How to be a Top Tier A&E Firm

The majority of A&E firms will concur that 2017 and 2018 have been stellar years for the industry.  Opportunities have been abundant, and economists are telling us that it is likely that the momentum will continue into next year.  With this high volume in the AEC industry, profits are up and we know from industry survey data that the current median profit percentage across all A&E firms in the last year has risen to about 15% depending on your size and geographic and industry markets.  This means that half of all A&E firms have profits below 15% and half are above 15%. In fact, the top 5% of A&E firms in North America are at 30% – we refer to these as the Top Tier firms. Our mission is to help our clients maximize the potential of their teams and achieve this status in their specific niches.      With these higher profits it is easier to attract and hire the most talented team, grow faster through acquisition or organically, and give shareholder and employee owners a much higher level of return.  What is keeping 95% of the firms in the market from achieving this top tier status?  We have researched and assessed over a hundred firms … Continued

QK Finds Lost Dollars with Profit-Enhancing Employee Development Program

“While I have always been concerned for the client, the company, project performance and profits, as an engineer my focus has always been on the technical aspect of the work. This focus on quality and technical excellence will never change. What has changed, however, is my behavior and focus on how the technical discipline and the project management disciplines are inextricably tied. By changing the way I look at and value project management, I am helping my company serve our clients better AND Find Lost Dollars!” – Lisa Wallis-Dutra QK, originally Quad Knopf, has been helping clients build great communities and healthy environments for more than 40 years. Based in California and founded in 1972, QK was built on five distinct areas of expertise that work together to make the built environment possible. Their creative professionals specialize in engineering design and construction management, survey and GIS, urban design and landscape architecture, biology and environmental permitting and planning. Issues affecting low profits and stalled growth In early 2017, the executives at QK realized that their strategic purpose, “one connected team, working in partnership, to make the … Continued

10 Strategies to Boost Employee Retention

The number one challenge stated by our clients right now is hiring and retaining employees. Because finding experienced employees is so difficult in the A&E industry, many firms are getting creative with their compensation plans, benefits, profit-sharing and other tactics to engage and retain their existing client. What Does it Cost to Lose an Employee?  Statistics show that losing an employee costs the average employer about six to nine months salary. For a $50,000 person that is about $25,000 to $37,500 for one person. And in fact, it can cost over 200% of salary for an executive level person.   These figures are mostly based on finding, replacing and training the new employee, however there are many other hidden costs such as:  Decreased client satisfaction  Employees taking clients and other employees with them  Ramp-up time to get the new person up to speed  Project issues and rework due to loss of continuity and teamwork  Loss of staff engagement  Having to turn work away due to lack of capacity  Losing the employee’s knowledge of clients and projects  Obviously, this is a huge expense that most firms want to avoid, yet many firms are still finding that the average tenure … Continued

10 Dirty Secrets of the Best A&E Firms

The Architecture, Engineering and Environmental industry is as hot as it has ever been in my 30-year tenure, yet even when work is booming, I still find even the best A&E firms struggle to meet targets in any given month, quarter or year. So many factors impact the success of a firm, including some institutional “dirty little secrets” that plague the firm’s growth, retention and profits. These are the bad habits, cultural discretions and unintentional results of focus on fast growth causing leaders’ sleepless night, and employees’ endless frustration. If they exist, they are also undermining the future success of your firm by eroding client confidence and loyalty, handicapping your best performers, and deteriorating your firm’s great reputation and ability to invest strategically. What Can be Done to Clean Up the Dirty Secrets? While fixing these problems is not easy, it is critical to overcoming plateaus in growth, and enabling a small firm to grow into a mid-size or large firm. The good news – these dirty secrets can be reversed and overcome! But first you need to acknowledge they exist. By first recognizing, and … Continued

The Blessing and the Curse of Being So Busy

The Architecture and Engineering industry is busier right now than it has been in a long time. This is great for your firm – right? I talk with at least 5 to 10 A&E firm CEOs a week, and their results are surprisingly mixed. While it is obviously a booming market for services, being busy does not necessarily translate into high employee performance, recruiting success or project profitability. How Can you Position Your Firm for Success in this Market? Every economic market provides us opportunities and obstacles, yet many firms run on autopilot, assuming that the dynamics of making money and growing are the same in up or down economies. This approach assumes that the opportunities will be obvious and take care of themselves, and that is not usually the case. To be successful in a fast-paced business climate, it’s imperative to position your people, strategies and decisions to recognize opportunities when they present themselves, and be agile enough to move quickly to take advantage of them. Likewise, we need to prepare for an inevitable future downshift and availability of work, and the hidden opportunities … Continued

Why Some A&E Firms Make More Money Than Others

Many A&E firms come to me because their profits are too low, not hitting expected targets, and barely enabling the firm to grow. In most cases, their projects are making a profit – just not at the levels expected or needed. The leaders of these firms are frustrated, and want to know – what do we have to do to get to the top 10% of firms in the industry? By getting to spend quality time with the executive team of over 700 A&E firms over the last 28 years, with confidential access to their key financial indicators (KPIs), I was able to see a huge variation in the profit margins from one to another. While some firms struggle to hit 8% profit, others are sailing along with consistent profit margins over 30%, and in some cases, in excess of 40%! What Profit Should You Be Making? While these higher margins are much more expected and targeted in most other professional services industries, the average architecture, engineering, environmental and Geotech consulting firm is targeting 13% to 15%, and lower if 100% of their work is … Continued

10 Keys to Increasing Utilization

  The employee utilization rate is one of a handful of key performance indicators (KPIs) used by A&E firms to measure the ability of the firm to keep employees working on billable projects.Your employees are your firm’s primary asset and optimizing their performance and use of their time will make the difference between low or high project profit margins. For a 100-person A&E firm, just a 1% increase in utilization is about $225,000 in additional revenue per year. Firms are the busiest they’ve been in over a decade, so I have to ask, If everyone is so busy, why do so many firms struggle to hit utilization targets? So why do so many firms fail to hit utilization targets and keep their billable staff fully utilized? There are really only a handful of reasons that utilization is not optimized: Poor and/or Inaccurate Time Management Lack of Direction / Focus on Non-Billable Time Lack of Scheduling Processes Inability to Forecast Poor Communication with Staff Insufficient Scrutiny / Approval of Time Not Enough Work 10 Keys to Increasing Your Utilization Now Hitting utilization targets involves careful attention … Continued

Tolerating Mediocrity – What is the Cost?

  When we close our eyes and dream of the ideal business and team of employees, we imagine a world where there are no conflicts, everyone is a top performer, and we never have to give negative feedback. Not all employees are created equal But the reality is that not all employees are created equal. We all start out hiring people because we believe they are a good fit, have the right skill sets and experience, and we like them. I am assuming this since most of us don’t hire people we don’t like. After we hire them, we start to give them assignments, and within a few months, realize they are everything we hoped they would be, or not. This is the critical point in an employee’s tenure with us that often determines how the rest of their employment will go. If we accept a lower level of quality, attitude or competence than we need or expect, we set ourselves up for mediocrity with the employee. The worst part is – the primary problem is what we are not doing rather than what we … Continued

Turning Around an Underperforming Team

Are you frustrated because not every team in your firm is hitting their goals or performing at their highest level? Unfortunately you may have groups that struggle to be profitable, have high turnover, or don’t embrace your firm’s culture. It can be difficult to hold remote offices and project leaders’ accountable, and even figure out what is going wrong. There are many options to attacking the problem of an underperforming team including replacing team leadership, closing a remote office, or other intensive measures. Very often an office is opened or a new team assembled in order to accomplish one of the firm’s strategic goals such as breaking into a new market, geography or client. Depending on how the group was created – from breaking off from another successful division, to an acquisition, to a key strategic hire, many things can cause a group or remote office to underachieve. Measuring Team (Under)Performance In measuring the performance of our groups or teams, we often look at revenue or profit goals, but it is also important to understand the other key metrics behind the scenes that are causing the group … Continued

10 Ways to Knock it Out of the Park in 2018

“If you’re going to play at all, you’re out to win. Baseball, board games, playing Jeopardy, I hate to lose.” – Derek Jeter 2017 had many ups and downs but overall was a good business year for the A&E industry. From the indicators I am seeing, the number of cranes everywhere you go, and the promise of huge infrastructure investment coming, 2018 may prove to be another great year for those of us that depend on Design and Construction spending. At the beginning of every year I try and define 10 key strategies that our clients can follow to ensure success in the coming year. If you know me, you know that I love sports. Not much gets me more excited than a competitive game. I decided to go with a baseball theme for this year’s annual article. I’ve become a huge Washington Nationals fan in the last few years, which requires having to endure a roller-coaster of wins and losses. I am fascinated at how some teams always seem to be in the playoffs, and others struggle to get to a 500 season. If … Continued

Why Accountability is NOT a Dirty Word

I was meeting with an engineering client recently that was explaining his firm’s culture. He said, “Accountability is a dirty word around here. We don’t measure anyone or have any consequences because we don’t like to punish people.” That statement stopped me in my tracks. No accountability at all? In fact, this large firm (over 500 employees) has no measurements at the individual level. They don’’t even have measurements at the business unit level. The only financial information that is published or reviewed is at the firm level. This caused me to step back and think about how hard it might be to work there. Certainly, there were top performers, mediocre performers and some team members that were bottom performers. But they have no way to figure that out, decide who to bonus or promote, or even figure out who to let go. I believe this is a detriment to the firm, the top performing employees, and even the clients. I had to ask a few questions: Question: Do you want to be the best you can be? Answer: Yes, of course. Question: How do … Continued

Building an AEC Firm: It’s a Business, Not a Hobby

After 30 years as a Principal in the firm KCCT Architects in Washington, DC, Tom Twohey recently retired at the age of 79. Tom was one of the founding partners in the firm, and my client for the last 22 years. Unlike most architects, Tom had a business mind, and managed the firm’s finances as they grew from four partners in John Chapman’s house in 1983, to a successful Connecticut Avenue firm of just under 50 employees today. I was fortunate to get the opportunity to sit down with Tom recently in his South Riding, Va. home, and record the fascinating story of his career and world travels. After graduating from Berkeley in 1957, Tom got an entry level architectural job making a few bucks an hour. He worked in several places, including a period of time working for himself. This was his first exposure to business management. In 1969 while working at Rex Whitaker Allen in San Francisco, Tom was sent to Cambridge, MA to start a new office. Rex Allen was teaming with Hugh Stubbins to renovate the Boston City Hospital. That is where Tom met his wife and life-long companion … Continued

How to Strategically Grow and Retain Your Best Clients

  Trying to get work in the door can be a challenging process for A&E firms, and many may be missing the easiest opportunity of all. Getting more work from existing clients! You may assume that your clients are giving you all the work they have, but what if they aren’t? What if they don’t even know everything your firm is capable of? Are Your Business Development Efforts Strategically Focused I frequently see business development effort focused on getting new business while ignoring the greatest asset the firm has – it’s existing clients. Research done by Frederick Reichheld of Bain & Company (the inventor of the net promoter score) shows increasing customer retention rates by 5% increases profits by 25% to 95%. And it is well known that it can cost 5 to 10 times more to acquire a new client than it does to retain an existing one. While many A&E firms rate themselves as having excellent client relationships, the truth is that much of that is by accident. Only a small percentage of firms actually have a documented and strategic initiative to retain and grow … Continued

6 Steps to Find the Lost Dollars in Your A&E Firm

In my book Find the Lost Dollars: 6 Steps to Increase Profits in Architecture, Engineering, and Environmental Firms, I conclude with a final chapter that outlines the six steps that can guide you towards increasing your firm’s profitability. This article will summarize that chapter, as well as give you some success principles for ensuring that desired changes and improvements do not lose their momentum and die before being implemented. Change is inevitable and necessary in all businesses. If you are not able to adapt to changes in the economy, marketing, technology, and availability of human resources, you will find your profits dwindling, and your ability to retain your most talented employees diminished. So then why do 70% or more of most change initiatives fail? I argue that the foremost reason that A&E firms fail to grow and improve business operations is lack of a detailed strategy and plan to improve. This article will summarize the six steps that can help you start to identify and implement business improvement initiatives to help you find and recover the lost dollars in your business. 1. Calculate your metrics … Continued

Finding the Lost Dollars™ in Your Civil Engineering Firm Podcast

In today’s post we’re sharing a podcast of an interview of June Jewell by Anthony Fasano of The Engineering Career Coach. >> Click HERE to listen Here are some key points discussed in the podcast: Many engineers are more focused on their technical skills, the quality of their projects and the relationships with their clients and not focused on the money. Sometimes money is the last thing that gets paid attention to when working on a project and by the time you get to the end of the project you find that it wasn’t as profitable as you would hope it would be. Time and materials contracts are one where you bill your client for every hour that you work. Make sure that your billing rates are covering your costs of the project when you are billing clients hourly as a lot of money can get lost on time and materials contracts. The firms that share more financial data and help their managers to understand business and accounting concepts and financial terminology have better project profitability and their employees do a better job of managing … Continued

3 Estimating Lessons to Boost Project Profits

We have all had projects that for some reason did not meet our financial expectations. Overbudget projects happen for many reasons, including bidding on the wrong projects to begin with, underestimating the number of hours needed to successfully complete the project, failing to allow for delays and problems, or just not knowing the client well enough to anticipate what they really wanted.   Not only does your firm lose the profit margin associated with budget overruns, but overruns can also have a negative impact on client relationships and cause stress for your teams as they try and minimize the losses.   A great deal of value can be gained by analyzing past project failures to understand what went wrong, and designing safeguards, processes and approvals to minimize the chances they happen again. The following are three of the most common issues with developing accurate estimates, and some structure and practices you can put in place  to turn prior past project disasters into lessons that add protection for future jobs:   1. Understand the client’s expectations One of the most common problems in accurately developing a … Continued

10 Ways to Prosper in the Uncertainty of 2017

Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future. – John F. Kennedy If there is one thing we all know about 2017 it’s that we have no idea what is going to happen. This will be a year of change and possibly, more surprises. Many of us will be nervous and even fearful of making decisions and investing in growing our businesses as the uncertainty of what lies ahead can be paralyzing. My whole career has been based on helping A&E firms implement change, deal with resistance and determine next steps when uncertainty exists. In fact, I would argue that this is what architecture and engineering are all about – progress, innovation and change. Yet when faced with figuring out how the new world order will impact our companies, many executives play it safe. But is “playing it safe” really safe? The firms that are embracing the new technology focused environment we live in may have an advantage. While the cost can be high, getting ahead of the curve can be … Continued

10 Tips to Survive the Next Recession

Another recession is coming. It is inevitable. Based on past history, it should be next year. But these things are hard to predict, so all I will commit to at this point is that another dip is coming. And we don’t know how bad it will be. What I do know for sure is that a lot of our clients are not thinking about it too much right now. The Architecture and Engineering industry is doing very well. Our clients are growing and hiring and profitability is up for the first time in many years. But it feels like a bubble to me and that is why I am worried that our clients are not doing everything possible to prepare for the eventual downturn. So what can you do to prepare for the next recession? I believe there are at least 10 strategies that you can focus on that will make your company financially and operationally stronger, and enable you to survive possible tough economic times ahead – regardless of whether that is next year or five years from now. Enabling a number of these … Continued

Time is Money: Improve Your Employee Time Management

Time is more valuable than money. You can get more money, but you cannot get more time.  ~Jim Rohn, American Speaker and Author In a professional services business, the expression “time is money” is truly accurate. Your employees’ time is the greatest asset your business has. It needs to be managed with great care, as if each hour of their time is a valuable piece of inventory. Certainly, if you were selling diamonds for a living, you would build a secure storage facility, get armed guards, and buy insurance to protect this valuable asset. However, most firms do not protect their greatest asset—employee time—with this level of care. Employee time is often the most ignored asset in the company. Employees are notorious for complaining about having to do timesheets and often look at it as a cumbersome requirement. I regularly hear that firm principals, even ones who are highly billable, are the biggest violators of the firm policies, and cause the accounting department extra work and little support in trying to get employees to submit timesheets on time. Employee Time Management is Critical to Your … Continued

How to Save your Project Managers Two Hours a Week

  The main complaint I am hearing from A&E firm leaders these days is how they would love to “find more time” for their project managers (PMs). With workloads the highest they’ve been for many years, and talented and experienced PMs difficult to hire, asking PMs to work overtime has become a necessity. The average PM is working 45 to 60 hours a week, and many executives are worried about them burning out and considering leaving for a less stressful position. Multi-faceted Role of Project Managers The PM’s job is a difficult and often frustrating role. More and more responsibilities have been piled on the backs of our PMs as business has become more competitive and great people harder to find. A PM is no longer just responsible for managing the day to day and contractual obligations of the contracts, but also has to help bring work in as a seller-doer; manage the time, billing and collections of the work; and maintain happy client relationships. Many PMs face frustrations in trying to be great in all of these areas, and many others lack the business … Continued

How to Get the Most Value from Investing in AEC Project Management Training

There is a growing trend in the Architecture, Engineering and Construction industries to train project managers (PMs). Reasons include the obvious goal of improved performance – both qualitative and financial. Other reasons are grounded in the many challenges faced by firms today to grow and retain staff, and develop future leaders for eventual leadership transition.  There are many different forms of “Project Management Training” being offered in the AEC industry: online training, classes, seminars, bootcamps, etc. Most of what’s offered to your project leaders and management teams is being grouped into this overall bucket of “Project Management Training” but it isn’t all the same and won’t all add the most value to your firm. Project Management Training is a broad term so when you are looking to purchase or sign up for training, it is important for you to first determine what skills you are looking to teach your staff and to understand the different types of training on the market. Not all training is focused on the same skills – some courses teach technical Project Management skills and others will teach Business Management skills. What is it you want to accomplish? What do your managers need to … Continued

Gannett Fleming Launches “Change is Good” to Spur Increased Growth

  I was fortunate to get the opportunity to sit down with Gannett Fleming President Bob Scaer to discuss the January 1st launch of their major reorganization which he has endearingly named “Change is Good.” As bad a connotation that change has in the A&E industry, Bob has managed to successfully pull off a major re-engineering of the firm’s reporting structure and process, and garnered buy-in at all levels of the organization. This was an 18-month effort that included a large number of Gannett employees, and largely driven by strategic initiatives to grow the firm over the next 10 years. It is easy to instantly get excited when talking with Bob about this huge initiative. Bob has been the major force behind “Change is Good,” and staked the future of the firm’s success on its adoption. His passion for successfully leading this enormous project is contagious – making what is obviously a very complex venture seem optimistically doable. This success would not have been possible without the total buy-in, commitment, and tireless hours by key leadership in the firm to help shape and drive this initiative. This massive reorganization involved realigning all of the … Continued

3 Reasons Why A&E Firm Owners Can’t Retire

“The exit that many leaders had thought would take place in their mid to late 50’s is now getting delayed to 65 and older.”     As I enter my mid-fifties (never thought it would happen) I have become privy to many private conversations from my age-related peers at A&E firms around the subject of retirement. Many business owners my age thought that by the time they had been working for 25 years or more in their architecture or engineering firms that they would be in a great position to retire in the near future. They are now discovering that this great dream of retiring in a warm location after the kids graduate from college is not going to be as easy as they thought. The rise to the top has not proven to deliver the golden handshake they thought they had earned by now. Because of tough economic realities and the lack of resources to take over their roles, the long awaited retirement plans are going to require much more planning, effort and financial consequences. In looking at the current state of the A&E industry, … Continued

How to Get Leadership Buy-in for Business Management Training 

  Many of our clients see the need to improve the business acumen of their project managers (PMs) and other technical staff. Even the project managers themselves, many of who have come up through technical ranks and have little to no formal project management training, are begging for it. But, it’s difficult getting firm leaders to agree to the best approach and take action. They know on some level it will probably payoff with increases in profits, higher customer satisfaction, etc. But how can they be sure? Different options include 2-day bootcamps out of the office, in-house training, bringing in outside consultants to customize training for your firm, or industry-specific online training. Each method has it’s pros and cons but most firms agree that the training needs to address the key issues that are causing dollars to get lost, causing lower than expected profits. Having trouble getting leadership buy-in for business management training?  Without leadership buy-in, support and the very important (but often overlooked) aspect of also participating themselves, your training program can fail to gain momentum and acceptance throughout your firm. Studies show that when leaders get … Continued

How to Make 3% More on Your Next Project

  In my book, Find the Lost Dollars, I focus on the impact of just a 1% increase in profits in nine areas of your business. The reason for focusing on such a small increase is twofold – first – it sounds easy. Most employees will gladly step up to help the company improve just 1%. Second, it is usually much more money than most business leaders realize. The power of just a 1% increase in profits in several key areas of the business can be thousands to millions of dollars for most A&E firms. But the reality is that most firms that focus on improving their business practices actually increase profits much more than 1%. For many of the clients we work with, we target a profit increase of 2% to 5% which is a substantial increase. Many of our clients tell us that their projects are profitable, however, they are not earning the level of profits they desire. For example, when you bid a project with a 10% estimated profit margin, but actually end up with just 6%, what happened to the other … Continued