For over 33 years, christopher consultants (christopher) headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia has provided civil engineering, surveying, land planning, urban design and landscape architecture in the mid-Atlantic region. Founded by Christopher Brown (Chris) in 1982, the firm currently employs over 100 professionals and has five divisions serving a range of different industries.
In 2011, Bill Zink took over as President and leader of the firm, and has been working hard to develop strategies to take the firm forward. He realized that though the firm had a long history of success, the firm’s culture needed some adjustments in order to deal with 21st century economic pressures.
As many firms in the A&E industry are now experiencing, going through a founder leadership transition is a slow and delicate process. It is important to protect the elements of success that the firm has built on for so many years, while at the same time, moving towards a workplace culture where technology is critical to growth and millennials are becoming a larger part of the workforce. Bill wanted to bring new ideas, transparency and increased focus on financial results to his team, while preserving their heritage. Continuing to operate the way “we have always done it” without prudent change was not going to work. Chris always thought that a static firm is a dying firm.
The culture of the company had always focused on relationships, client satisfaction and technical expertise. When the work was plentiful, this was great. However, with the post-recession economy where fees are constantly being squeezed and increased, simultaneously with client demands and competition, Bill was looking for a way to get his team more focused on the bottom line while maintaining its core culture of being a relationship based organization.
The answer came after Bill attended the AEC Executive Network event in McLean, VA in 2014 and got a copy of my book, “Find the Lost Dollars: 6 Steps to Increase Profits in Architecture, Engineering, and Environmental Firms. “ He realized that if all of their Group Leaders and leadership team better understood how the business ran, the firm would be more successful and profits would rise. Bill started by holding monthly leadership training meetings. His entire group would meet in the evenings, with dinner provided, and discuss important issues impacting the success and growth of the firm.
When he learned in 2015 that AEC Business Solutions had just released the Find the Lost Dollars Business Management Online Training program, and had a unique approach to increasing profitability in a short amount of time, he signed up his management team and started an intense 10-week program to expand the firm’s culture to include more accountability for results and profitability.
The program started by having their participating staff take the Business Management Assessment to determine which areas of their business needed attention to find lost dollars. This anonymous survey enabled them to gain new insights into challenges in 9 areas of the business with their people, processes and systems, and provided direct employee feedback for their annual planning process.
The Find the Lost Dollars Business Management program consists of 10 one-hour online courses teaching the content of the book, combined with weekly or bi-weekly group meetings and accountability measures to track results. It is the only program of its kind focused exclusively on A&E firm profitability, and has already shown remarkable results since its release less than a year ago. The key to the program is the combination of the structured content along with the meetings that allow the firm to “make it their own” by conforming the training material to their own business.
By discussing each of the topics as they are learned, the christopher team was able to suggest changes in behavior, share ideas for improvement, and encourage open dialogue around their challenges. It has also been valuable in creating a shared interest in the success of other divisions in the firm, and increased bonding between individuals who don’t often get a chance to work together.
While the program is often facilitated by outside consultants such as myself or one of our strategic advisors, Bill elected to take the training himself and run the meetings. This provided the leadership support and momentum that the group needed to see immediate benefits. I was fortunate enough to get to sit in on a few of christopher’s Find the Lost Dollars group meetings, and was thrilled to see the enthusiasm his group had for increasing profitability.
As the discussion went around the room, each participant was able to contribute what they had learned from the weekly lesson, as well as the changes they were implementing to their daily project work to increase profits. The program was able to pay for itself before it was completed by helping to improve the way they dealt with estimating, proposals, scope creep, managing client relationships, time management, and collections. One project manager reported finding significant dollars on a project that had not been billed, and that is just one example of lost dollars found as a result of the Find the Lost Dollars program.
With a greater focus on profitability, and new project manager skillsets around best practices for business management, the christopher team is well on its way to new growth and improved financial performance. Bill is committed to continuing his regular discussions with the group, and driving greater financial acumen throughout his entire staff to enhance the culture of the firm.
Bill feels that for half of his group, the training has been a “phenomenal reminder”, and for the other half, a completely new way of looking at their roles. He sees 2016 as a year to build on what they have learned and continue to improve. He plans to have a greater emphasis on budgeting, client retention, improving the use of their Deltek Vision system, and sharing more financial data with his managers. I will continue to stay involved and measure their results. As Bill says, “what’s measured gets managed” and the battle to improve profitability while maintaining christopher’s historic relationship-based culture never ends.
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