For the 7th straight year I attended the Zweig Industry Awards Conference held at the beautiful Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston. This event, previously held as three separate conferences, recognizes the Hottest Firms, the Best Firms to Work For, and Marketing Excellence in the A&E industry. This is one of my must-attend events every year, and my main reason for attending, besides presenting and networking with the most successful A&E firm leaders in the industry, is to gain valuable insight that I can re-purpose for my clients.

As usual, I met lots of great people, like Gary Dahms, CEO of T&M Associates in New Jersey, Ted Bumgardner, President of Xpera Group in Solana Beach, CA, and Mike Fischer, Senior Vice President at LHB in Minneapolis. I always take lots of notes so that I can identify all the hottest topics at the conference and then do follow up research so that I can provide more solutions to the challenges faced by our clients.

I have consolidated the myriad of topics discussed into four primary subjects that are front and center in the A&E industry, and on the minds of leaders as they grow in this rapidly recovering market. Here are the four topics with a brief synopsis of the main issues:

1. Finding and Retaining Talent – the search for great talent is back on with many firms experiencing rapid growth. Many firms are finding they cannot staff as quickly as the work is coming in. This is the opposite problem from just five years ago when most firms were still hunkering down. Many firms are finding creative ways of recruiting and leveraging professional recruiters with mixed results. I do see more firms proactively turning to LinkedIn as a strategy, as well as hiring in-house recruiters which seems to be having the best results.as well as hiring in-house recruiters which seems to be having the best results. Employee referrals are also a strategy many firms are using to cut the time and costs of recruiting.

In addition to finding the talent, firms are very concerned about losing the talent they have, with predatory competitors circling around trying to steal their best people. Good project managers and technical staff are at a premium these days causing salaries and bonuses to rise substantially. This phenomenon is also causing more firms to consider creative compensation and incentive plans, as well as improving their brand and reputation as a great place to work. The firms that are winning that race, such Bowers + Kubota out of Hawaii and Maser Consulting out of New Jersey are finding innovative ways to improve their culture such as focusing on diversity, providing exciting career paths, and work-life balance.

2. Increasing Profitability – a quick poll by Christy Zweig of the conference audience found that profitability runs a close second to finding talent as the top concern of A&E executives. With rising salaries come profit margins that are being squeezed tighter than ever. A&E clients have been trained during the recession to increase competition and commoditize design services. The firms that have been avoiding this trap are the ones focused on differentiating strategies, thought leadership and branding as a way to attract better clients.

Another approach to this problem of shrinking profit margins is improving business management and operations to increase efficiency and employee productivity. Many firms are looking at how they can improve individual employee performance, as well as transform their cultures to get employees focused on the company mission and goals. Performance management practices plays a key part of the discussion around engaging employees in order to improve overall accountability.

3. Employee Development – high on the list of strategies for differentiation and improving competitive advantage is training employees in a number of critical skill sets. Many firms are employing creative new training methods such as online and in-house training coupled with coaching and mentoring to change mindset and behavior. Subject matter for this training includes business skills for project managers (PMs), sales training for seller-doers, and leadership training for emerging leaders. Most firms indicated that they were increasing their budgets for training in 2015 and 2016, and saw this as an essential strategy for developing younger leaders as well as improving overall financial results.

4. Innovation – being on the leading edge of technology has not been the strategy for the majority of A&E firms in the U.S., however the firms growing the fastest and experiencing the highest profit margins are pushing the envelope with innovation. Langdon Morris gave a fascinating keynote about the role of innovation in business today, and sees it as an essential component to developing a success organization.

The challenge with innovation is that it requires the discipline to step away from the day to day project challenges and focus on problem solving at a higher level. My experience has been that while many A&E firms have innovated on individual projects, they’ve struggled with leveraging those products and services they developed across the rest of their clients and projects. Several design firms, such as WD Partners out of Columbus, OH, have added branding services to their traditional architectural design repertoire as a way to add value to their clients’ growth strategies and provide a deeper level of support to their retail client base.

It is exciting to see the entire A&E industry growing and prospering again, and now the focus seems to be more on overall improvement and excellence. Employees are the primary focus as well they should be in a services driven industry. Now our focus can turn to 2016 and I already can’t wait to plan my attendance at next year’s Zweig Group event at the beautiful Biltmore in Scottsdale, AZ. I look forward to reconnecting with the many winners of this year’s awards, as well as seeing who will make it to the top of the list next year!

 

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