Employee compensation partially is based on pay per performance, as measured by profitability, responsibility and technical skills, in addition to an employee's ability to generate repeat business and train and mentor staff members.

"Every employee has a stake, so it shouldn't come as a surprise we're going to go that extra mile to provide clients the best product we can, knowing the results ultimately will flow back to us," says Newland.

Client contact is ongoing. In March 2011, the firm launched "Connect With Us," an initiative to continue client conversations across several platforms, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube and employee blogs. "Our daily blogs drive 10% of our Web traffic," says Kevin Fox, Burns & McDonnell senior marketing and communications manager. "They're the bread crumbs that bring people back to us."

Social media is just one aspect of a broader, integrated approach to cultivating relations with clients, prospects and potential recruits. "E-mail plays a role, webinars play a role, our website plays a role," says Fox. "Unless you integrate all those various channels, you're simply occupying space."

The key, he says, is staying on message, but in a manner appropriate to the platform. "We're also aware that communications can't be all about us," says Fox. Accordingly, the firm ascribes to a formula known as 4-1-1. For every four communications of general interest it issues, it generates one about engineering and another specific to the firm itself. "It's like television," says Fox. "You generate valuable content, but also get in your advertisement."

Its website currently generates 15 to 20 solid business inquiries per week, says Fox. "We get everything from 'We'd like you to respond to this RFP' to 'I once worked on a project with so-and-so—is he still employed there?'"

The results speak for themselves. Firm CEO Greg Graves "has a saying that goes, 'Recession at Burns & McDonnell is when we're steady or slightly growing,'" says Washam. More typically, growth clips along at an annual rate of 8% to 10%.

In any given year, 80% to 90% of its work involves repeat business. Employee turnover is less than 4%, among the reasons Fortune magazine ranked the firm No. 26 last year in its annual listing of The 100 Best Companies to Work For. This year, the firm cracked the Top 20, ranking No. 18., with Fortune noting, "On the first working day of every January, they mark the anniversary of their ownership by having officers and managers serve a bowl of hot chili to employees."

Now that word is out, Burns & McDonnell's "culture of ownership" is making it easier for the firm to recruit experienced, highly qualified employees.

Among other recruitment tools, YouTube videos feature interns discussing their experiences at Burns & McDonnell. In one segment, former intern Jimmy Becker, now an assistant mechanical engineer with the firm, says, "Each employee has a stake in every project they're working on, and you can sense that—people coming in early and staying late and working extremely hard. I had the opportunity to do an internship at another company before I interned at Burns & McDonnell—completely different mind-set."