Co-founder, president and CEO of WSB (Hot Firm #34 for 2018), a 475-person, full-service consulting and design firm based in Minneapolis.
By Liisa Andreassen
“Early on, I paid too much attention to those who did things in the traditional way and not what I believed,” Weiss says. “I made some mistakes and trusted those who didn’t know what was best for WSB. I am much more focused on making decisions on what is best for WSB without worrying about how others view my decisions.”
A CONVERSATION WITH BRET WEISS.
The Zweig Letter: What is the role of entrepreneurship in your firm?
Bret Weiss: WSB is 22 years old, so we are still full-on entrepreneurial! We are continually reinforcing this mindset and hope that it remains part of our foundation. Our founders are still very active, so this philosophy will not leave anytime soon. Our industry is changing quickly, and we believe our ability to spot opportunities and execute will be helpful to our ongoing success. Thinking like a business and not a consulting firm is core to our culture.
TZL: In the next couple of years, what A/E segments will heat up, and which ones will cool down?
BW: This is difficult to predict. I continue to hold out hope that President Trump will implement an expanded transportation bill. There are so many infrastructure needs that our industry should be strong for years to come. Technology is going to change how we work and we need to figure out how to bill for our value and not just hours. Our industry needs to elevate our value and our importance. We need to change now, and it has to be all of us collectively. My concern is more related to our lack of value pricing and the technology improvements that will streamline our design practices. I see these as our kryptonite and more concerning than the amount of work that is available.
TZL: Measuring the effectiveness of marketing is difficult to do using hard metrics for ROI. How do you evaluate the success/failure of your firm’s marketing efforts when results could take months, or even years, to materialize? Do you track any metrics to guide your marketing plan?
BW: Marketing needs to set the table for business development and I believe that we need to look at proposal metrics (both percentage success and market share), unsolicited opportunities, and general reputation. I believe that we will see the success when it happens. Like many things in life, there is no finish line when it comes to marketing. As I mentioned, we are one company and do not have profit centers. Our marketing and business development efforts are treated the same way. We all pull together toward a common goal and in doing so we have had great success. We set expectations and then execute and perform. Sometimes you win when you shouldn’t and sometimes you lose when you shouldn’t. It is never one thing that causes a win or a loss. We measure company success rather than marketing metrics.
TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
BW: I’m constantly learning and work to be better each day. I’ve had to learn to trust my instincts. I am very much a gut guy and don’t need a lot of information to make a decision. Business is operating much faster than in the past and when you move slowly, you miss out on opportunities. Early on, I paid too much attention to those who did things in the traditional way and not what I believed. I made some mistakes and trusted those who didn’t know what was best for WSB. I am much more focused on making decisions on what is best for WSB without worrying about how others view my decisions.
TZL: While M&A is always an option, there’s something to be said about organic growth. What are your thoughts on why and how to grow a firm?
BW: We have done both but have a much higher percentage of organic growth. We are very selective in our acquisitions and are careful with culture and fit when considering a purchase. When we are going into a new market, an acquisition can sometimes be the most effective entry. In all cases, once we establish a presence, we move toward organic hiring. WSB has a strong culture and reputation for how we treat our staff and the energy with which we operate, so we have had good success in attracting top talent to our company. We anticipate using both methods as we pursue growth in the future.
TZL: Do you use historical performance data or metrics to establish project billable hours and how does the type of contract play into determining the project budget?
BW: Both performance data and metrics allow us to establish budgets for our projects. Most of our contracts are similar in type and those don’t really impact the project budget. Our industry needs to start moving away from billable hour budgets and move toward value-based pricing. With the onset of technology improvements that can reduce design effort, we are in danger of reducing our revenues by not recognizing the value that we bring to projects. We all need to place a higher value on our industry and expertise and budget our projects accordingly.
TZL: What’s your prediction for 2018?
BW: We are positive about 2018 and beyond and are seeing opportunities in all our markets. The 2017 construction season ended earlier than normal and 2018 has been a slow start due to weather, but we are anticipating catching up.
TZL: The design-build delivery model appears to be trending upward. What are the keys to a successful design-build project? What are the risks?
BW: Design-build is not just another delivery method and requires a highly skilled and coordinated team. Keys to success include assembling a qualified team of contractor, subs, suppliers, and consultants. The delivery must be completed collaboratively with a unified goal of quality. Needless to say, there will be challenges, so a common culture where issues are transparent is extremely important. Additionally, there are risks and determining where these risks lie and how they are assigned must be part of the contract. It’s important for contractors who assign risk to understand that risks are associated with additional costs and recognizing who is best able to manage the risk will help to reduce the overall cost.
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