President of Ampirical (Best Firm Multi-discipline #21 for 2018), a 200-person firm on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.
By Liisa Andreassen
“We learned several years ago that just adding people to the existing organization isn’t the way to grow,” says Saacks. “Instead, we had to devise and implement the processes and systems that allow a company to scale.”
A CONVERSATATION WITH MATTHEW SAACKS.
The Zweig Letter: There is no substitute for experience, but there is pressure to give responsibility to younger staff. What are you doing to address the risk while pursuing the opportunity to develop your team?
Matthew Saacks: We learned several years ago that just adding people to the existing organization isn’t the way to grow. Instead, we had to devise and implement the processes and systems that allow a company to scale. We began retooling our organization a couple of years ago as we experienced the pains of growth, and we’re continuing to transition to a team-of-teams model. Ideally, young staff that demonstrate their proficiency to technical tasks will become team leads. In this new position, they accept accountability for the output of a five- to seven-person team and report to a manager with more than 10 years of experience. Because that manager oversees a group of teams, we can grow by further developing leads and multiplying teams – a process similar to cell division.
TZL: Engineers love being engineers, but what are you doing to instill a business culture in your firm?
MS: At the same time we implemented systems and processes, we purchased a modular 10-portion program to increase the business knowledge of our technical personnel. Every employee in the company undertook the online training, covering topics from understanding financial statements to recognizing the drivers of profit fade on projects. Our goal was to have a common business vernacular that employees would use to increase and maintain awareness of the non-technical aspects of the company. We also implemented enterprise wide software that integrates nearly all of our data, from procurement and resource planning to project management and invoicing and more, allowing us to do our best to knock down the silos that inevitably grow along with revenue.
TZL: How do you promote young and new leaders as the firm grows?
MS: One of the pleasant by-products of our firm’s growth was the frequent emergence of new opportunities and positions, and it has been satisfying to promote young professionals who have shown an aptitude for leadership into these roles. Typically, having demonstrated excellence and dependability in engineering roles, these employees were given incremental oversight on projects, including budget and schedule accountability. Proficiency with those tasks led to full management responsibilities such as interviewing and hiring, conducting performance reviews, and client management.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as president?
MS: “Chief cheerleader” or “chief enthusiasm officer.” Employees want to feel valued, want to know that their work is important to the success of the firm, and that there is a purpose to why we do what we do. Finding ways to achieve that ideal and communicating it continually is really my primary responsibility.
TZL: With technology reducing the time it takes to complete design work, how do you get the AEC industry to start pricing on value instead of hours?
MS: As routine engineering becomes commoditized, we find ourselves researching ways for technology to bring higher value to our clients. We pioneered the use of 3D modeling for high voltage substations in our industry, and we have since developed other tools such as a real-time project status tool for transmission line projects, a cloud-based system for managing both cyber and physical assets within the same platform, and similar applications that improve the speed and quality of utility design work. The challenge is to demonstrate the tangible value these tools can bring, whether that results from faster design times, reduced construction rework, eliminating trips to the field, or automated portions of the design process.
TZL: If the worker shortage continues, do you see wages increasing to encourage more talent to enter the AEC space, or will technology be used to counter the reduced work force?
MS: I believe supply and demand will continue to cause upward pressure on wages, and this may continue to encourage more talent to enter our industry. Some of the technology we’ve developed can reduce the typical number of hours required to complete and/or manage a project and further automation could improve upon this effort. However, I also believe that our industry’s talent will begin shifting toward roles such as programming, artificial intelligence, machine learning and the interpretation and management of data-intensive platforms as the smart grid evolves. The traditional engineering disciplines will continue to be necessary, but perhaps as a smaller percentage relative to these newer fields.
TZL: The seller-doer model is very successful, but with growth you need to adapt to new models. What is your program?
MS: We’re pretty well removed from the seller-doer model, having recognized more than 10 years ago that we needed professional sales staff to continue our rapid growth. Our recent efforts have focused on becoming intentional about sales, so we brought in some outside expertise to develop a sales strategy, provide personal coaching for sales staff, and even train leadership in the firm to promote a sales culture. Our aim is for everyone, whether they are a manager, an engineer, a drafter, or even biller, to recognize that the quality of their work and their commitment to schedules are really our brand, and that is all part of sales and marketing. We’re a service business, essentially selling the people that work for us, and anything we can do to take away the pain a customer experiences is our path to continued sales growth.
TZL: Diversity and inclusion is lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?
MS: For us, diversity is not a particular compliance threshold to achieve and then check the box, but rather it’s an ingredient of our culture to seek input from a variety of experiences, backgrounds, geography, training, and more that collectively make our company better. We value diversity resulting from an engineer’s past experience with a different client or even a different industry. Some of our technological advances are due primarily because we frequently recruit and hire individuals from outside of our familiar geography, customer base, and market. That’s only the initial step, however; our aim is to provide an environment where all employees feel valued and confident to express opinions and ideas. As part of the retooling of our organization, we adopted a structured meeting rhythm across the company, from daily team huddles to weekly departmental meetings, to provide a thread for this input to disseminate quickly throughout all levels of the firm.
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
MS: Our recruitment efforts, since day one, have stressed that we offer careers, not jobs. We want employees that truly desire to be part of the future we’re trying to create, and our ownership feels a responsibility toward the families represented by every employee. Therefore, our ongoing imperative is to continue growing to provide a long-term, bright future filled with opportunities. Certainly compensation is part of the relationship, but we also believe that flexibility in personal work schedules, options for continual training and development, professional growth through a spectrum of project responsibilities, and access to management at any level within the firm all contribute to employees remaining here. In addition, as the firm continues to expand, new positions open up, and having a track record of promoting from within gives employees the confidence that career growth is possible for everyone.
TZL: Benefits are evolving. Are you offering any new ones due to the changing demographic?
MS: Because we compete for similar talent against much larger companies, often publicly traded, we know our benefits must be comparable. We routinely use benchmarks and surveys to ascertain how we stack up, and accordingly, our benefit offerings have grown along with our size. We offer stipends for smartphones and health club memberships, the ability to purchase supplemental and additional life insurance, tuition reimbursement for select education, and even access to pet insurance. More often, the result isn’t necessarily a new benefit, but perhaps an improvement to existing offerings, such as choices among types of medical plans, or immediate vesting and increased investment options in the 401(k) plan.
TZL: How are the tariffs impacting your business and that of your clients?
MS: The tariffs haven’t yet had a dramatic, direct impact on our business, but they are clearly a topic of discussion with clients. Obviously, the greater risk is to our EPC projects, and we try to have frequent and proactive discussions with our clients to keep them current with what we are hearing in the marketplace. We also maintain constant communication with material suppliers and lean on the information received from their raw material vendors that forecast steel pricing indices out into the near future.
TZL: Are you currently pursuing the R&D tax credit?
MS: For several years now we’ve taken advantage of the R&D tax credit, and it has significantly helped us with our rapid growth. Each new hire requires a computer and furniture, plus significant software costs, and is paid for at least a month, all up front before we receive the first payment for those services. The tax credit allows us to recoup some of our initial investment and provides some compensation for the return on investment lag inherent in new hires.