CEO of Huckabee (Hot Firm #7 and Best Firm Architecture #3 for 2018), a 300-person architecture firm based in Fort Worth, Texas.
By Liisa Andreassen
“For us, diversifying is a bad thing,” Huckabee says. “We do one thing. We do it well. We are growing substantially and our diversity has been in two areas: geography and building a higher-end portfolio.”
A CONVERSATION WITH CHRISTOPHER HUCKABEE.
The Zweig Letter: 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?
Chris Huckabee: This is so important. I spend most of my time in this area. We’ve created a culture where people want to stay their whole life. For the younger staff, there’s a program called ACE (Achieving Company Excellence). It’s a two-year position that provides people with leadership responsibilities. There’s also Camp ACE where the company closes for three days in October for a learning retreat of sorts. We bring in outside speakers, have different tracks of learning and have fun. We pay for everything – hotel, transportation, etc. Our budget for this event is more than $1 million. It’s worth it. It’s all about our future leaders. We also have a program called “Top Gun.” Staff can apply for this and it’s a 10-month program to accelerate. “Be More” is focused on people who want to pursue independent learning and we fund those pursuits. We give staff at multiple levels the ability to lead and work with other people. We create opportunity internally and always seek to fill positions from the inside first. It’s the little things, too. For example, I have lunch with all new employees and get to know more about who they are as a person. I give them my cell number and tell them to call for anything at any time. Some have. We make the company feel small, even though we’re getting big.
TZL: There are A/E leaders who say profit centers create corrosive internal competition for firm resources. What’s your opinion on profit centers?
CH: We don’t operate as profit centers. We have six offices, one of which focuses mainly on research. Our approach is collaborative. Designers from different offices work together and we track revenue and growth from office to office, but we don’t track expenses or profits from office to office. We have a central location with our file server and such, and we track individual project profit which is quite high compared to many other companies. We have nice long lead cycles and are booked with projects through 2019.
TZL: What’s your policy on sharing the firm’s financials with your staff? Weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually? And how far down into the org chart is financial information shared?
CH: We share all information with the whole company twice per year at a formal meeting called “The State of Huckabee.” We have a Q&A session where anonymous questions are answered, too. It’s effective to be open and candid. During the downturn, we were in a good position due to our transparency. We had no layoffs and that’s because we’re prudent. On a monthly basis, we also distribute an executive review and KPIs to all executives that project revenue through 2019.
TZL: As you look for talent, what position do you most need to fill in the coming year and why?
CH: We have a brisk hiring pace now. We’re adding about two to three people per week. We’re looking for principals and senior-level staff. We don’t use outside recruiters. It’s all done internally.
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?
CH: It’s the most critical thing a firm can do. My dad started this business more than 50 years ago. I joined in 1991 and he recognized the need to teach me about transition. He created a 30 percent ESOP. It takes time. Time is the key. You can’t microwave these things. One year ago, our CFO unexpectedly passed away. We had a robust succession plan in place. Even though I was not personally prepared (it was an emotional experience), the team knew what to do. You need to have a robust board working with you, too.
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?
CH: Our BD team is internal. Most of the principals and directors are expected to be the forward point of marketing.
TZL: Diversifying the portfolio is never a bad thing. What are the most recent steps you’ve taken to broaden your revenue streams?
CH: For us, diversifying is a bad thing. We do one thing. We do it well. We are growing substantially and our diversity has been in two areas: geography and building a higher-end portfolio.
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?
CH: Annually, we ask this question on a survey: How do you manage stress? We look at those replies and work to manage schedules so they don’t burn out. We draw in different expertise from around the firm and PMs know that they can always reach out to help fill in gaps they need. It’s not a perfect formula, but we try really hard to watch our resources – we even have a resource manager who monitors that.
TZL: What is the role of entrepreneurship in your firm?
CH: When we were smaller, it played a larger role. I focus more on “taking opportunity” and look for people to reach out to us.
TZL: In the next couple of years, what A/E segments will heat up, and which ones will cool down?
CH: The market, in general, seems strong in all sectors for at least the next two years. Texas is incredibly robust right now due to factors like favorable tax policies. If anything, multi-family housing may be cooling.
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?
CH: We track and review hit rates. We have an annual target. We also know our clients very well and understand the opportunities at hand.
TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
CH: Run towards your problems. Problems are not like a fine wine. They don’t get better with age. It’s also important to not hide a problem. One way to achieve this is through what we call “Collective Wisdom.” Every Friday, we hold this meeting where people pose a challenge and a solution. It’s cultural, too. Everyone gets to offer their ideas.
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?
CH: We’ve grown from four to 300, all organically. We’ve enjoyed the process. As we continue to grow out of state, we’re starting to look for like-minded firms to partner with and we’ve hired a company to help us find those partners.
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?
CH: We work with lump sum contracts or zero percent fees. We track internal performance on projects.
TZL: What’s your prediction for 2018?
CH: We’ll have substantial growth in staff. Our revenue is up, too. Last year, we did $65 million. This year we’ll do $85 million. It’s our best year yet. Right now we have 290 schools under construction. We’re busy.