Planning for good times

September 2010 » Columns » RISKY BUSINESS
John P. Bachner

It’s September or later as you read this … but late July as I write it. Your economy is probably not robust, but getting there — better than mine right now. And as the economy improves, civil engineers should be in the forefront, thanks to government funding of much-needed infrastructure improvements, and the growing decay of our infrastructure that makes government-funded improvement so essential.

If your business has been great all along, you may not need to read this column. You’ve probably been applying best practices to achieve the right client mix such as organizations in mining and alternative energy, or the right project mix such as levees and earthen dams. But if that’s not the case, you’ve probably learned that getting sued by some cranky client is far from being the only risk you face in business. Just ask the good folks who five years ago were riding high thanks to the housing market — which brings up a good point.

Let’s say your firm used to derive a good portion of its income from the residential sector. Are you still looking forward to it turning the corner? Are you hoping your old clients will return? If so, that’s too bad. What you really should be thankful for is the opportunity to change, because of all the markets civil engineers serve, residential — especially single-family residential and condominiums — is about the worst. Quality is often sacrificed for economy and speed by developers that will go out of existence soon after the last unit is sold. Litigation is common and homeowners seldom lose; they have the sympathy of a court system known for reaching into the deep pockets of engineers (whose personal liability makes them long-lived targets) to make injured parties whole. Given all the other markets, why would you put out the welcome mat for residential? Why wouldn’t you look for something better? It’s there … or soon will be.

So let’s talk about other types of civil engineering projects and clients. What’s on tap? Do you know? While research cannot illustrate the future unerringly, it’s a lot better than a Ouija board. How about the public sector? What do your transportation departments plan to do? Can your firm help? And much the same can be said for the public works departments or any other agencies that are responsible for water and wastewater treatment systems, shoreline protection, and so on. Given everything we’ve been through, don’t you want to focus on those clients and projects that look good for the long haul?

The private sector should have plenty to offer, too. Alternative energy sources will probably remain popular this time because, goodness knows, finding petroleum is becoming a lot more costly. And what about those private-public partnerships? We’ll probably be hearing a lot more about those. (Has California announced it will rely on China to design, build, and finance the state’s new high-speed rail system?) What have you done to get your firm involved? “We’re too small” is not an excuse. Let the bigger firms know who you are; that you have the expertise and experience to provide assistance when they need it. And don’t wait. Good times encourage a lot more start-ups and a lot more competition.

And don’t forget the C-level folks — the CEOs, COOs, CFOs, and others who work in the private sector’s penthouse. How do you plan to contact them? Cold calls? Mailers? Get serious. With few exceptions, each one of them is involved in one or two important community organizations, and many of those organizations could benefit from your involvement to provide guidance on issues related to engineering and help with resolving those that don’t. C-level folks can be extremely important; you’re not going to meet them doing your day job.

And speaking of jobs, where are you going to get personnel given that all of your competitors will be looking for good people, too? Are you well-networked in your local professional community? Do you know talented individuals — such as those who work with you on committees — who have indicated they may be interested in a new challenge? And what about the college professors who could let you know about particularly good students getting ready to enter the job market? What have you done to let the professors know who you are and, better yet, to owe you a favor or two.

Here’s a fact: Firms that have been applying best practices for five years or longer are in good shape right now. Sure, some of them were hurt by the recession, but they were prepared for it; they knew how to deal with it. And the others … what recession? I know this because best practices are what ASFE is all about. ASFE members don’t wait for good times; they make them. You can, too.

Stop waiting. Start doing.

John P. Bachner is the executive vice president of ASFE/The Geoprofessional Business Association, a not-for-profit association of geoprofessional firms — firms that provide geotechnical, geologic, environmental, construction materials engineering and testing (CoMET), and related professional services. ASFE develops programs, services, and materials that its members apply to achieve excellence in their business and professional practices. Bachner can be contacted at john@asfe.org.


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