As 2012 winds up and the new year approaches, I'm sitting here in my office reflecting on lessons learned. I thought I would share them with you, with the idea that maybe you can learn from my experience.
Lesson number one: You don't want to make enemies. It's taken me a long time to learn this one. When I was young, I didn't mind making anyone mad. In fact, sometimes I think I might even have done it deliberately, almost like a sport. But I have since learned that you never want anyone out there wishing you ill. It just isn't worth it! Every friend can help you at some point – you cannot even predict how. So my motto now, more than ever, is "I don't want any enemies." And I will take that further and say do favors for people with no expectation of return and you'll probably get a tenfold return. This applies to clients, vendors, consultants, and employees.
Lesson number two: Too much debt is crushing. When I came back to ZweigWhite in 2010 (after selling the company in its entirety in 2004), it was a mess. Not only did the private equity firm that bought us throw away every strategy and practice that made us successful, they also ran off all the good people we had. I came back to a shell of a company – the hollowed-out core of something I once birthed but was now almost entirely unfamiliar. The biggest problem, though, was debt. This company owed more than twice its annual revenues! If that's not crazy I don't know what is. In any case, we cut costs – cut everything, really. We added back some revenue when we bought back CE News, Structural Engineer, and RAI after they had been split off from us a few years back. Then this year, we got a new lender to step in and take out our old lender and my business partner for us, which, in the process, greatly reduced our completely unmanageable debt. Debt is crushing – it's debilitating. How the University of Arkansas hired a coach who is insolvent and owes more than $40 million is beyond me. You can't do your job when you owe too much. It is paralyzing.
Lesson number three: Work with your people! You cannot appreciate enough those who stick with you through thick and thin. And they need to be rewarded for that. Part of that "reward" in my mind includes tolerance for their outbursts or bad behavior or lack of political awareness. I believe in rewarding hard work, high quality, intelligence, creativity, and stick-to-it-iveness. And I also think companies should share a certain amount of their profits with all team members.
Lesson number four: Do the right thing. Every day, you are confronted with choices. You can do what's easy, or what's best for you right now, or you can do the right thing. The more times you pick "right thing," the better off you'll be and the better your reputation will be. Here's the bottom line: You can lose all of your money and all of your clients and all of your employees, but if your reputation is intact you can win all of that back and then some. It's been proven time and time again in the engineering world and outside of it.
Lesson number five: If in doubt, follow lesson number four.
I hope all of you have some time with your loved ones this holiday season. And meanwhile, enjoy our December issue of CE News.
Mark C. Zweig