When you’ve built a nationally respected civil engineering firm with more than 100 employees, earned dozens of professional accolades, and you unabashedly love what you do, how do you let it go and transition into retirement?
When you’re Judy Nitsch (center in photo above), founder of Nitsch Engineering, you do it with the same careful planning and foresight that made her Boston-based firm so successful.
“You can’t wait until you’re 65 to think about what’s next when you own a business,” Judy says. She credits her involvement with the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC), an organization that focuses on the business side of running an engineering firm, for getting her to look ahead early on.
“One of the things they stressed was ownership transition,” she says, which she started researching shortly after starting her company in 1989. “In 1993, I sold ten percent of the company to my first employee, another woman engineer—today’s she’s the chairman and CEO! Several years later, two more employees wanted to buy in, so we hired an ownership transition consultant to help us develop a plan so I could be bought out and create a shareholder agreement that was fair to sellers and buyers.
“The consultant put together a plan with us that took me from 90 percent ownership down to zero by the time I turned 65,” she explains. “The idea was to share the profits via annual bonuses with those who are helping the firm to be profitable, and they then would use a portion of that to invest in the business and buy out the founder. It worked like clockwork; it took 17 years and the firm has 29 shareholders today.”
Once the ownership and leadership transitions were well underway, Judy planned to work half time for five years before stepping away altogether. During that time, she focused on client relations and business development—her strong suit. “I had a six-word job description: be the ambassador for the firm,” she says.
Part of Judy’s desire to downshift starting at age 60 was so she could spend more time with her husband, who was 20 years older. Sadly, he died two years before she intended to adopt her half-time schedule. Judy nevertheless stayed on track with her retirement plans. “I had made promises to people in the company, and I’m not one to go back on my word,” she says.
“No fooling!” read the headline of the press release announcing her retirement on April 1 of this year—reflecting Judy’s style and humor. A big client and employee party was planned for the week before—by early March, more than 430 attendees had RSVP’d with another 300+ not yet heard from. But Massachusetts went on COVID-19 lockdown, so everyone in her firm began working remotely (“I never got to finish cleaning out my office and say goodbye to all of our employees”) and her party was rescheduled for early June (and may be rescheduled again).
How hard has it been to step away from the business that she built?
“While I loved the work—I was a rainmaker and worked hard at getting the company name out to people we wanted to work with—it’s really the people I’ll miss the most,” she says.
But it’s not as if she woke up on April 2 with nothing to do. She keeps her professional muscles flexed by serving as vice chair of the Boston Architectural College Board of Trustees (her late husband’s alma mater). She’s an emerita trustee at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (her alma mater) where she mentors more than a dozen students (she’s passionate about paying it forward and opening doors for female engineers). She’s an outside director for a Philadelphia-based engineering firm and an architecture/planning firm in Baltimore. She’s a trustee of Eastern Bank. And she’s co-chair of her church’s master plan committee, heading its construction projects.
On the personal side, she’s committed to getting back into good physical shape and retained a wellness coach to keep her accountable.
“I work with a trainer three times a week and while we’re homebound, I’ve added two days of yoga each week,” she says. “I had a goal to weigh at my retirement party what I weighed when I started the firm, and I made it—losing 28 pounds. Now I have a new goal—to lose another 10 pounds by my rescheduled party. That’ll be harder because I’m trying to social distance myself from the Girl Scout cookies in my pantry!”
Judy is also in her church’s handbell choir, plays piano, and takes weekly voice lessons. In addition, she loves to entertain and hosts themed dinner parties, family celebrations, and large industry events in her home.
Does she ever kick back and relax? Yes—and she’s got a plan for that.
“I’ve had a goal for the past four years to go on a nice vacation every quarter and go to Italy annually—and I’ve done that,” she says, admitting that before then, she’d been forfeiting her unused vacation time because “when you own a business, there’s always something to do.” Once it’s safe to travel again, she plans to do more of it.
She’s also happy to simply wake up without an alarm and linger over the newspaper with a second cup of coffee.
“Looking ahead, it’s a little scary, to be honest,” Judy reflects. “I had such structure and focus when I was working.” But she admits that she has a one-and-a-half-page to-do list she’s tackling during the quarantine.
She also feels some trepidation about facing this stage of life without her husband.
“He was my biggest fan, and when something great happens or shit happens, you want to talk about it with someone,” she says. “It’s also hard to travel alone; fortunately, I have a lot of friends and a sister who like to travel.
“But I’m lucky that I don’t have to worry about money,” Judy continues. “Because I had an ownership transition plan, I can afford to do things, and to be more philanthropic than ever before in my life.”
And this is the essence of her advice to other women who are contemplating retirement, particularly business owners:
“Make sure you have a plan,” she says. “As the saying goes, ‘you don’t plan to fail; you fail to plan.’ We’re not invincible and we’re not going to live forever. The business transition planning helps you leave the legacy you want. The financial planning gives you the freedom to do the things you want to do. The personal planning helps you figure out what those things are.
“[A fulfilling retirement] won’t happen just because you want it to,” she adds. “You’ve got to figure out what’s going to make you happy, have a plan, and work it.”
What do you think? What aspects of Judy’s approach to retirement resonate with you—and why? Please share!
PHOTO CAPTION: Judy Nitsch (center) vacationing with friends in bella Italia.