grow?
“Hasu and I had always talked about my joining the company, but I kept putting off the decision because I was enjoying my own career in Dallas,” Garapaty said.
Armed with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Kansas and the University of Texas at Dallas, respectively, she pursued a telecommunications career.
“After I had my second child, I felt like it was time to join the business,” she said. “That whole family legacy thing started sinking in.”
Finding her place was tough at first. She had to reinvent her professional identity and gain technical experience. She built new relationships and contacts while trying to learn how to run a business, and being the boss’s daughter, she had to build credibility and gain the trust of employees and customers.
She found her niche using her client relations and problem-solving experience to take on business development, something FSC had been lacking.
Officially, Garapaty is vice president of FSC Inc. and president of subsidiary FSC MEP Engineers LLC. Unofficially, she is a jack-of-all-trades.
She oversees operations, recruitment, marketing and business development. Her project manager duties include scheduling, invoicing and ensuring that deadlines are met. She also is the go-to person when conflict arises. Doshi remains CEO of FSC. His role is to develop high-level strategy, make big corporate decisions and oversee finances.
Growth by acquisition
When Garapaty joined FSC, her focus was on growth. She attended seminars and conferences to learn but also so people would associate her face with FSC. She built new relationships and added those her father had established. One of her first changes was starting a code consulting division in 2005.
In the past three years, she has been instrumental in the growth from 17 to 52 employees, but it didn’t come easily or the way she had envisioned.
“I wanted to grow but couldn’t find employees to come work for us,” Garapaty said.
She tried to recruit with competitive salaries and benefits equal to some larger com
panies but without much success. Most wanted to work for a larger company, where they felt they had a future.
“It was frustrating,” she said. “For every 10 offers, I got one. I couldn’t hire employees, and I needed manpower to win bigger projects, so we decided to grow by acquisition and by partnership.”
In 2005, the MEP division merged with a local MEP firm to create FSC MEP Engineers, FSC’s first subsidiary. Last year, FSC partnered with Henderson Engineers Inc. to provide engineering services on the Schlitterbahn Vacation Village project. Garapaty found out about Schlitterbahn while at the 2007 MidAmerica Minority Business Development Council’s Business Opportunity Fair. Although FSC qualifies as a minority-owned business (MBE), Garapaty’s goal is to offer such good service that the MBE status becomes secondary.
“It has been easy for us to interact with FSC in a greater capacity than simply meeting the minimum MBE requirement,” said Drew Rimmer, vice president of Henderson Engineers. “They have a deep pride in their work, which aligns well with our work ethic.”
In 2006, FSC opened a facility in India to produce drawings as an extension of the U.S. office. Because of the time difference, FSC can work on projects nearly 24 hours a day, delivering the finished product faster. The challenge is enforcing a consistent and uniform work culture among all employees.
FSC cross-trains between the two countries and educates employees about cultural differences. The family unit is very strong in India, Doshi said. They often receive requests from employees who need one to two weeks off because a family member is getting married.
“We’re not used to that here in the United States,” Garapaty said. “We have projects due, but family comes first over there. As a business owner, it’s hard, but in most cases, we let them have the time off.”
FSC also has to get backup or juggle schedules to accommodate the 20 holidays it grants to accommodate the three main religions in India, she said.
In September 2007, FSC merged with Kansas City-based Bredson + Associates Inc. and renamed it FSC Bredson. In October 2007, FSC began providing MEP services in India in partnership with a local company.
“Forming the partnership added the ‘Indianization’ to the design,” Garapaty said.
For example, FSC is working on prototypes of Bharti-Wal-Mart stores in India. The two offices split the work so that the U.S. office designs for Wal-Mart’s expectations, and the Indian office translates those expectations into drawings Indian contractors are used to seeing. The stores are a joint venture between Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Bharti Enterprises.
FSC designates a stateside engineer and principal to communicate with a project manager in India. The company has 45 U.S.-based employees and seven in India.
Despite the benefits, combining the cultures and procedures of several companies has been a big challenge. To help the transitions go smoothly, FSC combines the best aspects of each company’s culture and procedures, so no company has had to sacrifice everything.
“Mergers also give a great excuse to introduce a shift in company culture, taking the best ideas and incorporating them into our culture,” Garapaty said.
Garapaty has incorporated team-building activities, such as foosball and dart tournaments. In addition, she sends everybody to leadership training.
“You can learn to understand employees’ strengths and weaknesses and build on those to get what you want out of them,” Garapaty said. “If you present things the right way, you can get more out of an employee.”
Although someday Garapaty will take over FSC entirely, neither she nor her father is in any hurry. Garapaty is taking every opportunity to learn from Doshi during the transition into a leadership role. For his part, Doshi is pleased with the energy and fresh ideas his daughter has brought to the business.
“I enjoy teaching, and Sonia is like a sponge,” Doshi said. “I enjoy working with her. My plan is to move toward retirement slowly. I will be involved as long as she wants me to be.”