Comprehensive Environmental, Inc. (Best Firm #1 Geotechnical, #3 Environmental, and #13 Civil for 2017), a Miami Lakes, FL, based 80-person engineering and contracting firm.
By Liisa Andreassen
“I’ve never termed any event in my life as a failure, but as an opportunity to learn what not to do the next time,” Franklin says. “My biggest personal lesson is that I cannot succeed if I try to do everything myself. People are put in your life to help you achieve your goals and you are here to help them achieve theirs.”
A CONVERSATION WITH CHRISTINE FRANKLIN.
The Zweig Letter: 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?
Christine Franklin: Organic growth is cleaner and makes it easier to maintain the pure culture of the firm. However, it’s more difficult to achieve the growth targets without merging with synergistic firms to provide a more robust product or service. It depends on what you want to accomplish. It takes time and patience to grow organically. It takes a broader vision and the ability to compromise for the M&A but, if successful, your growth is more rapid.
TZL: While plenty of firms have an ownership transition plan in place, many do not. What’s your advice for firms that have not taken steps to identify and empower the next generation of owners?
CF: I think it’s a big mistake not to have a plan in place – formal or informal. Time flies when you’re having fun so you don’t want to be caught without a good plan in place. Start identifying your replacement at least five to seven years ahead of your planned exit date and begin the mentoring and guidance necessary to help that person develop the confidence to step into the role. This should be done for all key firm positions.
TZL: Monthly happy hours and dog friendly offices. What do today’s CEOs need to know about today’s workforce?
CF: Today’s workforce is comprised of many generations of people working together. And they each need to be understood and dealt with according to what resonates with them. Stability, flexibility, work-life balance, upward mobility – these all mean different things to different generations.
TZL: Zweig Group research shows there has been a shift in business development strategies. More and more, technical staff, not marketing staff, are responsible for BD. What’s the BD formula in your firm?
CF: Our technical staff is responsible for major business development as these are the people closest to our clients and potential clients and have first-hand knowledge of opportunities. Our marketing staff supports our technical staff and also identifies long-term opportunities that our technical staff can align the firm to pursue.
TZL: The talent war in the A/E industry is here. What steps do you take to create the leadership pipeline needed to retain your top people and not lose them to other firms?
CF: We continually work on attracting and retaining the great people needed to maintain our leadership position. We have a formal leadership development program that we’re still honing and trying to get right. In the interim, we continue to offer our top people challenging and rewarding assignments that push them into developing the critical thinking and decision-making abilities way beyond their industry peers. We’ve also established a stock option plan for key employees and continue to benchmark our salaries, benefits, and other perks and keep them in line with the Best Firms to Work For.
TZL: As you look for talent, what position do you most need to fill in the coming year and why?
CF: Project managers are the key to a project’s successful execution. The difference in the outcome of a well-trained PM and a good one is big.
TZL: Diversifying the portfolio is never a bad thing. What are the most recent steps you’ve taken to broaden your revenue streams?
CF: If it makes sense, diversifying a portfolio is never a bad thing. If it’s directly connected with strategic direction of the firm, we would consider it. Recently, we added a capability that was directly related to our airport-related work.
TZL: The list of responsibilities for project managers is seemingly endless. How do you keep your PMs from burning out? And if they crash, how do you get them back out on the road, so to speak?
CF: It’s a never ending struggle to keep your project managers refreshed and renewed as project management responsibilities can be endless and overwhelming. We always try to keep the projects adequately staffed and provide the senior level support needed to resolve complex issues quickly and effectively.
When a PM crashes it’s usually as a result of a combination of work-life issues, so we try to provide additional support and be flexible with schedules and assignments so that he/she can work out any conflicts and take the time needed to recover.
TZL: What is the role of entrepreneurship in your firm?
CF: We encourage our employees to have an entrepreneurial spirit by rewarding behavior where employees take ownership of assigned tasks. We believe our employee stock option plan also motivates our employees to think and behave like entrepreneurs.
TZL: In the next couple of years, what A/E segments will heat up, and which ones will cool down?
CF: Infrastructure improvements seem to be heating up. Regulatory activities will cool down under this administration.
TZL: With overhead rates declining over the last five years and utilization rates slowly climbing back up to pre-recession levels, how do you deal with time management policies for your project teams? Is it different for different clients?
CF: Our time-management policies are the same for all clients. We strive to complete our projects as efficiently as possible.
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?
CF: We establish goals, objectives, and tactics and evaluate them on a regularly scheduled basis. The metrics we use to guide our marketing plan include number of new proposals and presentations; number and value of wins; and hit rate.
TZL: The last few years have been good for the A/E industry. Is there a downturn in the forecast, and if so, when and to what severity?
CF: What goes up must come down. There will be a downturn, as business is cyclical. Within the next five years the industry will cool down and the severity will depend on what plans are put in place in 2018 to stimulate the continued health of the A/E industry.
TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
CF: I’ve never termed any event in my life as a failure, but as an opportunity to learn what not to do the next time. My biggest personal lesson is that I cannot succeed if I try to do everything myself. People are put in your life to help you achieve your goals and you are here to help them achieve theirs.
TZL: What’s your prediction for 2018?
CF: Overall, it should be a good year. We’ll experience a labor shortage and a shortage of managerial talent. If we do manage to get an infrastructure improvement bill passed, that labor shortage will be hard on the industry.
Winners from Zweig Group’s Hot Firm and A/E Industry Awards Conference are highlighted in The Zweig Letter, in addition to being celebrated at the conference. Click here to learn more about Zweig Group’s awards.