If I were starting a firm today....

December 2005 » Columns » BEYOND WORDS
Being in the next phase of my career, i.e., semi-retirement, gives me plenty of time to reflect. A frequent thought is what I would do if I were starting a new civil engineering firm today.
Mark Zweig

Being in the next phase of my career, i.e., semi-retirement, gives me plenty of time to reflect. A frequent thought is what I would do if I were starting a new civil engineering firm today. Here are some of my thoughts, in no particular order of importance:

I would budget (and spend) about 15 percent of my net service revenue on marketing. I know that's a lot, but under-funding marketing has slowed down more firms in this business than anything else. I would come roaring out of the starting gate with an in-your-face public relations campaign, a customer relationship management system that was well-populated with prospective clients, and a high-frequency direct mail campaign with postcards and personal letters. I'd also have a simple, memorable name and good graphic design that was reflected on every sign, plan, presentation, direct-mail piece, and more.

I would be very slow to add more owners, beyond perhaps one or two key partners. It's taken me a long time, but I have learned that a lot of folks in this business don't really value ownership.

They just want the cash, and I'd rather give them what they want. Cash is cheaper than stock, which appreciates wildly—and my stock would because I'd have a firm that was growing like mad.

Plus, having more owners inevitably translates into more meetings, and I hate sitting in internal company meetings. Little is more boring and less productive. In general, the more owners, the more complicated things get, and the slower decision-making is.

I would hire for personality and train for skills. You cannot change most people's behavior. That said, you can teach a teachable person how to do something. Think about it. I have had too many people work for me over the years who have had a lot of specific skills but didn't have the personality attributes to succeed over the long haul. Conversely, I have been blessed with many great employees who had soft skills, intellect, and strength of character to succeed with few of the basic skills to do what we needed them to do. Employees in this group learn quickly and adapt to new situations easily. The others either get run off or quit. You can't grow a firm if you can't keep the right people working in it.

I would be incredibly flexible with my work rules. Today, everyone has a lot to do, both at home and work. I would go overboard to accommodate the life schedules of my good workers so we could afford to keep the best of them. Of course, nothing comes free. Those who can't work the hours we want them to might make less—but we'd all be happier about it.

I would get a Blackberry PDA for everyone who wants one and some of those who don't. I heard a little while back that a study concluded Blackberry wireless devices pay for themselves in less than one month! I don't doubt this at all. And, as far as I am concerned, every manager must have one. This would not be optional because, without one, certain people will fall behind and be less responsive. I know there are people who don't want to be reachable 24 hours a day, but they aren't cut out for management and leadership jobs in a high-growth firm.

I would have an open-book firm. Everyone would know how we are doing and exactly how they would benefit personally from that success. Such a culture takes great accounting, and I would be sure to have the systems it takes, along with the qualified accounting person, to implement and maintain the system.

I would charge a premium for my firm's services. The only strategy that really makes sense for a professional services firm is one of high quality and high price. You cannot hire good people, pay them well, market yourself effectively, and invest in your business without the funds coming in to do so. It takes high prices to succeed. The only way to get high prices is to market yourself as a quality service firm, to be a quality provider, and, finally, to keep doing these things until you get out of the business! Firms that are trying to be the lowest-cost providers in their market sectors are destined for failure.

I would decide when I am going to get out before I even started. Everyone in the firm would know the plan from the start.

I would ensure the firm's success after my departure by having good people, great systems, and a well-known brand name that results in clients seeking out the firm, instead of vice-versa.

No doubt, there are many lessons one could employ if starting over again. But wait, these things could all be worked into an ongoing firm as well! If these lessons make sense to you, what's to stop you from implementing them now?

Mark Zweig is founder and principal of ZweigWhite.


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